Baal of the Times
“By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. My worldly goods are a knapsack and some dried bread in it, and a Bible in my breast pocket. And that is all.”
The Way of the Pilgrim is a story of a Russian peasant. He gave up everything for love of the Name of Jesus. One day in church, he was struck by the command, “pray unceasingly,” and set out on the road. The story tells about his travels from monastery to monastery, through fields and mountains, practicing the Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” If you read the story, you have to marvel. What is it about this simple soul that made him richer and happier then most of us will ever be? He discovered the doors into a world, the Name of Jesus.
Why do the saints seem to live on a different plane? St. Nikoloz Dvali smiled and sang, “Glory to God,” as the Islamic lords beheaded him. Elder Cleopa was tortured by communists in a room of burning lights and broken glass, yet stepped out in peace and vigor. St. Paisius lived on a handful of crumbs in a leaking shack, yet his buoyant smile was contagious. I, on the other hand, get grumpy when I step on a toy in the hallway or my eggs are overcooked. What do these saints have which make them happier than me? They learned to pray in Jesus’ Name.
“Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (Jn. 16:23-24).
What a thing to say? This verse bothers me at times. I think, if we are honest, we are all bothered by it. This is not the only time when Christ promises to answer our prayers. “Whatever you ask in my name, that will I do” (Jn. 14:13-14). “All things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt. 21:22). It almost feels embarrassing to recite these verses out loud. Do we believe them? Do they mirror our reality? Have you ever prayed “in the Name of Jesus” only to be disappointed? Maybe you have struggled with a sin or addiction, or perhaps your world began to crack, and you prayed fervently. Sometimes something happens. At other times…nothing. Where is God then after such grand promises? Some of us quit altogether. Others keep on praying, but our faith remains stagnant.
What is Christ saying? “Ask in my name, that will I do.” We have to begin by looking at the phrase, ‘in my name.’ What, in fact, does it mean? The Holy Fathers of the Church tell us that to pray “in Jesus’ name” is not a formula. It is not a magical incantation. To pray in the Name of Jesus is a condition of the heart. Christ explains it elsewhere, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (Jn. 15:7). There is an ‘If’ before the ‘Ask’. Do you abide in Jesus Christ? Fr. Anthony Hughes in Massachusetts explains, “Before we can ask anything ‘in the Name of Jesus’ we must give up our own name. Our ego must be dissolved…” This is the true path to prayer and it is our challenge.
If there was ever a man who abode in Christ, it was Elijah. He lived in a time when all his countrymen had abandoned God. They worshipped Baal, a god who should feel very familiar in our own times in America. In his images, Baal holds a thunderbolt in one hand and a mace in the other. They called him the god of fertility. In modern language, we may call him the god of consumerism. He is the god of the supermarket, the stock exchange, silicon valley, and amazon.com. He is the god we worship when our television shows and bank accounts become more important than worship and Christian fellowship.
An article called, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: American’s New Religion,” talks about the Baal of our times. The author interviewed teenagers all over the country who claimed to be religious. Yet, the religion he observes is not Christianity as our grandparents would have understood it. It is something very different. He writes,
“This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering…Rather what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure…It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along…In short, God is something like a combination of Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.”
When we read about the Jews worshipping Baal we imagine something exotic, perhaps, a bunch of tribal natives beating drums and sacrificing goats. In reality, worshipping Baal comes much closer to home. We see it on the billboards, in Facebook, and in our churches. You see, Elijah’s world was not so different from ours.
Elijah prayed for rain, and it rained. Why? He went against the grain. The men and women around him were not sacrificing babies. They were ordinary Joes and Janes, who had simply gone with the flow of pop culture. They drank the Kool-ade of self-worship. Elijah gave up his name to follow God’s name. When he prayed, he prayed in Jesus’ Name.
"When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvelous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light…they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise…” Wandering the world with his prayer rope, our happy Russian pilgrim explains, “The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way.”
Our bread and butter must be the name of Jesus. This is why the Jesus Prayer is so important. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” By calling on the Name of Jesus, again and again and again, we slowly see the whole world change. It has a way of sinking into our hearts.
Face it. We are all Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. We have all worshiped Baal. We are individualists and consumerists and there is only one way out. We have to learn to pray in Jesus’ Name. Then, and only then, our joy will be complete.