Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Christian life is not maintenance-free

Published in somewhat edited format in the Post and Courier here:

“Virtually maintenance free.” This is the claim on so many products these days—everything from the newest automobiles—promising “no tune up for 100,000 miles”—to building material for decks and fences. One retailer promises this: “…[N]ow the allure of a wood fence can be attained with virtually no upkeep”. The routine life of caring for everything from cars to clapboard has been reduced perhaps to a once in a lifetime purchase or touch up.

Not long ago, it was common routine to set aside once or twice a year for painting, cleaning, and general maintenance of house and home. The glazing on the window panes would grow old and crack and need replacing. Now many would ask, “What is glazing?” The blinds would get covered in dust and need to be vacuumed. Now they are sandwiched between pieces of glass in doors and windows. Boards on the dock or the deck would age, arch, splinter, and disintegrate. Now they are just as shiny 10 years later as they day they were screwed down.

Is it possible that these advanced technologies have crept into our understanding of the Christian faith? Do I operate on the assumption that no “spiritual tune-up” is ever necessary?

The Christian life is not reduced simply to the moment one is baptized. Yes, the Christian life begins there, but just like that last day of high school or college, it is but a commencement, the ‘first day of the rest of your life’. And this life consists in doing basically one thing: repenting.

Repentance is to love God with all your soul, mind, and strength. How? By turning back to Him. By begging His forgiveness (which He freely offers). By telling Him, “I recognize that I have abandoned you and your ways.” And by asking Him to receive me back (which He quickly does). The most striking biblical portrayal of this is the parable of the Prodigal Son—who wished his father dead, took his inheritance and squandered it in ‘loose and riotous living’ (sound familiar?), could only get a job feeding animals his religion forbade him even to touch, realized he was far from his true home, and returned—repented in both senses of the term (change his mind and reorient himself). His father wasn’t sitting in a chair at home pretending his son wasn’t gone; nor was his welcome one offered with an “I told you so” wagging of the finger. Rather, the son’s return was celebrated with all the joy of discovering that “My son who was dead is alive again. He was lost, and now he is found.” Who among us squanders his inheritance just once in a lifetime? Repentance is the maintenance of the Christian life.

Repentance is to love one’s neighbor as oneself. How? By offering to my neighbor no less than God Himself offers to me. By humbling myself to say, “Forgive me for stealing from you…or lying to you…or slandering you…or gossiping about you.” By correcting the correctible when I have transgressed. Or by doing the right thing even to my enemy—remembering Jesus’ words, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” This repentance—change of mind—is seen best in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, a man was beaten and left in the street for dead by robbers. Two of the man’s fellow countrymen—and the most religious—passed by on the other side, apparently too busy or self-interested to assist him. A foreigner, and relative enemy, happened upon the beaten man, saw only a suffering and dying human being, dressed and bound his wounds, and took him to a place of healing. To top it off, he paid for the man’s lodging in advance and promised to return to pay for whatever extra expenses might have arisen. This is an act of extreme humility and return to living the Godly life. Who among us passes by such a suffering person but a single time in 74.5 years? Repentance is the maintenance of the Christian life.

This maintenance takes two forms: confession and amendment of life. According to the Scriptures and the life of the Church, every Christian is obliged to confess his or her sins to another person—and not ‘just to God’. And there is a practical reason in addition to the spiritual ones: naming our darkest sins to another takes the power out of them. It is a movement from darkness to light, from death to life!

Amendment of life is this: Cooperating with the grace of God to turn from the sinful, evil, wicked ways to holy, good, just ways. It is the living out of Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

We human beings are not the newest automobiles, nor are we composite building materials. Rather, we are the pinnacle of God’s creation—even though we have squandered our inheritance. To assume that I am ‘maintenance free’ once baptized is to live in darkness and un-confessed sin. To trust that ‘God will forgive me’ without cooperating with God to change my ways is to make a mockery of the Cross. Perhaps our best tactic ought to be to take the time we have saved in not having to paint the house, clean the blinds, and tune the car, and spend it on spiritual maintenance. It is never too late to have a new beginning. As St. Paul says, “Now is the day of salvation.”

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in the I’On community in Mt. Pleasant. He can be reached at or 881-5010.

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