Sunday, November 23, 2014

God's work of art

It seems to me that this blessing, and the amplification which follows it, are the essence of the Christian's life in the world—that is, if he or she is not just a believer, but also a disciple of Jesus—and that to read these words and to know by experience that they are true, is wisdom.

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
give you a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed,
to bring you to full knowledge of Him.

May He enlighten the eyes of your mind
so that you can see what hope His call holds for you,
what rich glories He has promised the saints will inherit
and how infinitely great is the power
that He has exercised for us believers.

This you can tell from the strength of His power at work in Christ,
when He used it to raise Him from the dead
and to make Him sit at His right hand, in heaven,
far above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power, or Domination,
or any other name that can be named,
not only in this age but also in the age to come.

He has put all things under His feet,
and made Him, as the Ruler of everything,
the Head of the Church,
which is His Body,
the fullness of Him who fills the whole creation.

And you were dead,
through the crimes and sins in which you used to live

when you were following the way of this world,
obeying the ruler who governs the air,
the spirit who is at work in the rebellious.

We all were among them too in the past,
living sensual lives, ruled entirely by our own physical desires
and our own ideas,
so that by nature
we were as much under God's anger as the rest of the world.

But God loved us with so much love
that He was generous with His mercy:

When we were dead through our sins,
He brought us to life with Christ—

it is through grace that you have been saved—
and raised us up with Him and gave us a place with Him
in heaven, in Christ Jesus.

This was to show for all ages to come,
through His goodness to us in Christ Jesus,
how infinitely rich He is in grace.

Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith;
not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God;
not by anything that you have done,
so that nobody can claim the credit.

We are God's work of art, created in Christ Jesus
to live the good life as from the beginning
He had meant us to live it.

Ephesians 1:17 - 2:10 Jerusalem Bible

Saturday, November 22, 2014

He comes

The media continues to mock and ridicule Christians, as it has been doing for the last forty years or so, with an emphasis on believers in the American South. And why not? If believers show themselves to be fools, why shouldn’t the world mock them? But there are more ways than one to be martyrs for Jesus Christ, and more ways than one to be fools.

The more that a follower of Jesus witnesses for Him to the world purely and simply by living his life in Christ before the eyes of the world, without apology or defence, but with a ready willingness to give the answer when he is asked, the more the world will marginalize and isolate him from themselves. It is the world that erects the border wall of separation, not the disciple.

There is another kind of believer, though not in Jesus, but in some idol that he sets up and calls Jesus. He lives his life not in Christ but in a strictly circumscribed set of prohibitions which separate him at almost every juncture from everyone else, from everyone who is not likewise bounded. He erects the border wall of separation, or rather he paints himself into a corner, and spits at all who pass.

The more that a follower of Jesus thinks, speaks and acts according to the tradition handed over to him by Christ and the holy apostles through the written Word, the Holy Scriptures, without compromising what is not negotiable, without dissimulation but also without provocation, the more the world will consider him a fool, but a dangerous one, again one who must be marginalized and ignored.

There is another kind of believer, though his belief is no more than that, a kind of blind acceptance of, not the apostolic tradition but, the rootless, shallow concoctions of human rebelliousness and pride, combined with a kind of spiritual sloth and eagerness to exalt whatever is not costly, who has no inkling of what faith is, only vain talking. Him the world does not fear, but defames and mocks.

Though the world is evil and willingly fights against the saints, it does so by stealth, by indirection, in hidden ways, ashamed already of its own certain defeat, which the Son of God has accomplished in His death and resurrection, hidden from the world, but still known by it. Rarely does it publicise its attacks on the saints because of this knowledge of its certain defeat. Already it cries out, “Rocks fall on us, and hide us from the wrath of the Lamb!”

But when the world fights against the shadows that it has produced through its own subtle instigation and sly inventiveness, dressing itself up in costume of ‘believers’ or ‘Christianity’ so that it can do mock battle with these wraiths and show them defeated, it is only the serpent devouring its own tail, it is only the circus raised up to amuse itself publicly because in secret it is full of dread for the punishment that is to come. Who as gentle as the Lamb, who so meek? Yet, He roars as a Lion out of Zion, and He comes, He comes to judge the earth with Justice, and the nations with His Truth.

Easier said than done

The Nativity Fast, observed from the 15th of November through the night of the 24th of December, is the last of the four fasts of Holy Church, and probably the hardest to faithfully keep. Why? It shouldn't be. The rules are very relaxed. On the Greek calendar hanging on my kitchen wall the fish symbol (fish permitted) occurs on at least half the days, and the grape symbol (wine and olive oil permitted) on perhaps another quarter more, the rest being marked with a cross (strict fast). But it is hard to keep. We do not live in an Orthodox world, even if some of us live in a 'Christian' one. Wherever we find ourselves, except within the walls of a monastery, there will be tugs to join the party. Which party? The ongoing Christmas and End of Year festivities. Family, friends, co-workers, business associates, school mates. Everyone is celebrating. How does one get out of that without offending someone? And who's going to be offended if we don't keep the fast?

In America, we have an additional problem, unless we're on the 'old calendar.' The greatest American family holiday (yes, even holy day), Thanksgiving, also known as 'turkey day,' falls near the beginning of the Nativity Fast. And what's on the menu? Turkey, turkey, and more turkey. This is the holiday when America outdoes itself in the eating category. Unless you celebrate it nearly alone and with an 'out of the box' turkey roast, you will have lots of leftovers. That is intentional. That way you and the family can have enough for turkey sandwiches for almost a week after the Thursday of the feast. What to do with all that meat, my Orthodox brethren? Isn't it bad enough we broke the fast to celebrate the holiday, but now we have all these leftovers? Well, years ago my spiritual father told me, 'Just keep eating it till it's all gone, and then resume the fast.' 'Even on the Friday?' I asked. 'Even on the Friday,' he replied. That's ikonomía for you!

Back to the problem, the pre-celebration of Christmas (or of the winter solstice, or of the year's end, if you're in a very secular context) will always preempt the keeping of the Nativity Fast, sometimes even in 'Orthodox' countries. To keep the fast we will have to duck out of sight when hands are being raised as to 'who's coming to the party?' and we'll have to keep close watch on our cell phones to see who's calling—it might be another invitation. The alternative is to just graciously give in. That's what I usually do, although thankfully, I am a social recluse as a matter of fact, and people rarely ask me out, even to lunch. Through all this dissipating activity, who's to blame if we don't keep the fast? We will give it a half-hearted try, and be relieved when it's all over after attending the Nativity evening liturgy. Then we can eat all those same foods again that we just stuffed ourselves with the preceding nearly forty days. Ever wonder why we miss the feeling of ending this Fast?

The reality can be quite different than what I have described. The Nativity Fast, just like the other three seasonal fasts, doesn't have to focus on food. In fact, it shouldn't. We're reminded by Holy Church that we should not fast from food if we are not praying and giving alms, that is, helping the poor. 'What poor?' There we go again, trying to let ourselves off the hook. 'Don't I pray enough already?' Well, the Church offers more services than usual during the four fasts to give us more opportunities to pray together. 'Well, I just like to pray at home, alone, as I always do.' 'That's okay too. Just do it!' as my spiritual father used to say. All of this boils down to a case of 'reality versus unreality,' exactly the kind of mental conflict we all like to avoid. When we see it coming, we tell ourselves to just 'turn up the music,' so we can forget that this least of all moral issues is pressing us. What moral issues? Well, if nothing else, the Nativity Fast reminds us of the moral issue of the sacrifice of the unborn.

In fact, everything we do hinges on moral issues, whether we are aware of this or not. We go through life thinking we are making choices based on what we believe are good reasons, often without ever realising that the correct choices have already been made. Already made? You mean, there's no such thing as free will, free choice? Well, yes and no. We do have free will, but what we do with it when we ignore pre-existing morality, the 'real right and wrong' as C. S. Lewis puts it, is usually a disaster, even when we are personally untouched by the result (at least we feel we're untouched—it wasn't my baby!). It is, in fact, choice that defines all personal beings from the higher animals, through humans, up to the bodyless powers (the angels). So we have a choice, from finding a mate, to buying a house or car, to voting for a candidate, to cheating on our taxes, our spouses, or our God. Yes, it all comes down to choice. What will I do with the Fast this Christmas?

See also Guidelines for the Nativity Fast

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Keep close to Him

Christ the Healer. Acrylic and gold leaf on birch panel. 18x24"
Installation in Prayer Chapel at IU Health Goshen Hospital, Goshen, Indiana.
There’s no doubt that the human race is very, very sick. The way to cure it, however, is not to chop off heads, segregate and imprison women, restrict freedom of speech, movement, or assembly, or persecute sexual and religious minorities. The way to cure it is also not to engorge it with pharmaceuticals or graft it with laboratory-grown replacement parts, neither to give it more work or more leisure, nor especially to try to socially engineer it with subliminally loaded entertainment.

The sickness is moral, yes, as well as physical, but like the human body which cures itself of most ailments if simply left alone, the human race’s cure lies within itself, available not only to the learned or wealthy or otherwise amply privileged, but to all without exception. The human conscience is the beginning of the cure, and the grace of God, however dispensed but derived from the Word of God, is the end of it. Christ is not yet irrelevant or insolvent but remains essential to the life of the world.

Leave aside all human machinations, even, no, especially those that are laden with ‘gospel’ language and speak of ‘victory’ as if they have won it. These seek to hook men not with Christ’s truth but their vain opinions, and to make a spectacle and a business of religion, trapping themselves and their hearers in corruption. Let God be praised in your humble submission to His will as you seek His Kingdom and His righteousness, not your own. He has been victorious in the only war worth waging.

Keep close to Him.

Brotherly love

How good, how delightful it is
for all to live together like brothers:
fine as oil on the head,
running down the beard,
running down Aaron's beard
to the collar of his robes;
copious as a Hermon dew
falling on the heights of Zion,
where Yahweh confers His blessing,
everlasting life.
Jerusalem Bible

Many of my Protestant and Orthodox friends have pretty serious problems with Roman Catholicism, and they don’t understand why I don’t, and why I don’t place Roman Catholics in a separate category ‘from us.’ Well, truthfully, I do have problems with Roman Catholicism because of the doctrines that it has added to the ancient faith. I also have problems with Protestantism in its various forms and in different degrees, depending on how much of the ancient faith it has defied, neglected, or abandoned. And with Orthodoxy, well, what can I say? I do have problems with it sometimes too, because at its worst it can be very childish, contrary, and spiritually stingy. For all that it has been given, it ought to be childlike, trusting, and dependably merciful, all the time. But—thank God!—it’s all too human, and sooner or later it comes to its senses and admits, ‘among sinners, we are chief.’

Back to why I don’t shun and visibly disapprove of Catholics, or for that matter, others even more different from ‘us Christians,’ such as Mormons, JW’s, Jews and Muslims, all of whom claim to worship the ‘One God.’ Well, there is no easy answer to this question.

I call everyone I meet ‘brother’ or ‘sister,’ inwardly if not audibly (it might offend some of them), because Christ calls everyone brother or sister without qualification. It also does no one any good to emphasize our differences. Though we don’t usually kill each other bodily when we don’t agree, we often still do socially and spiritually. Peace and a spirit of cooperation are sacrificed to mere ideas, our own which we think true, and we break the second of the two great commandments, to love our neighbor. We must not realize who our neighbor is, otherwise we wouldn’t treat Him like this. ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of these, that you do unto Me.’

Especially with other believers in Christ, regardless of their doctrinal positions, if we must differ with them, let us do so fraternally, remembering that from Christ’s perspective, ‘orthodoxy doesn’t exist,’ only ‘love which covers all offenses.’ All offenses, much to our dismay, includes the most horrendous—lying, thieving, robbery, rape, assault, even murder—so let’s be happy to exercise ourselves spiritually by loving others who only differ from us in beliefs or customs, and treat them in the same friendly way that Christ treats us. That seems the least we can do.

Don’t just agree with these thoughts mentally, but act on them whenever you can. Holy apostle Paul writes, ‘Test yourselves. Make sure that you are in the faith,’ and James, the brother of the Lord adds, ‘don’t just say you believe, do something!’

Without pressing against the obstacle of our mortal flesh, we can never become spiritually strong or morally healthy. Therefore, let us do as holy Paul entreats, and test ourselves. This is not a doctrinal ‘multiple choice,’ but a moral probe into our hearts. Who or what do we have in there?

Let none of us be found sleeping when the Lord comes, ‘for the time is close.’ Let Him find us as we were when He left us, when He ascended on high: united, loving each other as He loves us, and looking earnestly upwards, so as to receive our sight.

Save, O Lord, Your people, and bless Your inheritance!

Oh so smart

It must be very humbling to have to admit that one of the guiding principles of one’s life came not from the Bible but from a mere movie. And not from a religious movie like The Greatest Story Ever Told or the Ten Commandments, but from a film that maybe few have heard of, and few would consider a ‘religious’ movie, if they had. Of course, that’s because it isn’t a religious movie.

I had never even heard of this film until about seven or eight years ago, when it was suggested to me by an old friend with whom I had worked on and off for twenty years or more. This friend was christened Episcopalian but he rejects that and all churches, and doesn’t even call himself a Christian, but the odd thing is, for the most part he acts like one.

When a childhood friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, this friend did not ‘let him slip away’ but instead, as his disease worsened, stepped up the content of his friendship. When the man’s wife, unable to cope with an ‘unusable husband’ abandoned him, got a divorce, and disappeared, this friend I am talking about, well, he did the unthinkable.

By night and day, and every day, he assisted his stricken, abandoned friend, turning his body over in his bed, bathing, feeding, and in general helping him through what would soon be over. Finally—and I don’t know the details, but assume this—the dying man went to a full care facility, because the care he now needed was too constant, and then, according to God’s mercy, he was taken.

Neither my friend, nor the other to whom he was the greatest friend, were or are ‘Christians’, nor sinless, nor perfect, and so ‘religion’ doesn’t know what to do with such people. If pressed to remark, the religious might say anything ranging from pious platitudes, to vague hopes, ‘God have mercy on them,’ all the way to ‘black and white’ pronouncements, ‘no, sorry—unsaved.’

Come Judgment Day, as C. S. Lewis observes, there will be surprises.

Back to the movie that my friend suggested, an old film starring Jimmy Stewart that I’d never seen or heard of before, and ‘black and white,’ but in a different sense, he presented me with a copy and I watched it—once only—and it was enough for me. In this film I encountered in a most unexpected way a truth that is usually missed in religious training, precisely because it’s not religious.

Aside from the plot of this film, these words stood out for me when I first heard them, and they have played out in my life ever since then, every day. ‘Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be…” she always called me Elwood, “…In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.’

Now, if any of you are avid movie watchers, especially of the classics, you have probably already guessed that the movie I’m talking about is Harvey. In fact, you probably recognized it from the title of the post, and then of course, the still shot was a dead giveaway. Why do we call things like an obvious hint a ‘dead giveaway’? In this case, for me, this film was a live giveaway, the missing piece that finally explained to me what to do about Jesus.

Yes, believe in Him, of course. Yes, follow Him, if you dare. Yes, go to church, read your bible, pray (if you know how), give to charities, volunteer, make sure your honesty is evident to everyone. That’s how I interpreted Christ’s saying, ‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:16) But what about what He says just a little later? ‘Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 6:1) Jesus doesn’t joke around in the gospels. He must be telling us something, but what?

A missing piece, maybe the most important piece, given by surprise where I’d never thought of looking—in a secular movie. But is it secular? And does ‘secular’ only have the meaning we give it because we’ve decided to be religious? In the mind of Christ, which is accessible to us when we do what He tells us, ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Matthew 11:29) If we take upon us His yoke, what is secular? what profane?

The whole world and everyone in it is ‘what God looks like’ (Father Evely), and ‘salvation is with our brothers’ (the Desert Fathers), because ‘whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto Me’ (Jesus). All the religious training, knowledge, theological truths, bible verses, worst of all, all of our opinions about others and certainty of our own salvation, mean nothing if we work against God’s purposes.

What? Who’s working against God’s purposes? Christ says to us no less than to the Pharisees of His time, ‘You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.’ (Matthew 23:13) And who’s doing that? ‘Surely, not I?’ (Matthew 26:25) Yet, all that Paul says he regards as garbage (Philippians 3, NIV), what we might call his ‘smarts’, he considers trash. What does he consider worthy, then? What does he think is important?

‘…the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.’

(Philippians 3:9)

It is with this kind of certainty, not the certainty of our own salvation, but the certainty of ‘the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith’ that He sends us out, every day, to find Him in the world. ‘Oh so smart or oh so pleasant’? How does that fit in? It’s hard to put into words, which is why I recommend to you, dear reader, to watch the film yourself, for the first time, or if again, then with new eyes.

Then, see what Elwood means by ‘I recommend pleasant’.

Oh, and look a little deeper,
and maybe you’ll see who ‘Harvey’ actually is.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A work history

I will be retiring in about three and a half calendar months, something less than seventy working days from today. All this, God willing. My working career spans, let me see, over fifty years out of my sixty-three.

This ain’t me, but it could’ve been!
At the age of thirteen, I launched a paper route in a new subdivision where I lived. Walking door to door to collect subscriptions to the Joliet Herald News, a dozen or so subscribers grew to over sixty in a short time. Delivering the papers I usually rode a bicycle, but I didn’t just toss the rubber-banded newspapers in the direction of my customers’ front doors. I made sure the paper was close to their reach and out of the weather. This made for big tips when I went my rounds to collect the six bits (seventy-five cents) weekly price, sometimes a whole silver walker (fifty cent piece), especially in wintertime, when I either rode my bike on slippery streets or, if the snow was too deep, trudged through the drifts to get people their daily news. I usually made about twelve or thirteen dollars a month, as I recall, in the mid-nineteen sixties.

A ‘silver walker’ fifty cent piece.
I was a coin collector even then, and I bought my first two gold coins with money from that paper route: a gold sovereign of King George V from the Melbourne mint in Australia for twelve dollars fifty cents; and a gold five rouble piece of Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the same amount. Gold was thirty-five dollars an ounce in those days.

To pay my college tuition, during the summers I worked and saved all my pay, still living at home with my parents. Dad’s policy was not to expect me to contribute to the household finances as long as I was saving for school.

Wheaton, Illinois, post office, where I worked.
The first summer before starting college I worked at the Post Office. That was the year I wrecked my Dad’s new car, which he let me drive to work on the late shift (he worked the day shift at the same Post Office, being the superintendent). After the accident, I had to work ‘days’ with him, so we could ride to work together in his old jalopy. My job was in the dead letter department. How fitting!

Clegg Chapel and Hudson Hall, at Blackburn College.
College tuition cost a thousand dollars my first year, and it rose two hundred dollars per year over the course of my studies, but I always worked summers and made enough to pay it. Room and board was paid for by my working thirteen hours a week for the college during the school year. The first year, I worked in the dining hall and kitchen as a cleanup boy. The next two years, I was the music librarian in the college library, a much easier job.

I left college a year before I would have finished and earned my bachelor of arts in History. That was a silly mistake, but my parents were going through troubled times and were not in a position to rein me in and make me do the right thing. I quit school so I could immigrate to Canada and join a New Age commune. Instead of doing my fourth year of college, I lived with my now-divorced Mom, and worked swing shift as a line operator in a container company, managing two or three lines of blow-molding equipment and the people working on the lines. That was a very hard job.

Canada and USA flags at the border.
After about a year, when I would have graduated, I waved goodbye to my Mom and drove my little Pinto loaded with all my possessions down the highway to Canada. Twenty hours of non-stop driving later, I arrived late at night on the fourth of May, 1972 on the frontier. I parked at a rest stop and took a short nap. At nine o’clock the next morning after about six hours of uncomfortable sleeping in my car, I drove up to the border crossing with thirty-five hundred dollars (an incredible sum of money at that time) and a hopeful smile.

The road north from Portal, Saskatchewan.
North Portal, Saskatchewan, possibly the flattest real estate on the planet, lonely, sunny, and wind-swept, was the name of the border crossing. With no one else in sight, I drove up to the cubicle and let the official know my intention was to immigrate to Canada. I was instructed to park my car and come inside the station, where I was asked a few questions, given a multiple choice test, and then sent on my way with a pass signed by Oscar Meier, who told me to go to Canada Manpower when I got to my destination, and to see a doctor for my immigration physical.

My wife, in London around 1971.
Finding work wasn’t that easy, but at last I found an entry level position. Superior Steel Desk, my first job, two dollars an hour to assemble steel office chairs, was where I made my first Canadian friends, and through one of them, met my eventual wife. ‘My girlfriend has this crazy friend of hers living with us, and I’d like her to move out. Do you wanna meet her and take her off our hands?’ Larry asked me. Oh my gosh! How fate arranges things, but at least I got to experience an ‘arranged marriage,’ possibly one of the last of the century, and in North America to boot. A shy guy like me wasn’t likely to find a gal on my own.

My ‘official’ photo in 1972
for Canada Immigration.
My Canadian years were devoted to just trying to survive, working at any job I could get. I was turned out by the steel desk company as a troublemaker, but I think it was because I was just too spunky for them. Canadians back then (and maybe now) were far more reserved than us ‘Yankees.’ My next job was in making ‘real’ furniture, wooden, traditional, and cheap. Two dollars an hour again was my pay. I forgot to mention I was living in the ‘commune’ at first, where my paycheck was pooled.

I went straight from my Mom’s house to the commune, and then to my wife, without the slightest chance to misbehave. It was only years later that I noticed and mused, ‘I forgot to have fun!’ Actually, I was and still am very happy that I was led along my life path by an ‘invisible Power,’ and very pleased, indeed, when I found out who That was. Meanwhile, ‘back to work.’

Our homestead outside Edmonton.
I can’t believe some of the work I did in those young years. One of the jobs I had was working in a warehouse tearing off the front covers of new soft-bound books that had not sold, so those covers could be sent back to the supplier for a refund. I did that job while trying to go it alone (with my pregnant wife) in a rural homestead just outside of town. My dreams of commune life on the land faded when I was kicked out of the commune for opposing ‘group marriage.’

Here I am milking a cow into a wine bottle!
Those were the days. My most interesting job when I lived in Canada was that of a dairy farmer’s hired man. Yes, I was the only one. I did that job in the autumn and winter, and I found that though I liked the idea, the doing was much harder than I had imagined. Still, I got to milk cows, rescue stranded newborn calves, clean the barn and, you guessed it, get used to ‘farm smells.’ At least it wasn’t pigs!

Unusually for me, I can’t quite remember what my last job was in Canada before I moved back to the States with my wife and infant son Jacob. But I do remember my first job here in Oregon. How could I forget? It was both the worst and, in another sense, the best place I have ever worked. The worst of it was, it was a small town furniture factory, and nearly everyone I worked with was ‘low life.’ Dirty talk, cheating on wives and girlfriends, drug addiction, all around nasty behavior. I was ostracized and made fun of, and I wasn’t even a Christian yet. But I didn’t stay that way for long!

I was the lead man at Sterling Furniture. Here I am band-sawing a panel.
I began to notice that I was well-suited to woodworking. Maybe it was because both of my grandfathers were woodworking artisans, and I think it ran in the family. When I left that small town and that job, I found another woodworking job in ‘the big city,’ Portland, where I’ve lived ever since. Wages were still low. The most I ever made at Sterling Furniture was three dollars sixty-four an hour, and that was even Union wages. Though I was sad to leave when the company owners decided to close the shop and auction it off piece by piece, my next job, in cabinetry if not actual woodworking, started me off with an hourly wage of seven dollars, more than I’d ever made in my life.

Starting off in the shop, first as a sawyer and lead man in charge of an assembly crew of youngsters about ten years my junior, after less than four years my education and skill set were discovered by the owner of this company, and I was yanked upstairs to work in various management positions. I had gotten use to factory work. I was able to move about freely, dress casually, and sing and whistle while I worked. By then I was also a Christian, and I was always on the lookout for those God might send me. I resisted the boss’s offer. ‘Your position in the shop has been eliminated,’ he said. ‘If you want to keep working here, you had better take the office job that I’m offering you.’

After about ten years, the owner of the cabinet company sold it, and I was left again to find another job. By then, I had been doing design work in cabinet style and interiors, and one of my customers, a designer at a remodeling company, drafted me to work for them. That job lasted about a year, and I was glad of it, because I was drawn there by the promise of being able to ‘straighten out’ their product line (they also made their own cabinets), but they wouldn’t let me do a thing to help. ‘We’ve always done it this way!’ Well, needless to say, I didn’t stay there very long.

For the next sixty-eight working days, I will be standing here
loading and unloading aluminum into this Haas VF2 mill. Fun!
So now I come to the work I am doing now, which I cannot really call a job. I’ve been here almost nineteen years, working for the same boss who owned the cabinet company. Between his two companies I’ve worked for him almost thirty-five years. We make machinery here, and I’ve done almost every job and started several departments. My final legacy was to start a machining department, milling aluminum machinery components. So, I started my working life a machinist, and am ending it the same, having migrated from wood to metal.

‘And the sky is still wide and high before my path…’
And the sky is still wide and high before my path, and I still have all my fingers and toes, but best of all my mind, which I have tried to keep safe inside my heart. And I thank the Lord who opened my eyes and smoothed the way before me. What people think of as the end and sometimes fear is ironically the real beginning of what they always wanted but had forgotten. And if we make it there, in old age we will have very good reason to be reckoned as children again.

Wisdom is wisdom and inhabits and fills the birth and the death of all beings and all things, awaiting us beyond age and time. And ‘there are no losses except those that free.’

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Death by stoning

I have read the five books of Moses cover to cover many times. It was by reading them in the Jerusalem Bible that it was impressed on me that God is very definitely a person, that He has a will, and that He has a very distinct idea of what is right and what is wrong. He expects us to agree with Him. How He deals with us when we don’t agree, and when we do things our way, seems to change over time. This, however, I think is an illusion. I don’t think God changes, but our perceptions of Him, and how we interpret what happens to us, changes. This can’t be helped. He humbled Himself from the beginning in His dealings with us, taking up our limited understanding and still speaking to us through it. Eventually and inevitably, He ‘bent the heavens and came down’ not by setting the mountains and sky on fire, but in utter humility flowing His divine nature into our human one by becoming one of us. Meanwhile, there are still people who don’t quite get it when they hear Him say, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’

One thing I’ve noticed in my reading is how severe the punishments were for offenses committed while the people of Israel were wandering in the desert. No less than ten offenses earned the punishment of death by stoning: Touching Mount Sinai while God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:13); an ox that gores someone to death should be stoned (Exodus 21:28); breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36); giving one’s seed (presumably one’s offspring) to Molech (Leviticus 20:2-5); having a familiar spirit (or being a necromancer) or being a wizard (Lev. 20:27); cursing God (Leviticus 24:10-16); engaging in idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7), or seducing others to do so (Deuteronomy 13:7-12); rebellion against parents (Deuteronomy 21,21); getting married as though a virgin, when not a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:13-21); sexual intercourse between a man and a woman engaged to another man (both should be stoned, Deuteronomy 22:23-24).

The foregoing are just those offenses whose punishment was explicitly defined as death by stoning. There were a great many others for which the punishment was just ‘death,’ without specifying how the condemned were to die. Later, the rabbis finished the work of defining exactly what was to take place in the cases of capital punishment. The strange thing is, however, that there are very few mentions of such punishments being actually inflicted. There are three cases in the Bible in which a person was legally stoned to death as a punishment, and there are also five or six cases where someone was stoned by a mob, not in a legal fashion. A detailed case of stoning occurs in Joshua 7:24-26 when a man named Achan (עכן) was found to have kept loot from Jericho, a conquered Canaanite city, in his tent.

The time of Israel’s migration to the Promised Land was when Torah was given. At this time, there was no such thing as Judaism or Jews, only the Hebrew people, whom the living God, Yahweh, had chosen as His special possession. Not just Torah, but particularly these laws of punishment, were given and followed during that stage in the process when God was fashioning Israel into His unique people, using a sort of shock treatment to winnow and purify them, because He knew that over time they would eventually stray and devolve back into living like the other nations. So there had to be a very severe beginning to ensure that at least a faithful remnant would still exist on earth at the appointed time, through whom would be born the Ransom for the sins of the nations—Jesus the Messiah, the Word of God in human form.

Even though the laws of punishment, such as death by stoning, were still ‘on the books,’ by the time Judaism emerged as the religion of the Jews (as the people of Israel came to be known after the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom), the legal infliction of these punishments was rare. Doubts in Jewish society about the morality of capital punishment in general and stoning in particular were growing. For example, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel in the time when the religious courts had authority over capital punishment, a court that executed more than 1 person in 70 years was considered a ‘bloody court.’ The incident recorded in the Gospel (John 7:53-8:11) of the woman caught in adultery has to have been an instance of illegal infliction of the penalty of death by stoning, which was still probably rather common in the time of Jesus, at a grass roots level. So also would have been the stoning of the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen. Remember, even the Jewish authorities could not legally execute Jesus for committing what to them was blasphemy. ‘We have no law to put a man to death’ (John 18:31).

Modern-day Judaism is almost unanimous in rejecting the severe punishments found in the Torah, though with various explanations and justifications. Perhaps there are some Jews who today would revive these ancient punishments, but they are in the minority. Again, these punishments were ordered by the living God for a specific purpose, to fashion Israel His people. They were never intended for the nations, as can be seen if one studies the Talmud, where it states that they apply only to the people of Israel. Seeing that even for themselves their purpose has been achieved, Jews of today do not apply the severe penalties found in Torah.

From a Christian viewpoint, the death of Jesus Christ put an end not only to the laws of sacrifice in the Jewish Temple, but also to the whole body of Jewish laws. Again, the account of the woman caught in adultery cited above is an example of where Jesus was heading, along with His famous sayings, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27) and, ‘The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’ (Luke 6:5). Some would see this as religious evolution, others as the plan of salvation of the living God, whose purposes are not revealed to man all at once, but only as He wills, who Himself is changeless, though we learn more of Him as we encounter Him again and again.

What of death by stoning in today’s world? Perhaps there will always be instances of such punishments inflicted illegally by irrational mobs anywhere in the world where memory of such cruelty survives, but surely no civilized nation on earth would sanction it or enshrine it in its legal system. Think again. That which is called ‘the third great monotheistic religion’ has such punishments enshrined not only in the legal systems where it holds sway, but in its very scriptures. This religion, claiming to be the last and greatest revelation of God to man, supplanting not only Christianity but Judaism as well, holds up and holds to a penal code more severe than even that of the ancient Hebrews.

The living God, the Only God there is, crafted them He chose as His own hereditary people and shaped and formed them by means of these severe statutes, in order to chasten, purify, strengthen and preserve them, who were also going to be the mother and brothers of His Son, the Saviour Jesus Christ. There is only one Israel the heir to the promises, and only one Christ, who come of the seed of Abraham through Isaac. Yet another came claiming to be a prophet, who reversed the story, seized the promise given to Isaac and laid it on Ishmael, taking for his own tribe the rôle of God’s hereditary people, and imitating the rigor and severity of the ancient laws.

If inflicting the penalty of death by stoning is the sign of the true faith, then we all know which true faith that is, and we should hurry to embrace it. Doubtless, such severe punishments will craft us into a perfectly pure, sinless and moral society as it has crafted many another people before us. It doesn’t matter that we will not be free, because look what freedom, what free will, has bought for us—societies impure, riddled with vice and sin, idolatrous beyond imagining. It would be for our own good, it would be worth it, to submit to the loss of freedom, if it meant an earthly paradise, where everyone would be happy, healthy, safe, at peace. Everyone, of course, except those who disobey the law—the divine law that comes from the prophet and his followers—everyone who deserves to die.

Yes, for them, death by stoning is really no less than their just reward from ‘God, the compassionate, the merciful, owner of the Day of Judgment.’

Ah, but what if the real God shows up?


For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation;
the old creation has gone, and now the new one is here.
It is all God's work.
It was God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ
and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation.
In other words,
God in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself,
not holding men's faults against them,
and He has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled.
it is as though God were appealing through us,
and the appeal that we make in Christ's name is:
Be reconciled to God.
For our sake God made the Sinless One into sin,
so that in Him we might become the goodness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21

The Lord sends people to us, and us to people. That's a fact. If you witness for Jesus Christ—and who cannot?—He continually places people in your path.

The Lord is drawing a young man close to you at work who belongs to a sect that denies the full deity of Jesus Christ, a sect that the world despises. He has found out you share a common interest, perhaps it is history. He knows you are Orthodox and he respects that, and the two of you are getting closer every day.

He is married and has two beautiful children and a faithful wife. He is an innocent, virginal soul, and he is trying to live according to the commandments. There is something in both of you that makes you recognize each other somehow. You both know you are not the world's friend, but Someone else's.

What do you do?
You simply love him, and desire for him the same blessing of God that you desire for yourself. You do not divide by words or actions. You simply be who you are in Christ, remembering whose ambassador you are.

You leave the outcome of every word and action in His merciful hands. You let God be God in your midst. You welcome the one that God has placed in your path.

We cannot draw imaginary lines barring anyone from our love. Anyone can be saved and know the Truth, know Jesus Christ. With every new person whom God sends, let us be as loving, supporting, welcoming and free as we can.

Quoting holy apostle Paul, "I am all things to all men," this is what I can be because I am not afraid to lose anything, because nothing God gives us is ever lost, unless we throw it away.

Love this young man as much as you love the brethren, and pray for his salvation. The Lord will open your mouth and fill it with good things whenever you are with him, if you just forget yourself and any agenda.

It's because those who represent the Church approach others with a sword in their mouths—‘Orthodoxy is the true faith’—that they slay rather than save many of the people that God sends to them.
Don't be like that!

Be an ambassador, not a conquistador. There is nothing and no one for you to conquer, only souls that are falling before the God you serve, if only you don't frighten them away.

Love whoever God sends to you and call him brother, even though he belongs (for the time being) to a heretical sect, because that's only a name he's taken on. Let's see what the Lord has in mind in bringing you together.

Think of this: He loves God, and God loves him, and you love both.
Be patient, welcoming, and loving, and see what God has in mind.
No one can come to the Son unless the Father draws Him.
He drew you to the Son. Now, let Him draw your brother.

Lost and found

Why do we witness?
Is it to save people from hell and from the wrath of an angry God?

No, only Christ can save people, and hell is the fruit of mankind’s choosing—and the wrath of an angry God? Well, let the scriptures teach men of that, if they will only read.

We witness out of love for the lost, yes, we do, but also with trust in the man-loving God to move the hearts of those who are stuck, to actually create clean hearts in those who have no hearts, or whose hearts are filthy.

Love for the lost is akin to love for our own souls which we have already delivered to the foot of the Throne. We only want to share what has been bestowed on us, knowing that
outside of God, all is nothing.

Yes, we witness out of love for the lost, but only because we are driven to it by knowing what ‘lost’ really means.
‘I once was lost, but now I am found.’

To speak of people ‘going to hell’ is not part of our vocabulary, except to speak in terms of common parlance. Who can utter the words with meaning?

When we hear the mention of ‘hell’ we see the image of the Day of Judgment, whose nature and timing are known alone to God. We see the Lord separating the sheep from the goats. We hear the voice speaking, ‘Whatever you did to the least of these, you did it unto Me’ (cf., Matthew 25:40), and we tremble as we realize that the ‘lost’ we say we love are they for whom Christ died.

Our love becomes the greater. It becomes our life, not just an idea we say we believe in. We sing the song of the redeemed by our witness, and our worship is like that of holy apostle Paul, who writes, ‘the God I worship spiritually by preaching the Good News of His Son…’ (Romans 1:9).

How great is the mercy of God our Savior, the God of Israel, who makes His home among us, in our praises! And what are those praises if not our testimony that ‘God is great!’ not by His mighty power only, but by His condescension, His longsuffering love, His mercy?

And what is our testimony if not our witness, our love for those whom God places next to us, our neighbors? And how can we love those for whom Christ died? By telling them they are lost? That they are going to hell? Or by telling them the Good News that even before they knew they were sinners, Christ gave His life for them, even before they could say ‘in sins, my mother conceived me’ (Psalm 51)?

This is our witness, our testimony, our life, our love, our faith—that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst’ (1 Timothy 1:15).


Can I be anything other than what God has made me?

The answer to this question is both Yes… and No.

Yes, I can be something other than what God has made me, by apostasy, by falling away from the truth, by letting myself be deflected from His will, by doing other than what I know He wants me to do, by making myself rather than letting Him make me, by choosing not to obey, by choosing my way over His, by claiming my freedom instead of waiting to inherit it, and then by spending that freedom in the pursuit of nothing. Yes, I can be something other than what God has made me.

No, I cannot be something other than what God has made me. I can never be greater, wiser, stronger, richer, healthier, kinder, quicker, prettier, more handsome, more energetic, more creative, more talented, more generous, more glorious, or longer lived than He has made me, who created all, who knows all, who guides all, who nurtures all, who preserves all, and who loves all. No, whatever my efforts, I can never outdo for myself what God has done in making me.

This, I think, is another explanation of what we call our ‘conscience.’

Usually, when people talk about ‘having a conscience,’ they’re thinking of our knowing the difference between right and wrong in a moral sense. We somehow are born with (or in some explanations, we acquire) the ability to distinguish right from wrong, and reason, which is humanity’s glory or shame, makes us know that to choose moral right is preferable over choosing moral wrong. We look at the world around us and at human history. We see people whom we call good and others we call bad.

There’s another level of this action of moral choice, though.

We often are handed by our upbringing or our environment a second set of choices to be made which we incorporate into what we call our ‘conscience,’ and these appear, even to us, as not quite moral choices, but choices to be made nonetheless. Some of them are tribal mores, some from family, others from the social or economic groups we’re part of, some from our religious affiliation, all claiming authority over us.

But back to what conscience really is, is it really moral discrimination residing in us, choosing between right and wrong in the sense of law? That is what we are led to believe, and thinking this way, we inflict upon ourselves both deserved and undeserved guilt when we make the wrong choice. Much of what lodges itself in the house of our ‘conscience’ is really squatters, not what has a right to live there, even on a moral level, just man-made laws and expectations, sometimes even morally wrong.

Could it be that our conscience is really something more personal than just living up to or rejecting a moral law? Could it be the mechanism that the Lord has built into us when He made us, that lets us know when we are following His design for us, and when we are turning aside from it? He wants us to be what He created us to be, no less, no greater (that’s impossible), no different, but exactly what He had in Mind when He designed, formed, and finished us. Conscience helps our freedom find ourselves.

“Let your conscience be your guide.”

Monday, November 17, 2014

Had she said 'No'

The Sunday of the Last Judgment has come and gone. Will I sleep through the Event it represents just as I slept through the services of that day? God knows I’m a sinner and deserve death, but it seems He’s gone out of His way to save me somehow. ‘If anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him…’ (Matthew 5:41). It seems He’s taken His own advice. I suppose that gives Him the right to tell us to do the same. And as for ‘turning the other cheek,’ well, what more can I say?

I keep asking myself the obvious. What is it that makes some of us ‘die, and go to heaven,’ and the rest of us ‘die, and go to hell’? This is not just kidding around. This is an important question. Apparently wars have been fought over it, people dying on both sides and expecting to be included in the first group. Ask any number of church authorities, or read their writings, and maybe find the answer. What? You’ve tried, and you’re just as confused as ever?
That makes two of us…

Being great students of the Bible, we have cleverly discovered the scheme of salvation. Which scheme, of course, depends on ‘where we go to church’ or even whether we go to church at all. If you are a churchable, like I am, you already know that the scheme of salvation is a done deal. There’s nothing you can do to find out any more about it than your church is willing to tell you, and according to them, you needn’t try. Why not? Isn’t it obvious? ‘It’s all writ down…’

We’re so used to being told ‘that’s how it is’ that most of us don’t even come anywhere close to the edge of asking, ‘Is it so?’ That’s what makes people unchurchable, and we must not let that happen to us. What would the neighbors think?

If anyone reading this thinks that next, I’m going to launch out on a diatribe of questioning every teaching handed over to us by Holy Church, you can rest at ease. If this is what you wanted me to do, you may leave now. If any of you want to stay with me and push against the veil of the Temple to see whether or not it’s still attached, and to sneak behind it through the rip made by the Son of God when He entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the Mercy Seat with His own blood
(see Hebrews 9), then stay with me…

Beyond the protocols of Zion, those rules and regulations, formulas and declarations made by the Church, following her Master, to show us ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (John 14:6), since by ourselves we could not find it, we still can read for ourselves the statements that Christ Himself makes in our hearing, that ‘no one comes to the Father except through Me’, and ask Him ourselves, what does He mean? He is not an historical person only, smart but dead like Socrates. He is the living God.
The only place I can think of where Christ tells us openly what is the criterion for our eternal happiness or our everlasting grief is precisely in that parable that was read in the gospel of the Sunday of the Last Judgment. But is it really a parable only, or is it the refining fire set before us, that we might meet the Day as creatures of the day and not of the night? That we might not be sent to the left, but to the right? If so, it’s strange that the Lord doesn’t ask any of the questions we ask each other, to make sure we’re ‘saved.’

Instead, it seems He doesn’t pay attention, or maybe just doesn’t hear, when those He is sending into eternal darkness call Him ‘Lord’ and protest, ‘when did we see You… and not come to Your help?’ (see Matthew 25:31-46). Perhaps they didn’t pay attention, or maybe just didn’t hear Him, when He says, ‘It is not those who say to me, “Lord, Lord,” who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of My Father in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). Could it really have been that difficult?

But He does say things like this to us: He tells us, not only the sister of Lazarus, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life. If anyone believes in Me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die,’ and then He asks, ‘Do you believe this?’ (John 11:25-26). We can read her answer for ourselves, and we can make her answer ours, realizing that it is this confession that produces the promise in us, and really, nothing else. She said ‘Yes, Lord.’ What then, had she said, ‘No’?

This we shall never find out, just as we shall never know ‘what would’ve happened’ had another woman said, ‘No,’ when met with the first words of the Good News that, when first spoken, seemed like anything but good news, ‘You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him…’ (Luke 1:31). Why anything but good news? She was a bride unwedded, a virgin. This conception would come about without the agency of a man. Her response? ‘Let what you have said be done to me’
(Luke 1:38).

But salvation, not the life of salvation as it’s called, which means merely ‘Christian life’ whatever that is, but salvation, what Jesus keeps referring to when He says, ‘I am the Gate. Anyone who enters through Me will be safe: he will go freely in and out and be sure of finding pasture’ (John 10:9). Or when He says, ‘I am the living Bread which comes down from heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live forever; and the Bread that I shall give is My flesh, for the life of the world’ (John 6:51).

Holy Church has already told us, over and over, what all this means, has converted it, nuts and bolts, into the system of Christianity that has existed from the beginning until now, so that we can be invited, welcomed, accepted, initiated, integrated, instructed, assigned our places, and guaranteed our salvation. Leaving nothing to chance may be the strategy of the Church, a reflection of what Christ Himself does, but where does it all really start, for me, for you, if not with our own ‘Yes, Lord’?


It is difficult when there is a problem close to home, especially in one’s own family, a horrid, dangerous problem, and yet one is not allowed to help because what one offers will not be accepted. People stray so far by gradual removals from the path of Christ, all the while not noticing the drift, until they cannot even remember who Christ is, or worse, think they have Him all the more within their grasp while at the same time they are murdering others all around them.

It is pure insanity, yet that possibility cannot be admitted, nothing can be admitted that does not glorify and bolster the imaginary self, and so where healing would be possible, even salvation, it is not allowed to approach at all, but it is demonized in the person of one hated and despised. And for what? Though helpless to help the one who needs help, a blind guide wills rather to pull others into the ditch rather than accept a sighted guide, it simply incubates a lifeless egg.

No activity, not reading or study, not even the scriptures, nothing material outside the self, can help when you are faced with such difficulties, when you are not allowed to intervene by either the victim or the perpetrator of strong delusion. You cannot hide yourself in any activity, yet you cannot be anxious, even knowing that irreversible catastrophe can steal the life of one beloved, one who refuses to admit that you exist, let alone that you have loved.
All you can do is pray.

And this seems like doing nothing, yet it is all you can do. You enclose yourself in the refuge of prayer, and others, and even yourself, mock you as weak and ineffectual. The prayer itself, the talking to the Father, the laying bare your soul’s anguish over the helplessness of the situation, you know may do nothing to prevent the catastrophe, it may still occur, your soul may still have to face the darkest moment, and yet continue to live. Still, all you can do is pray.

Not the hundreds of common cares that come and go, with which you deal successfully or not, they matter not at all compared to this problem which continues moving toward chaos, mutely and unresponsive to what might prevent it, and like physical pain, cuts you off in time and space from all other human beings who are happy. Stories no longer satisfy, tales no more encourage or inspire, when before you lies the reality of what cannot be, yet is.

Father, You alone know all, You alone know us and all our afflictions, You prepare a table for us before the face of these sightless enemies who cry war when all we want is peace, and to whom peace is only seeing us defeated and destroyed. Help us, Father, in this hour of trouble, when Your family is in such need of salvation, yet runs from it into the dark solitude where the evil one, having despoiled the flock, seeks the life of Your young ones, caught in his traps.

I can do nothing, Lord. I can do nothing. Even my prayer is only a moan, yet You know my heart, and let my afflictions drive me into the wilderness, pursued by accusers shouting out crimes I have never committed, so that You alone exist for me. All that You have given me, I wanted to give back to You, but not like this. I wanted to give You not the one talent You entrusted to me, but that and even more. But even what little I thought I had has been taken from me.

Do not let the evil one have the upper hand, Lord. Do not let him ravage the family You have planted. Visit us, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and dispel the hatred, the doubt, the accusations, the delusions, the false hopes, the sickness of heart, the unforgiving memory, every evil thing that has come to nest like rats in a forsaken ruin. Deliver us, let us call you again ‘our Father’ and deliver us, from evil, from the evil one, from each other and from ourselves.

Let us wake in the morning, filled with Your love, and sing and be happy all our days. Make our future as happy as our past was sad, those years when You were punishing us, those years when we were punishing ourselves. Let Your servants see what You can do for them, let their children see Your glory. May the sweetness of the Lord be on us! Make all we do succeed. (Psalm 90:14-17). Yahweh, do not desert me, do not stand aside, my God! Come quickly to my help, Lord, my Savior! (Psalm 38:21-22).

Let's pray now!

I don't have very much to say these days that's bloggable. A drowning man doesn't talk much. Well, not drowning exactly… I'm exaggerating. But learning to walk on water is tough, and I can't even swim!

I found this cartoon on the OrthoDixie blog, and it shows visually something that I practice and sometimes preach, "Let's pray now!"

Early in my life as a Christian I'd meet people who'd say things like, "I'll pray for you," or "Please pray for me."

I thought the first was a kind of pious ‘put on’, and I'd say "Thanks!" and I always felt very uncomfortable with the second and hastily responded, "Of course, I will!" and then I'd just forget about it, like the guy in the cartoon. Clergy and pious old ladies usually said the first, and ‘humbler than thou’ wannabees usually said the second. Occasionally both the offer and the request were genuine, but rarely.

One day, I just sat up and decided to do what the Word of God says, "Pray all the time, asking for what you need, praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion" (Ephesians 6:18 Jerusalem Bible).

One thing that meant to me was this, I never again (or almost never again) told someone I'd pray for them. If someone needed to be prayed for, I'd just drop everything, including the pretense, and say, "Okay, let's pray now!" and start praying right then and there.

This readiness came with not a few surprises. Some people actually wanted to pray and wanted to be prayed for. Others simply excused themselves and so much as said, "Don't bother!" with an embarassed grin.

Being ready to pray at the drop of a hat (or yarmulke) is a very good way to increase your faith, because you have to rely on God to give you the words—and that's how prayer is supposed to be. If you haven't thought about this before, try it out. It has the same wonderful and incredible results as wearing a smile does. It catches people off guard and disarms them, and you too, and puts you in a place where, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, faith becomes possible.

The only time I express something like "I'm praying for you" is in a letter or email, and I am doing just that while I am writing it. Never the future tense, not even in a letter. Always the present. Always in His presence. He's with us here, with me while I type these words, with you as you read them. And in this written tabernacle I can ask your prayers for Romanós the sinner, and I can know that if only for a moment you're now bringing my cause before the Father, because that's all it takes, and that's all that's possible.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

It is the Lord!

It’s hard to believe that life can go on after the end of something glorious: the death of a beloved child or spouse, the loss of an irreplaceable friendship, or, for the disciples of Jesus, no longer having Him among them, daily walking with Him, eating with Him, sleeping with Him out in the wilds as they journeyed together, hearing His words and seeing His divine acts hidden from the world. ‘Of all men You are the most handsome, Your lips are moist with grace, for God has blessed you forever’ (Psalm 45). The most wonderful Man they had ever known was no longer with them.

Yes, they had not forgotten that the impossible had happened. Not just one impossible, but a whole string of them, all events that never should’ve happened, never could have happened, unless this Man really were who He said He was, who they were beginning to understand, gradually, that He is: How could they have arrested Him, who had never done anything wrong? How could they have stripped and beaten Him, who had healed their sick and filled their hungry with good things, literally feeding multitudes?

How could they have put Him to death, and ignominiously, mocking Him, deriding Him, who had brought the only life worth living among them? How could they have rejected Him, who was so obviously Moshiach, the Savior of Israel who had appeared to tell them that God had not rejected them, but had come to them, in Him, to end their exile from the Father? For the greatest of all impossibles had happened, He had risen from the dead, not as He raised Lazarus His beloved friend, but forever.

The winter and the midnight
Could not hold him,
The fire could not burn him
Nor earth enfold him.
Rise up Lazarus,
Sweet and salty!
Brother soldiers,
Stop your gambling and talk to me.
The thieves were stealers,
But reason condemned him,
And the grave was empty
Where they had laid him.

And how did they know this? Was it just through the ravings of some hysterical women? Some of the brothers had murmured in their hurt and doubt, even against their sisters. But no, not just through their testimony, for Peter and John had run as quick as they could to the tomb: John, the youngest, stopping at its gaping mouth, but Peter, older, braver perhaps, but no wiser, plunging into its depths to see for himself: Yes, the tomb was empty. Now, greater fear than ever: What had happened?

They didn’t have to wait long to find out, but it must have seemed long. They were still hiding out behind locked doors when the Truth came to them: Jesus suddenly stood in their midst, almost as He always had, stood among them and once again told them as He had when He walked on the waters of the turbulent lake: ‘It is I; don’t be afraid.’ Stood among them almost, but not exactly, as He had been with them before. This time it was different. He embraced them with His pierced hands, but His face which came close to theirs in a kiss, was free of blood, grime and pain.

Yes, it was different then, and now. He would come among them, but it was always a surprise, and He didn’t stay with them very long, and He would appear when they were not expecting Him. Why couldn’t it be like it was before? Why couldn’t He stay with them always, so they could walk the roads of the land of Israel again, joyfully doing whatever He asked of them, following Him everywhere? They were never sad, hungry or tired when He was with them. Nothing was too difficult for them. Nothing was impossible. Why? Because Love never tires, and Love was walking with them as a Man.
And they followed Him.

But now, it was different. He hadn’t appeared to them for a long time. How many days had it been? They waited excitedly, anticipating they would meet Him again around the next corner of time, but the Lord didn’t appear. Peter got angry with himself for being so impatient and he crossly said out loud, ‘I’m going fishing!’ Well, yes, a man has to eat, and the disciples had suddenly found themselves sent home, back to their relatives, crabby, selfish, contrary and back-biting as some of them were. They had all reluctantly gone back to their former work. You can’t wait for Jesus forever, can you?

So, some of the brothers, sympathizing with Peter, dropped whatever they were doing and joined him in his old fishing boat on the lake. They fished all night, not talking much, as each of them had a night in his own soul to deal with, an emptiness that could only be filled with Jesus, a darkness that only the Light of the world could dispel. They fished all night but caught nothing. It was already getting light, the sun had even come up and was hanging just above the horizon, shining vermilion between two long banks of slate clouds. A man was walking down to the shore from somewhere.

They were now close enough to see him, but not clearly. Suddenly a voice rang out, ‘Caught anything, friends?’ One of them called back, ‘Nothing!’ The man was probably hoping to buy a few fish from them for his breakfast. He cried out to them, ‘Throw the net out to starboard and you’ll find something!’ Almost before those words had died on the morning breeze, John’s heart leapt, and without thinking, something made him cry out to the others with him in the boat,
‘It is the Lord!’

Peter, quickly tying his wrap around his naked torso, dove into the lake and started swimming for shore. John and the others stayed and followed the man’s instructions, only he and Peter knowing for sure who it was whose words they had believed. Sure enough, the net filled with fish, one for every nation in the known universe, it seemed. Hauling the net in, they too made for shore in the boat. There they found Peter standing a little ways off from the man who spoke the word that saved their night’s efforts.

The man had bread, and there were already some fish roasting over a charcoal camp fire, but the man said to Peter, smiling, ‘Looks like we’ll need some of your fish if we’re going to feed this crew!’ Nobody dared to speak, while Peter ran to where the boat was beached and dragged the whole haul to them. They started counting and sorting the fish, but the man said, ‘Come now and have breakfast! We can start with the ones I brought, and have some more later if we’re still hungry.’ This is how it always was, and is, for the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, not just in those significant forty days, but for always. With Him the impossible always happens, and by this we can know for sure, that ‘it is the Lord.’

Peter turned and saw the disciple Jesus loved following them… Seeing him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘What about him, Lord?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to stay behind till I come, what does it matter to you? You are to follow Me.’
John 21:20-22 Jerusalem Bible