Grace and the Handbasket

A difficulty arises when making cultural observations – things rarely turn out as expected. The Roman Empire fell once upon a time, although the fall wasn’t nearly as clean and final as Gibbons imagined and it wasn’t really the Roman Empire that fell. But ever since the “Roman Empire fell” people have been rehearsing the lessons learned and expecting its repeat. Yet the empires (or whatever is expected to fall) seem to trundle on.

I am a cultural observer, and I share my observations here. Occasionally they can be rather bleak and even cynical. After all, having read the Scriptures and the Fathers, history is not expected to turn out well on its own. The Second Coming is an intervention in the worst of the worst of times.

And yet.

There always seems to be something else at work within history. We have seen the collapse of empires, and the creation of evil empires. But in my lifetime, it has largely been the “evil empires” that have fallen. How is it that things, placed on a firm foundation of nefarious workings, ruled by dark masters with no remorse for their cruelty, actually get better? Why does evil not grow relentlessly stronger?

I believe the answer is simple – grace. Grace is the very life of God. It sustains our world  in its existence. It works good despite the best (or worst) of our evil intentions. It mends our brokenness and creates new beginnings over and over again.

And it must always be borne in mind when we think about history and the workings of various forces and tendencies. It must be remembered when we feel lost in the various disasters that haunt our personal lives: grace is at work.

There are causes and effects that can be analyzed and yet the sums never add up properly. This doesn’t negate the cause and effect of events around us but points to something outside that chain that is persistently working in a single direction – our well-being.

To be an Orthodox Christian in a modern setting easily breeds a negative view of the surrounding culture. Modernity is antithetical to tradition. But the very persistence of Orthodox Christianity in the modern world is itself a product of grace. Why are we still here?

All of this is expressed in St. Luke’s gospel: “For He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (6:35). The proof is all around us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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26 responses to “Grace and the Handbasket”

  1. Margret Youhanna Bastowros Avatar
    Margret Youhanna Bastowros

    Fr. Freeman, thank you for this message filled with grace and hope. I am fighting every moment not to see darkness and not to pay attention to the evil that surrounds us. I try hard to pray for all those who are victims of agendas that perpetuate evil. Thank you for reminding your readers that God is never far from us; that His grace is ever present; that this world is immensely important to Him; that the human race is precious in His sight. May God bless your life and your message.

  2. Shoshanna Avatar

    A most welcome reflection, Father Stephen. I needed an antidote to the “Why bother?” feeling I had in waking to another 4th of July. It seems as I we are steadily being stripped of the reasons we’ve traditionally had to celebrate. On my own, I could not have arrived at any of the conclusions you drew.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you, Margaret.

    Our fears magnify the evil and diminish the good. St. Paul draws our attention to the good:

    whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. Phil. 4:8

  4. Steve Taylor Avatar

    Thank you again Ff. Stephen. Waves of grace breaking of the shores of our darkness has indeed been our heritage! ‘Bless the Lord oh my soul and forget not .. ‘

  5. Reader Columba Avatar
    Reader Columba

    From the Liturgy of Saint Tikhon:

    Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity:

    O God, Thy never failing providence sets in order all things, both in heaven and on earth. Put away from us all hurtful things, and give us those things that are profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God forever and ever. Amen.

  6. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Thank you Fr Stephen..providentially timed as usual since i am struggling with what to do about the false “inclusvity” that the company which has acquired my previous workplace is promoting. I understand the need to act dispassionately in the proper sense, but at what point do we need to actively oppose this garbage in view of others’ welfare? At what point am i complict by silence, or is that already the case?

    Thank you again for your pastoral and grace-full disposition. 🙂

  7. Theresa Schumann Avatar
    Theresa Schumann

    Fr Stephen you remind me regarding the evil in our world the prayer I was taught as a child
    “Blessed Michael, the archangel, thrust down into hell Satan and his wicked spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Protect me and mine”
    Just adore your website.
    Theresa

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    James,
    As much as possible – live peaceably with all (St. Paul tells us). But, even he recognizes that somethings press beyond the limit. I think that Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts on “not lying” are apropos. An important criterion is simply the matter of integrity. Do not agree to say what you do not believe as if you did. There are already numerous casualties in the latest rounds of the “culture war.” I think there will be many “losses” before this ideological regime is laid to rest (I think it will fail as so many false ideologies have failed before – things that fight against nature simply cannot sustain themselves except through violence and the threat of violence). Above all, trust in God and His grace and resist the temptations of fear and anger. “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). And remember to pray for your brothers and sisters who are in the very same struggle. Call on the saints frequently.

  9. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    Hi Fr. Stephen. I’ve been listening to a history of the church and the Roman Empire and I have to admit I find parts of it pretty depressing. Right now we are on Calvinism and the Protestant Reformation, and I’ve always found Calvinism rather monstrous. Imagine God creating people in advance of knowing their damnation. Seems like the opposite of the Gospel.

    I find the concept of grace when it comes to church difficult. It seems like most of the history Christians are fighting over doctrine and politics. I would have hoped we were advancing towards the heavenly kingdom, but it mostly seems weighed down by constant squabbling. I just hoped we’d be a bit better.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Laurie,
    There are several things of note in your comment – worth taking some time in my response.

    First, no doubt, certain aspects of Church history could get depressing – some of which being the due to the typical way that history is written. What is not described in historical accounts are the millions and millions of lives and billions of hours in which normal people lived, worked, prayed, worshipped, etc. Historians find it uninteresting and concentrate on certain signal events. Those events tend to focus and things like heresies and disputes. And, as troubling as it is, they are rather minor when seen in the larger scheme of things – something which we tend to ignore.

    But Christians have lived the faith in the midst of real history – complete with all of its trials and temptations. Sometimes (like all of us) they did badly – or did great things with a fairly mixed record.

    Calvinism is a monstrous account of Christian belief and has rightly been condemned as heresy (or good parts of it have been) by the Orthodox Church – particularly notions like people being damned in advance, etc. What nonsense!

    More significant even than those things, though, is your hope or expectation that we should be advancing towards the heavenly kingdom. This is itself not a Christian teaching. We do not advance towards the kingdom of God. The story of history is not the story of progress or of people getting better. Indeed, in the Scriptures, both Christ (Matt. 24), and the Apostles (2 Tim 3:1-17) and (2Peter 3:3-4), all point to history moving in a downward arc – things become worse and worse (in a certain sense) until God brings history to a sudden close. That has always been the traditional, Orthodox teaching.

    The modern world, following certain Protestant ideas, began to promulgate a notion of history as constant progress, things and people getting better and better. This certainly describes technology. It does not, however, describe human beings. Certain institutions (like slavery) had changed or disappeared, but they have not been replaced with great and wonderful things. Human suffering continues. There is less death from certain diseases, but certain death for all from something. And, with our “progress,” we have invented completely unimagined versions of suffering and perversion. All of this was told to us in the Scriptures.

    However, the Kingdom of God has come in the person of Jesus Christ, particularly made manifest in His death and resurrection. We are Baptized into the Kingdom (the very life of God) and we live in and by that life through His grace. Scripture tells us that the “Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). And so it is. How fully we realize this and live into it – how fully it is manifested and shown forth in us – is another matter. The saints are clearly the most obvious manifestation of its reality. So, too, the sacraments of the Church. When we stand in the Divine Liturgy, we are standing in the Kingdom.

    Particularly beginning in the 19th century, many Protestant teachers began to teach a very this-word version of the Kingdom, equating it with the “social gospel,” and a notion that, through political and charitable action, we could “make the world into a better place.” It has been the slogan of Nazis and Communists, as well as pretty much all modern political parties. In the name of such an idea, those who wield power can justify almost anything they want to do. It has been the source of probably more evil and suffering than ever known before.

    Our hearts need to be settled in Christ, what He has done in His death and resurrection – and we should know that following Him and obeying His commandments unites us with Him. But we should not expect anything different than what He received in this world. He promised us that we would suffer as He suffered – but that we would be raised in glory and reign with Him.

  11. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Father Stephen,
    I’ve appreciated your teaching through the years that when people go against nature, whatever they are promulgating, it will eventually crumble.
    Grace happens, thank God!
    Hitler’s Third Reich was supposed to endure 1,000 years. It fell about 988 years short. I think of Mussolini bombing defenseless village farmers in Ethiopia, some, if not many, Orthodox. Yet the last image we have of him and his lover is that of them hanging upside down dead in the streets of Milan.
    Or the brutal Romanian dictator Ceausescu who victimized so many Orthodox and innocents through the years. After a very brief military trial he and his wife were taken outside and shot, all the while screaming invective and curses at the soldiers.
    At their height evil regimes seem invincible. Yet they crumble eventually or suddenly (the Soviet Union) before the grace of our good God.
    Thank you, Father, for this encouraging word this fourth of July.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew 3:2; Matthew 4:17; Mark 1: 15 “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
    The repentance does not create the Kingdom. The Repentance allows the Kingdom to manifest from one’s own heart. A lifting up as on the Cross.
    In the greatest of saints it lingers, an after taste of the gates being opened. I think I can see a bit of that in the smile of St John Maximovitch in the pictures taken of him during his earthly life — a bit of a Holy Fool.
    We are told to pray unceasingly. Perhaps if we do pray for His mercy in all we do the crack of Grace will open a bit.

  13. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    HI, Fr. Stephen. I understand what you are saying, but do you think Christians should be more loving, full of grace, etc? I guess I just struggle with salvation that isn’t noticable in some regard? That’s what I meant by advancing towards the heavenly kingdom. Or am I not understanding this correctly?

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Laurie,
    I totally agree – Christians should be more loving and full of grace, etc. Having spent my entire adult life within the ministry of the Church – I can say that I have seen wonderful examples of love as well as appalling examples of its lack. That Christ Himself is the measure that runs through our lives, I shudder to think what they would be without Him. I will be quick to add that I believe His grace is everywhere present – even where His name is not known. Given what we know of human behavior, it is a wonder that we haven’t long ago killed each other off. And yet, in the midst of all of that, we still find profound examples of love – self-sacrificing love. We should also remember that despite the beauty and wonder of all that He said, Jesus was crucified. That alone points towards the hardness of human hearts.

    Christians should be more loving and full of grace. When you find that to be the case, it should be celebrated with thanksgiving.

  15. gregory brassington Avatar
    gregory brassington

    On history and progress, I never fail to be impressed by this dark, chilling vision of the German philosopher, Walter Benjamin:
    A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Gregory,
    The great difficulty in thinking about history in our modern terms, is that we imagine causes to be in the past and effects to be in the present, as it were. So we look backwards trying to understand where and why we are. Theologically (particularly in Orthodox thought), the “cause” of all things is ultimately in eternity – perhaps best understood as the “end of all things.” We use the word “history” in a very secular manner (imagining ourselves to be the masters of all that happens). It’s more accurate to use the term “providence,” acknowledging that God is the ultimate cause of all things and is drawing all things together in one (Eph. 1) towards their proper, created end.

    History can only lead to despair (if we’re honest). Providence calls us to worship and wonder and, I think, to see the truth of what is unfolding. It gives us courage to live and reason to give thanks always and for all things.

  17. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    If there is one thing that I’m grateful for in my upbringing in an indigenous culture, is that the notions of time and ‘cause and effect’ are so different from the European cultures. Such theological understandings in the Orthodox Church help to anchor my heart and nous where they need to be.

    Thank you for your words this morning. May God continue to bless the work you do!

  18. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    One more thought about Grace, at the end of a passage concerning the disintegration of society, Christ said this:

    “By your patience possess your souls” Luke21:19

  19. Gregory Avatar
    Gregory

    A few thoughts if I might presume.
    If we draw back from the parts of the confused picture, like those ones in seeming unconnected bits and pieces until they form a coherent whole, it’s clear there is an overall pattern to history where individual causes and effects can be perceived as a continuing (divine) dialectic awaiting the ultimate synthesis towards which all is inexorably moving (eg. the end of history pace Pannenberg and to a certain extent Teilhard de Chardin.) I like to think of our moments in history like that of the hero of Stendhal’s ‘The Charterhouse of Parma’ caught up in the confusion of the Battle of Waterloo, not knowing which side is winning, but on the hill nearby, the commander can see the whole picture and the ultimate outcome, as God can from eternity. The last battle is already won without the clash of armies (Revelation 19) and that knowledge dispels any despair at present travails. How can we despair anyway when we recall Christ’s words. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
    Finally, what I particularly appreciate about Benjamin’s reflection is the myth of human progress, a blind alley full of its wreckage for so many.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Gregory,
    Well said.

  21. Michael Moniz Avatar
    Michael Moniz

    Thank you Fr. Freeman, the post is poignant for me since I’m been battling the concept of what an “enemy” is in the Christian world view. Aside from a spiritual enemy (Satan, etc.), are we called to love the private enemy but right to hate the public. In the biblical sense love the Samaritan, but hate the Samaritans, individual vs group?

    I think I know the answer, my anxiety often gets the best of me. Thank you!

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    Christ is clear in teaching us to “love our enemies.” The real problem, I think, is what hate does to our own heart. No matter how “deserving” someone or something might seem to be of hatred – we cannot hate without it doing damage to our own soul. Learning how to pray for an enemy helps. Sometimes, we are not able to actually extend ourselves to loving an enemy. But, it is possible to extend ourselves to pity them and to pray for God to give them grace.

    Hatred has about it the stench of murder – we want the hated thing to suffer somehow. It invites and nurtures envy. These are poisons to the soul.

    When we fail (and we will), we must call out for God’s mercy to give us the grace to be kind, to be merciful, and to love. It’s hard.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, one thing that seems to help me on at least not garroting my enemies is to try not to take myself too seriously. Learning to laugh at my own frequent foolishness, etc tends to make it more difficult to hate anyone else AND it makes it easier to see myself more honestly AND to begin repentance.
    I am 75, I was received into the Church at age 38. I am only now, by Grace, beginning repentance–a gift.

  24. Jeff Avatar
    Jeff

    Sorry for being slow on the uptake, but I don’t get the reference to ”the handbasket”.
    I’ll have to ”bear with a little shame”, and be the only one who asks. May I ask you to explain?

    As to the downward trend of the world described by Jesus and the prophets, and corroborated by the Fathers, do you have any theories as to why this must be? Is there an overarching principle at work here?

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Jeff,
    It’s me making a play on the phrase “going to hell in a handbasket.” As to the downward trend, I think it has to do with the “mystery of lawlessness” spoken of by St. Paul in 2Thess. 2:7. There, he attributes it to the working of the evil one, and also describes something that holds it in check (which, I think, is grace). We have seen throughout the course of history various eruptions of evil that seem to threaten existence itself. Each time it fails – and that is a mystery as well.

    There’s ever-so-much more to life than meets the eye – we see only the outward manifestations of what is at work (both of grace and of lawlessness).

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. Stephen, you ask in your closing of the main post: “Why are we still here?”

    That is an excellent question. The Nihilists (who reign over us in this world in politics, “culture” and technology, say we are worthless because we seem to lack the power they view as proof of truth.
    Jesus was confronted, through Judas, the Sanhedrin and Pilote with the same question.
    His answer is the Cross is it not. Both the existential pain and suffering, His silence in the face of everything the world threw at Him. Saying: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
    I certainly don’t. Yet, He who does know has blessed me nonetheless. I do not need, nor can I “know” in the human sense.
    He has led me to a place of repentance.

    Still, I want to “do something!” It is easy for me to think that Praying the Jesus Prayer, giving thanks to God in all things as not “doing” anything.
    As I was struggling with myself and the events in my jurisdiction, I texted and old friend who knows the politics and players involved. He directed me back to my discipline. In the course of trying to do that, I rediscovered Psalm 46. Verse 10 begins: “Be still and know I am God.”
    “Be still and know I am God!”

    Glory to Him who is Risen from the dead and may His Grace be sufficient for each of us and for the Church Herself. In Holy stillness is God, our Lord and Savior. My sins are forgiven and nothing can overcome the Grace of His Person.

    Glory to God for all things!

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