By Mark Azzara
My Dear Friend,
It is so gratifying to get comments from you in reply to the letters I write. It makes my day because it means that these letters aren’t monologues but are the starting point for conversation. And I love a good conversation.
I am grateful for Brad Thompson’s comment on last week’s letter, which I answered immediately, and for Thomas Schmidt’s recent comments. His words remind me of something Graham Cooke teaches. He says, and I agree, that there are four stages of spiritual/moral development, and I see a parallel between these four stages and Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed.
The first stage, where the seed hits the road and never develops, is infancy, where spirituality and morality are irrelevant because the sole focus is on oneself. The second stage, where the seed falls on rocks and then sprouts but dies for lack of soil, is spiritual/moral childhood, during which we experience great enthusiasm for the spiritual and moral life, but it never takes root. The third stage, where the plant born of the seed is choked to death by other plants, is like being a spiritual/moral teenager, where the cares of the world squeeze out spiritual/moral development.
The fourth stage, where the seed takes root in good soil and bears great fruit, is mature adulthood, where our commitment to spiritual and moral goodness thrives. I am Christian because I believe only God can get us to that fourth stage. Ignorance of it, temporary enthusiasm for it and the distractions of life don’t eventually lead to this mature stage because these stages reflect our human limitations. There is no way a person can will himself or herself into that kind of maturity.
Everyone needs the intervention of Jesus to make that fourth stage attainable. You and I may feel humiliated because we cannot reach that stage on our own but our experience over time testifies to our failures in that regard. Cooke says no one should be ashamed about having to go through the first three phases because it’s the default human condition. To deny you must be led by Christ through those stages and into maturity is to deny that you’re human and pretend that you’re God. (And there are a lot of people, some very famous, who do that.)
“Spiritual” and “moral” are separate terms that work together for good, and they are unalterably linked. “Spiritual” refers to what a person believes internally, whereas “moral” refers to the expression of one’s beliefs externally.
As someone (I don’t know who) once said, “If you don’t do what you say you believe, then what you do becomes what you believe.” We can talk a great game about what we believe but only Jesus can show us where we’re wrong or are lying to ourselves, correct those errors, and empower us to live His revealed Truth in the world.
I think the most oft-used phrase in the New Testament is “in Christ.” If you exist within someone else, that other person controls you. That is why Jesus refers to his being in the Father — because the Father controlled all his activities, ideas, etc., cutting away whatever does not bear fruit and pruning branches that do.
If Jesus had to undergo this surrender, so must we. But for those who fear this kind of change (a topic I hope to address next week) I will repeat my friend Joe’s words, which I quoted in my reply to Brad Thompson, “Only God can tell you where you’re wrong and make you feel good about it.” When we see Truth for what it is, we are so grateful that we don’t mind leaving our stupidity behind.
All God’s blessings – Mark
Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, “And So Are You.” He is active in his church and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut.