Monday, January 30, 2017

Letter To A Christian

30 Jan 2017
Hi there,

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to write and share a few things with you to encourage you in your walk with Christ as it relates to the current political climate. These are interesting times we are living in. I have an icon on one of my favorite saints, St. Anthony the Great, hanging in the kitchen. A quote attributed to St. Anthony which I have referred to often is, "“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.'” I think its safe to say those words can be applied to what we are living through today.

Let me back up and say I have been on both ends of the socio-political spectrum, left and right. I think it's a natural progression to drift more right as one gets older (may not be the case for everyone, but for me it has been); the call to Revolution isn't throngs of senior citizens in the street calling for an overthrow of the natural or political order; it's the young. Can't necessarily blame them either--youth is filled with energy, hope, and idealism, but hasn't always necessarily been tempered with the wisdom and prudence that comes with, well, living in the world for very long. We can learn from their enthusiasm and hope for a better future, but need to remember that life has a way of tempering us, and so spending time with seniors, esp those who have a degree of wisdom, is invaluable to counter-balance the emotionalism of the young.

I don't watch the news; most of my taking in of the current state of affairs, the finger on the social pulse, is from Facebook. I have a pretty diverse feed of both people on the left and right. Yet even that is getting tiresome for me because, as you said, things often degenerate into mocking and angry tones and posts. I think what fuels the fire is emotionalism and impulsive reactionary habits, fueled by mob mentality. This happens on both the left and the right. It is prudent to take a step back and give things time to settle before reacting. What's been hard especially lately is the President has been moving swiftly to 'undo' a lot of the policies of the past eight years, (almost too swiftly in my opinion) without sufficient time for reflection. I am trying to stay focused on policy and what exactly is happening politically aside from the personal character of the president, and the doomsday prophecies of those who are against those policies, but it's all happening so fast it's hard to keep up. I only have so many hours in a day and need to do 100 different things in a given day--family, work, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, worshiping, taking out the trash, etc--that I can't devote myself full time to cutting through the brush of political discourse to see what's going on.

Something I read recently when I was trying to understand the mass hysteria coming from those on the left-leaning end of the spectrum was this:

"For the secular leftist, the end state is social and necessarily political. It is all about getting everybody else on board and herding them into his imagined utopia. There are so many "problematic" aspects of life that need to be reengineered, so many vast social systems that need to be overthrown and replaced. But the rest of us are all screwing it up, all the time, through our greed, our denial, our apathy, our refusal to listen to him banging on about his tired socialist ideology. 
For the Christian, the ideal end state is safely in the next world and therefore is never in doubt. For the individualist, it’s in his own life, and it’s mostly under his direct control. For the leftist, however, it is all outside his control. It requires other people, a lot of other people, and those SOBs usually refuse to cooperate. Talk about rage-inducing.  
If the whole focus of your life is on getting everybody else to agree with you on every detail of your politics and adopt your plans for a perfect society, then you’re setting yourself up to be at war with most of the human race most of the time." 

 That's why sources are important I suppose. But even mainstream media sources are skewed, and we tend to gravitate towards that which reinforces our own views--those on the right watch Fox News, for example, and those on the left read the Huffington Post. Then we just become pawns pitted against one another. So, to a degree, we need to inform ourselves, but you can only do so much. Beware wolves in sheep clothing. This goes back to what I said about surrounding ourselves with wise, temperate people devoted to what one values. This is why being part of a Christian community is important. I am grateful that I can lean on the example and collective wisdom of a group of Christians who are serious about their faith and live it. Though we worship in different traditions, we are united in our worship of the One True God. Likewise, I know (albeit, more remotely) Christians in my own tradition who are just as serious and intentional about living out their faith and preserving orthodoxy and the intellectual tradition of the Church and am encouraged by their thoughtful reflections and commentary as it relates to making sense of what we are up against in the world, in our culture, and our nation. Most of this comes through Facebook, but I know others in 'real life' as well who I rely on for support in living my own faith in the Catholic tradition, and staying true to God's will when discernment becomes difficult.

This was all a preamble to some practical advice I have to your original question, which is how to live as Christian in the world today amidst the mocking and accusatory tone against us by those who, for example, accuse pro-life people of being hypocrites (as it relates to refugees) or intolerant of those with a different political agenda besides their own.

First, take solace that if you are hated in the world for your faith, it is indicative that you are probably on the right path, for "if the world hates you, know that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." (Jn 15:18-19) So, this world we live in...we are pilgrims. It is not our true home. What we do on it needs to be in preparation for the next life. That does not mean we ignore the current plight of social ills, but to put it in its proper perspective in light of eternity. We serve the poor and those in need because the Lord said that to those who give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, etc (Mt 25:42) , they do to him. And yet he acknowledges that "the poor you will always have with you." (Mt 26:11). While we are not saved by works, a faith without works is dead (James 2:14). And so it is important to work for justice and live out the spiritual and corporal works of mercy because it is our duty as Christians, who follow in the footsteps of Jesus and who recognize Him in the poor. But this world is not our home, ultimately.

That being said, there is legitimate space to consider that care for the poor does not ipso facto mean government programs are the answer. This is where the right comes from a different political ideology from the left, and it is not fair to accuse the right of "not caring for the poor" because they do not see government solutions to problems of poverty as the answer. This is where the accusatory manner and breakdown in civil discourse can be seen in part, and where stepping back and listening can help.

The second thing is, consider your trajectory. How does your Christian faith manifest itself? Is it cultural (ie, I am an Irish-Catholic)? Is it social (donuts and coffee after church on Sunday, bridge club, etc)? Is in individual (apart from a community, 'on my own terms')? Is it strictly intellectual (ie, I 'study' Christianity)? Let's not over-complicate things, lest we get hung up and paralyzed in the process. Worship the Lord, in our daily actions but esp on the Sabbath, with fellow believers. Serve and love His people at every opportunity--do the work. Pray, study the Word, and listen to the Holy Spirit working in your heart, both by setting aside time intentionally and in the little things throughout your day that you can offer up to God as a holy oblation. Being a witness for Christ looks different for everyone because we are One body with many parts and different gifts (1 Cor:12), but everyone is important and everyone has a part to play. What is yours? How will you build up the body of Christ on Earth and in doing so, prepare yourself to be with Him for eternity? Really take some time to sit with God and ask, sincerely. He will give you what you need to do the work, to give you courage, the grace you need to complete the work. Give Him the time.

The third thing is, you be the example you want to see. Be civil in your conversations with people but firm in your convictions; do everything in love. If it costs you, know that you are not the first and will not be the last, but be prepared, since small is the gate and narrow the path that leads to life, and few find it (Mt 7:14). Live with integrity, and repent sincerely with your lips and seek forgiveness when you fall. Don't know what you believe? Pray and ask God to reveal his Truth to you. The darkness hates the light, and enemies of God hate the truth, but we know that it is Truth that will set us free (Jn 8:32). One God. One Truth. Be discerning, and don't take as gospel everything you read on tv, social media, etc. People are upset for different reasons, but do not underestimate the resistance that comes from those who hate Truth (and do not conflate the political with the spiritual), hate the idea of subjection to the Divine and Eternal Law, and who prefer darkness to life. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.(Eph 6:12)

The final thing is, remember that in this world you will have trouble, but take heart, Christ has overcome the world! (Jn 16:33) People are being whipped into a frenzy over the temporal and complacent about the eternal. We should live as if we would die tomorrow. That is good advice for anyone! The difference for the Christian is that they know without a doubt, that at that time, they WILL meet God. And so every day is a gift because it offers the opportunity to give glory to God, to be blessed, and to serve Him in the poor. Christ has won the war over sin and darkness through his obedience. We are called to emulate that obedience. So take heart, for perfect love casts out fear. (1 Jn 4:18)

Be assured of my prayers, and let me know if you would like to continue the conversation.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Cut To The Heart

The year was 1997. I was at a basement hardcore show in Lansdale, standing in a crowd of about 40-50 punks. I worked as a waiter at a retirement community with my friend Andy, and we also worked with another guy named Josh who was in a hardcore band--"Christian hardcore." Josh knew I was into hardcore music, and said, "you should come to our show." I didn't know what the Christian part was all about, but I was into hardcore music, so I did.

I didn't go to shows a lot back then, but I still remember coming across my first LP by an NY Straight Edge hardcore band called Youth of Today. This was back in the day when you could listen to CDs  or records at the record store (Siren Records, our local shop) before you bought them. There would be two turn tables/cd players with big headphones that you would put on and kind of enter into your own cocoon of music for a few minutes. It was like wine tasting, for music. Anyway, I found this black and white cover CD with these guys my age on the cover and when I inserted the disc and pressed play it just blew my mind. The energy was so raw, the drumming so fast, the full-throated lyrics pushing forward with such urgency...I had never heard anything like it. This band YOT's frontman was a young agnostic Ray Cappo before he found and devoted himself to Krishna-Consciousness. But Ray was a real seeker. I met guys in Philly years later who knew him. "He was real intense," they told me, "you could never really relax around him." Ray had founded the Revelation label in 1987. They would do the pressings like Rev:1, Rev:2, Rev:3 (YOT's 3 song LP that I picked up was 17th, i.e., Rev:17). A funny foreshadowing now that I think of it.

Anyway, back to the show. Back then it was common to have shows in church basements. It didn't even occur to me that I was in a church basement at first with all the punks. It was between sets, breathing heavy and sweaty. And this guy comes out and takes the mic. He was older, but not that old. I realized when he was talking that he was some kind of pastor or something. I don't remember anything he said, but what I do remember was that he started doing something on stage--he started praying over the crowd. And in not much time, and almost against my will, I had tears streaming down my face. Looking back now, I realize it was the Holy Spirit overshadowing me. It must have been vague enough, because I don't remember anything he said or prayed. But the feeling of being taken out at the knees, of coming face to face with your sinfulness for the first was over-powering. For anyone who has ever been convicted by the Holy Spirit, you will know what I am talking about. It is hard to describe, and certainly at the time you don't know what is going on. That was my first encounter with the Holy Spirit but it would not be the last.

In the book of Acts, there are two instances when Luke uses the term "cut to the heart": Acts 2, when Peter is preaching to the crowds at Pentecost; and Acts 7, when Stephen is preaching to the Jewish religious leaders of the day. However, the two terms in Greek are very different. In Acts 2:37, the Jews are "cut to the heart" (katenugesan te kardia, "severely troubled and made sorrowful.") at Peter's words "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." They ask, "what are we to do then?" and Peter responds, "Repent, and be baptized." In Acts 7:54, the religious leaders are also "cut to the heart" (dieprionto tais kardias, "sawn asunder mentally and thus infuriated."), but respond to the gospel proclamation by becoming enraged and stoning Stephen to death.

When we encounter truth, these two responses, two sides of the same coin, indicate where we go from there. We are either cut to the heart and repent (the inward response) and seek to be washed clean, or we are cut to the heart and lash out (the outward response) to take out that truth that confronts us. Both of these responses are intense--they stone the inner sinful self to death (through repentance and baptism)  or they seek to beat to death truth itself when it gets in your face. I suppose there is a third response--indifference--which is indeed probably the worst "I will vomit the lukewarm from my mouth, says the Lord" (Rev 3:16).

As a seventeen year old, the thing that drew me to hardcore music in the first place was the energy, the straining, the intensity of desire that looking back set the stage for my Christian foundation--there was something wrong with society that needed to be fought against intensely (the Fall); there was something deeply distasteful about status quo comfort and indifference (lukewarmness); there was some purpose, some reason for being, that we needed to devote ourselves to (a moral code). On my spiritual journey, where God was leading me, this really was the first step; I was searching for the language, something that could handle and receive that intensity, something that satisfied my deepest longing and allayed my deepest dissatisfactions, something that gave me something to live for (hope) and something to fight against (sin and evil). The missing piece, the key, was the Spirit of God Himself. The Holy Spirit, that night in that church basement, was the catalyst, the match that set everything in my life on fire He cut me to the heart, filled with me with sorrow for my sinfulness, and lit the pilot light of truth to start seeking. My own personal Pentecost.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Part Of Something Big

The desire to belong is innate and strong. Maslow ranks it as one of the five fundamental human needs in his 'hierarchy', and social scientists have confirmed that for those who commit suicide, the feeling of not belonging ranks highly as to their motivations in taking their own lives, especially among the young.

I couldn't help but think about the phenomenon of belongingness as my news feed was blowing up with pictures and posts today of throngs of people in the streets in cities across the country as part of the #womensmarch. What they were marching about, what united them (beyond being women and unhappy with the current president) I'm not sure, but there was a definitive and contagious sense of belonging and solidarity among those who were a part of it (from what I could surmise from the posts).

We do things to fit in, to belong. We change our customs, adjust our beliefs, attempt to downplay those characteristics that make us outliers, either consciously or unconsciously. We deny what we know in our heart of hearts to be true sometimes even in order to belong. We also self-censor. The theory of the "Spiral of Silence"  (developed by political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974) refers to the tendency of people to remain silent when they feel their views are in opposition to the majority view on a subject. At the heart of this is the strong fear of isolation from the majority for holding a contrary view.

Assimilation is not bad per se. The issue is when a people set apart trade in their calling--what they know to be right in accordance with divine decree and their unique place therein--to be like everyone else.

From its beginning, Israel was a theocracy. This is a hard concept for us to understand in modern times--that the King over Israel was God Himself, ruling from the Heavens and making His will and decrees known through the prophets. Over time, however, the Israelites were not satisfied with God ruling over them. They wanted a king "like all the nations, to rule us" (1 Sam 8:5). "There must be a king over us," they said; "we too must be like all the nations." And so they are given Saul, Israel's first king, to rule over them.

God had chosen Israel to be a nation set apart. But time and time again, we see them not being satisfied with what God has given them, whether it be manna to eat (Ex 16) or his kingship.
Time and time again, we see the strong desire to assimilate be the beginning of their undoing--whether it be inter-marrying (1 Kings 11:12) or worshipping idols (Ex 32).

The prophets were called to be outliers from the majority, and theirs was often a lonely calling. If not for God's assurance of their mission, many would most likely cripple under the weight of opposition to their oracles. I've often admired the prophets, in a kind of fascination, for having the strength of conviction in standing strong for what is true and carrying out what they are called to do, enduring loneliness, persecution, and isolation for the sake of doing God's will.

It is a fascination because in myself I have a strong desire to be liked, accepted, and to belong. It is a kind of special temptation for me. I have thin skin and am sensitive to what people think of me. I craft my image carefully and present myself in the best light. And yet most of my life I have found myself on the fringes, not really having a home or strong sense of belonging in any one group. I have my faith, what I know to be universally true, but for most of my life I have been trying to live it out on my own or only sparsely connected with other followers. I get lonely. Sometimes I just really, really want to be a part of something.

But I am not willing to do it at the expense of Truth. Because once you betray Truth, what else do you have? The culture does not deliver on its promises of fulfillment or lasting happiness. Corporations will let go even the most loyal 40 year veteran without a second look. Friends have been known to fall off when the going gets tough, fall asleep when you need them most (Mt 26:40). Family is thicker but even they are not everlasting. It takes a strong person of faith to walk the narrow path that leads to life, a gate through which few enter (Mt 7:13), for only those who persevere to the end will be saved (Mt 24:13). May the Lord protect us and guide us as we march forward, and keep us from all that would divert our steps from the Way of the pilgrims who who have gone before us.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Let's Talk About Sex, Shall We?

When I was in college, a 19 year old with raging hormones struggling to keep a lid on my sexuality, I complained to our campus priest how hard it was to be chaste, how my sexuality felt like a curse. "Rob," he said, "thank God for the gift of your sexuality. Never curse it, because it truly is a gift."

I have for the most part learned about sex through trial, error, and here say. It wasn't until I became Catholic that I learned there is an order and purpose to sex--a theology if you will; that it truly is a gift from God Himself; and that its expression within marriage is one of the most powerful and creative experiences of how God intimately communicates His love for us in covenant. 

How to live out your sexuality as a man in the nuts and bolts of everyday married life, however, is as earthy as it is lofty. I've never heard any homilies or sermons about it; it rarely comes up in conversation. So I decided to write about it, from my experience as a Catholic man. 

Before I launch into the nitty-gritty, let's start with foundations and some presuppositions:

  • In God's spiritual economy, sex is reserved for marriage--the only kosher place for its expression 
  • Sex is intended for pleasure/bonding (unitive) and baby makin (procreative) 
  • Jesus set a new standard for sexual purity--"I tell you anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:28) 

Hopefully this sets the stage for talking about sex from a male perspective in the appropriate context, and that no one is scandalized by reading it. I want to do so by breaking it down into three parts as it pertains to: 1) the eyes; 2) the mind; 3) the body

The Eyes 

It is written in scripture that "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light" (Mt 6:22). For men, everything starts with the eyes. It is no exageration that men are visual; I think women tend to underestimate men's capacity to exploit what we see as it relates to our sexual faculties. All men, however, know this. The 'first look' is what gets men in trouble. King David got a glimse of Bathseba, the wife of Uriah, bathing on the roof and it was all downhill from there (2 Sam 11). 

A few years ago someone gave me a copy of "Every Man's Battle" by Fred Stoeker which describes a technique called 'bouncing the eyes'. It has been really helpful, practical advice, and I would recommend it to any man. I started practicing it and realized that by cutting off visual stimuli before it has a chance to take root in the mind, the propensity towards sexual sin was drastically lessened. 

So, you are walking down the street and catch a look at a boob or a buttcheek or whatever: bounce the eyes. You see something on a webpage that causes you to get arroused: bounce the eyes. It takes practice (because the first inclination is to latch on to the image) but eventually practice makes permanent in the form of habit. Bounce the eyes.

The Mind 

So the eyes are the keyhole into the mind. The mind, then, fabricates the scenario using the visual props picked up throughout the day and stored for later as the actors. The scenario plays out in a kind of virtual reality. This is the adultery in lust that Jesus speaks about. I don't know if fantasies that crop up in the mind can ever be totally avoided in the subconscious, but they do not have to be willfully entertained. Again, when they are given permission to take root, the battle for sexual purity is kind of already lost. Because sexual fanstasy thrives on the 'new' and 'variety is the spice of life', the temptation is to entertain fantasy about anyone other than your wife. It could be the teller at the bank or an actress or a porn star. So you are 'using' this stranger for sexual self-gratification, to whom you have no right to be engaged with, in the mind, and ususally discarding them later. 

By nature, fantasy is an escape from reality. Everything is free game. But what to do about what Jesus said about 'lusting with the heart?' Can he be serious?? Yes, I think he is serious that we as men are not to fanasize or lust after anyone but our own wives. And so it is off limits, something to which we have no right, and must be regarded like that. I usually know when an inopportune fantasy is taking me away from the present. When that happens I am severely handicapped if I entertain it, for my resolve gets exponentially weakened.

Why do we escape into fantasy? Because we are not happy with our real life or our real wife. Maybe she is not respecting me, not satisfying my needs, getting on my case about this or that, maybe she is wearing yoga pants and a hooded sweatshirt and bristles at my touch. Maybe I am stressed and need an outlet. Whatever the reason, we are not happy with things as they are. Fantasy is a dangerous game, though--it tends to one up itself, not satisfied with good enough. If we do not realize that we have no right to be satisfied, no right to look outside our vows, no right to another woman, the temptation to entertain fantasy will always be tantalizing, promising fullfilment, like a carrot in front of a donkey. It needs to be taken off the table, completely.

As men, when we invite other women to make a virtual home in our minds and hearts, whether its through casual glances or explicit viewing of pornography, we bring them into the marriage bed with us. Strangers become a part of the most intimate of marriage experiences. When one is having sex with their spouse and fantasizing about or imagining someone else, something is wrong, something is off, amiss. For me this is the most dangerous part of pornography--that a stranger in invited to supplant themselves in the most God-honored, intimate relationship and act there is--that between husband and wife. It is not harmless and not victimless. It pollutes the very essence of marital relations.

The Body 

Let's move into our bodies, shall we? Men by their very biology move out from themselves, sexually speaking. Their gentialia is exterior to their bodies, refered to sometimes jokingly as 'he' or 'it'. We release's what we do, what we were meant to do to reproduce. When we do, another two or three days (or two or three hours if we are in our teens or twenties) our bodies are ready to do it again. Til we die. 

So, it can be a struggle to master the body. Augustine wrote about it in Confessions a lot, wrestled with it. It starts with the eyes, moves to the mind, and manifests in the body and how we handle our genitals. Masturbation may seem like an inevitable solution to how we handle sexual frustration ("it's just what guys do"), but I can tell you it doesn't have to be. It has probably been a good couple years since I have, but that only came into practice by recognizing that:

a) I had no right to self-gratification in that way; 
b) it robbed my wife of intimacy that is rightfully hers; 
c) as in fasting, we have the capacity to master and train our bodies--we are not animals and no one has a gun to our head forcing us to masturbate; 
d) masturbation for men almost always involves visual stimuli, the lusting of the heart Jesus is talking about, which is a sin. 

There is an interesting thing that comes with keeping your eyes off other women, your mind in reality, and you hands off yourself, though: you start to really get focused on your wife. In starving (rather than sating) your eyes, your eyes respond by seeking out a target. In keeping your mind unpolluted and roping it off from other women entering, your wife is the sole recipient of your fantasies. In keeping your hands off yourself, you are not wasting your seed on anything but what it is intentioned for, and you are pretty much ready to go. 

It is ultimately satisfying to have a singular focus--your wife, the rightful heir to your body--and to focus all your sexual energy on her, and honor God in the process. You have more sex, more often, it's pretty gratifying, and performance is rarely an issue.  There's no nagging guilt, no shame. It is intimate, because it is just the two of you--no strangers, no disconnect. When you do abstain, it is an appropriate season "a time to embrace and a time to shun embracing" (Ecc 3:5). When life comes from the act, it is seen as the "fruit of the womb," a blessing to be celebrated, a gift from God Himself, not something that went wrong but something that went right. 

Sex is like fire. It hold power to warm, to cook, to power things, but also the capacity to get out of control, to destroy and consume if not respected, not handled properly. God knows all this; we are the ones that muck it up stumbling around in the wilderness. We are the ones that get burned. 

Why do I write all this? It's not to tout or anything like that, but simply to show what is possible when we follow God's plan for sex in marriage as someone who is trying. I never hear about it, whether in a homily or sermon or in conversation, at least from a man's perspective, and so I figured I would write about my experience once I started putting into practice those things that helped move me towards a turning away from sin and misuse of sexuality into a rightful trajectory or conduct appropriate for a Christian marriage. I learned from other men, and from the teachings of the Church, and thought I would share what I learned, because there is peace in living by God's plan for sex and marriage, that it is possible with God's help, and that it is truly a gift.

So there you go;)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Opening the Door For Strangers

My wife loooves quality time. It is her love language; she feels loved when I spend time with her. And not just time while I'm on my phone or working on something, but undivided attention. If she doesn't get her quality time, she doesn't feel loved. And when she doesn't feel loved, she isn't happy. And when wifey isn't happy, nobody's happy. And so I have come to realize that spending quality time with my wife needs to be a top priority in my marriage.

But sometimes things creep in...projects, work, leisure, distractions that steal time away from her. Sometimes these things legitimately need to be attended to, but sometimes I place them higher in the queue than where they should be at the expense of time with my wife and family. And my marriage and relationship with my wife suffers as a result. I can always tell when things are off between us, and it usually goes back to not loving her as I should.

Our relationship with God is like this. Scripture repeatedly and analogously relies on marriage to paint the picture of God's covenant with His people. (Hos 1-2; Eph 5:22-32; Song of Songs; etc). It is an intimate relationship that is one of covenant and communion--God binding himself and communing with his people. He is involved in their everyday affairs, not as a far-off impersonal deity, but as a loving Father. He is not fickle, but committed for life. He loves with a deep love, a well of love that never runs dry, never gets tired, is unconditional.

Let's not over complicate things: Prayer is nothing other then time spent with God. It is speaking and listening. Prayer is necessary to have a relationship with God, because it is in prayer that we get to know Him--His nature, His plans for us, what pleases Him and what offends Him. You cannot get to Heaven without prayer.

The Devil loves nothing better than to lead us away from that intimate communion with God. He often does this on a gradient. That is, someone fervent in prayer and devoted to God does not one day wake up and say, "I think I will sin against my Creator today." No, our separation from God is typically a gradual drifting away--a slight cooling of ardent desire, a gently compromise on commitments, a willingness to replace time spent with God on something else--so subtle that we do not realize it is happening, for if we did we would immediately get back to the path. But rather it is like waking up after falling asleep while tubing on a river or at the beach, realizing you have drifted a long way from shore.

I have come to appreciate the character of people I know who are uncompromising in their commitments to live holy lives and in prayer, because they innately know that "a little leaven leavens the whole loaf" (Gal 5:9). Those who recognize that "desire after it is conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." (James 1:15) know that if you give the Devil an inch he will take a yard, and that not spending time in the Word daily and in prayer daily weakens one's armor in the fight against darkness.

I will give you one example. A righteous man of prayer I know was speaking on the topic of music. While he qualified it by saying this was simply his experience and may not hold for everyone, he did add that he finds he prays less when he finds himself listening to secular music.

I can appreciate Christian music, but I generally don't listen to it regularly. I wish I was more of a fan, since by default when I am driving I am end up bouncing through the radio stations--Q 102, 96.5, etc. and the songs have a way of seeping into your subconscious. One hip-hop song in particular I came across recently is unbelievably catchy, and I found myself listening to it over and over again. I can just about recite the lyrics by heart. And what lyrics: it is about fornication, drug use, drunkenness, idolatry, greed, envy, lust, covetousness, licentiousness, pride, and just about every other sin you can imagine. It's no wonder I have been drifting away from regular prayer recently. It has seeped in, making a home and crowding out the good, and I have realized it too late. Like being asleep in a raft.

How can we recognize God's voice in such a midst? It is hard, and it throws us off. It is like the enemy who sowed tares among the wheat (Mt 13:24-30) We are like watchmen asleep when the enemy comes (Is 56:10). It is where I find myself presently, struggling to get back to base. But I unlocked the door with my own key, let the enemy in myself when he knocked quietly. I have been drifting for weeks, and am just starting to realize how far from shore I am, how I have replaced time with God in prayer with "something else." "Be alert and of sober mind. For your enemy the devil prowls around like a lion, seeking someone to devour." (1 Peter 5:8)

Thankfully God is always there to welcome us home; all we have to do is turn away from sin in repentance (metanonia), and back to the Lord. The Greek term for sin has been translated as 'missing the mark'--it shortchanges us from the ultimate good and hands us a partial good instead; trades us the fullness of Truth for half-truths. Leaves us somewhat temporally full, but never really satisfied.

Spend time with the Lord. Make it a priority. Don't over-complicate it, just give him the time, for there is no substitute for time. Say, "Lord, I give you the next ten, fifteen, twenty minutes for you to do what you wish with." And give it to him. Take time for silence, but also for spending time with God in work, in interactions with others, when preparing a meal. There is no time that God can not be a part of, except when you are sinning. Put aside the things that make you drift and miss the mark, lest you wake up right before your death and realize how far you are from shore.

I know my wife because I spend time with her under the same roof. I know her inflections and what they mean, I know her tone and her facial gestures. Sometimes the time spent together is intentional, like date nights, sometimes it is just doing stuff together. But there is really no substitute for it. You can't have a Skype marriage, you have to be there for it. And not spending time with your spouse cracks the door to temptation to spend time with other things that may not be good for your body or soul. You may fall asleep in the raft, and wake up adrift.

Make time. Because when you are pleasing the Lord, everyone is happy.