Down The Path – O Lord & Master of My Life
The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim begins, “O Lord and Master of my life…”
Before I attempt to be profound and expound and resound and then have to rebound and all of that hoo-ha, I’ll tell a story. Actually you should probably know that most of this series will be stories. When I was much younger I thought that I had deep things to say and something to offer when it came to theological dissertation. However, every year older I get I realize that I have much less to say than I thought I did, or ought to for that matter, but I have many more stories. I love stories, especially ones that I am able to be a part of. I’ve often thought that homilies and teachings really ought to be more stories than theological dissertation, but I suppose that is another post altogether. So, my story…
You may ask yourself why I chose the photo above for the second installment of the “Down the Path” series, especially as it most likely seems to have nothing to do with the beginning of the Prayer of St. Ephraim. The answer is quite simple and yet full of good and of God, and really quite full of the prayer. The happy couple pictured above are my dear friends J. & M. For the sake of staving off any future lawsuit, and for the practical purposes of this story, I will refer to them only as J. & M.
I have known J. my entire life. We are 7 months apart in age and grew up together in the same small rural town. Our parents were dear friends and we were all a part of the same church. Needless to say, we spent a great deal of time together, both during the week at school and on the weekends at church. And when we graduated high school we both chose to attend the same small theological school in Indianapolis, and so we moved there at the same time. We shared many an adventure together, from building poorly made log forts in the mud as children to hiking a small section of the Appalachian Trail as young men. Over the years we’ve laughed together, cried together, lived together, and we continue to share our lives despite the vast distance that now separates us. Growing up together there was a certain point in J.’s life where he began to make a series of decisions that would ultimately lead him down a very dark and dangerous path. By the time we were Juniors in high school, the friend I had known all of my life had become a very different person. Drugs, alcohol, and peer pressure had begun to take their toll and J.s walk down his own path was taking a turn in which I could not follow. We remained good friends, and while the chemicals were making my friend a different person, there was still a great deal of the good man I’d always known there. He was still kind, generous, funny, and a joy to be around. Above all he still desired a relationship with God and at times bemoaned his addictions.
By the time we had graduated and moved to NapTown J’s addictions were well rooted and a part of everyday life for him. After the first couple of years in the city, he, my brother, our friend S. and I all moved in together into what was to become the world renown “Bachelor Pad of Glory” (R.I.P.) My brother and our friend S. both ended up meeting their soul mates and getting married shortly thereafter. J. and I continued on in the grand tradition of the BPOG and J.’s life of addiction continued. He worked the same job faithfully for many years and despite his entrapments, continued to be the same kind, compassionate person who longed to be free and still desired God. However, day by day, week by week, month by month he slowly became worse. The man that was J. was slowly being replaced by a different man. My friend was fading and someone else was surfacing. It was at this point that many of his friends began to confront him about his addictions. There were many attempts at detoxification and many emotional men’s groups where souls were bared and all those who loved J. did their best to persuade him to change his life. J. tried to the best of his ability but to no avail.
In the meantime his friends continued to find their soul-mates and get married and begin new lives as husbands, myself included. J. always longed to find his true love, but with a life full of love for something else, there was little room for a wife. Finally, in a last ditch effort to reach out and hold on to our quickly fading friend, another friend and I suggested to J. that he ought to leave and pursue a year long stay at His Mansion, a place in the mountains of New Hampshire, where he could learn to live without his addictions and begin with a clean slate – away from the dealers and the old “associations” of NapTown. After a few months of indecision and checking things out, J. finally agreed to go of his own accord. My wife and I agreed to sponsor him during his tenure at the farm, and we gladly drove him there and spent a couple of days in the beautiful New England mountains with him. It was the beginning of October and the countryside was ablaze with color. In retrospect this was one of the most difficult trips I think I’ve ever had to make. Amidst the beauty of the leaves and landscapes, I was taking my oldest friend away and unsure if he would ever return. In many ways I was saying goodbye and at the same time praying with all I had to God that J. would be restored. That was nearly 5 years ago.
J. went through the year long program and graduated a different man. As his sponsor I was asked to be present at his graduation and was overjoyed at the changes I witnessed when I arrived there.
(I made a small blogpost here about it at the time which you can read if you like.) He had taken full responsibility for his choices and I saw my old friend for the first time in many years. He was once again full of peace and in a way, more content than I had ever seen him. After some conversations with me and a few others, he decided that NapTown was too full of the “old things” and chose to move to Alaska to live in an intentional Orthodox community there. It was there that he would be chrismated into the Orthodox Church, and it was there that he would finally meet his soul mate and bride. It was a happy day when I got a call from J. asking me to be in his wedding. I can remember it like it was yesterday and the joy I felt was indescribable. That is, until this past week, when I received an email from his older sister telling me that J.’s wife had delivered a healthy baby boy. I finally got to speak to the proud papa on Monday evening. I cannot begin to describe the immense feelings of joy and elation that I experienced just talking to J. about his new son. At many points in the conversation my eyes began to fill with tears. At one point he asked me, “Do you want to hear him cry?” My immediate response was, “Well don’t make him! But yeah, I would!” Hearing that newborn cry and listening to J. soothe him will remain with me for the rest of my life. There was a time when I thought J. would end up dead or deranged. There was a time when my friend was nearly unrecognizable. There was a time when J. being a father was indeed an impossible and frightening thought. That time is long gone and a good man changed by the grace of God is what remains. A good husband. A good father. A good testament to what faith in God and the love of those He puts in your life can do. And that’s the important thing here – who we choose to place around us will shape and define us and help us to name what really IS in our lives. And this is precisely what the Love of God in Christ Jesus is all about – the notion that no one is ever completely lost. That even when someone seems so far gone that it is a hopeless case, even then they still bear the image of God and have the capacity to turn back to Him, and we must never give up. Ever.
So what does this have to do with “O Lord and Master of my life?” Simple. When we begin the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim we begin by stating what is and what we hope for, no matter what paths we may tread in this life. The scriptures tell us that, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” All prayer begins with faith and indeed with great hope. I say to myself and the world around me, “God is the Lord and Master of my life!” even if it may not be exactly as I or anyone else wants it to be. Even when all that I do seems contrary, if I can get out this simple phrase and sincerely pray it aloud, then some shred of hope remains. You see, J. was raised in a home that believed this, even if it wasn’t always lived out perfectly. But because of this, even in his lowest of lows when he had given himself over to the slavery of addiction he still cried, “O Lord and Master of my life!” I believe that it was this core of faith and hope within him that enabled him to overcome his addictions and truly give his life and will and entire being over to God. And I think it is a testament to all of us that struggle to walk the path. Great Lent is truly a path, and a very intentional one at that. But really it is nothing more than a call for us to recognize the path that we’re already on, and to walk it with eyes wide open. Great Lent is a reminder to wake up and intentionally put God first in our lives. I think that St. Ephraim knew that in order to do this we first have to start by reminding ourselves who we are giving control to. This world is eager for control of us. All the advertisements, all the slogans, all the propaganda, and most of what we watch on television or in the theater tells us one thing – that WE are the lord and master of our own lives. And yet the irony is that we are being told this by someone else. Whether we realize it or not, we will give ourselves to someone or something. I believe the old saying goes something like, “Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.” The question then becomes, “Who do I give power to?” If we’re ever to return to God and back to where it is we came from, and if we’re ever to reverse the effects of the Fall and the expulsion from Paradise, then we must begin with the simple acknowledgement, “O Lord and Master of my life…”
The scriptures, the sayings of the Fathers, all that we have been given is full of this simple truth. Any spiritual father worth his salt will tell you that obedience is the beginning of all spiritual growth and at the very heart of the journey. But therein lies the frightening reality – we are free to choose. God does not force us to love Him. Freedom is truly terrifying. And yet I don’t think we can even begin to imagine how simple this is and to what lengths God will go to save us – indeed, even unto death. J. is a testament to the all sufficient grace of God, and to what a simple act of faith and a proclamation can do. In the words of the ever inspiring poetry of Bill Mallonee,
No mountain too high, there is no ocean too deep[audio:Offer.mp3]
no castle too strong, there is no lock that’ll keep
no river too wide, there is no desert too broad
no stone You can’t break, no, no heart that’s too hard
That is it. All we must do is ask. Simply ask. Acknowledge God. Give it up. Let it go. Nothing more is required. No gimmicks, no ploys. No strings attached. And we begin simply with…
“O Lord and Master of my life.”
“Acknowledge the Lord in all your ways, and He will direct your paths.” ~Proverbs 3:6