Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sometimes

Sometimes it happens that we are drawn into friendly conversation in the month or so before Christmas, and it comes out that we are Orthodox Christians, or at least that we do something different from what most people expect. Then, someone asks, ‘You mean you fast in the weeks before Christmas?’ and we have to admit, ‘Yes, many of us do.’ Someone else, a Roman Catholic, may chime in, ‘Oh, I see. You mean that’s what you do for Advent!’ and then may be taken aback by our response, ‘Well, no, it’s not Advent, not exactly, but it is a season of preparation for the feast of the Nativity.’ We are often met with silence, occasionally by a muttered response as I once was, ‘They always have to be right,’ even though my answer was not spoken in a voice or attitude of condescension. It can feel as though, when one is recognized as being ‘Orthodox,’ a wall of separation suddenly goes up. People have to protect themselves from us. We have a bad reputation, I guess. I’m not sure what for, though I have been accused of trying to force someone to become Orthodox merely by being welcoming and supportive. Another example of, ‘people love those they want to love, and hate those they want to hate.’

Too serious. That’s what I am often accused of being. People want to always see a smile. Well, I must be a wild and rebellious primitive, because I smile when I want to smile, and when I am focused on something important, I can look very serious. And what isn’t important? Well, for me most things in life are important, but there are a few I don’t care a fig about—doing things just for show, and keeping up appearances are two of them. I almost wanted to add, ‘what people think of me’ to the list, but it would only be half the truth. I don’t care what people think of me when it comes to social status, money, fashion, what shoes I wear and what car I drive, whether or not I’m educated ‘with letters after my names’ or not. But I do care about what people think of me as a follower of Christ. I don’t go out of my way to be brusque or idiotic to prove that I am ‘just one of the guys, even though I’m religious’ because, of course, that isn’t true. One, I’m not ‘religious’ from my point of view, and two, I’m not ‘just one of the guys.’ I have a name, and that’s the new name given me by Christ, the one that He writes on a white stone that only I can read (cf Revelation 2:17), and I want to follow after Him in a way that makes people look twice.

The season is upon us. Yes, ‘the season to be jolly’ is the world’s immediate response, and though I don’t agree with them, I do sympathize. Life is hard, very hard, working in Egypt, building granaries and monuments for pharaoh, who cares absolutely nothing for you while mouthing powerless platitudes and pretending to be progressive in your favor. You are living his dream, not your own. He is paying you for your labors, and then taking back more than he gives. Your debt to him grows moment by moment, let alone year by year. He is dumbing you down, and you know it, but there are perks—small or large, it doesn’t matter—that keep you in bondage until you no longer have the strength or the resolve to run away. You don’t even know how to run away, or where you would run to. You have forgotten, in your deep, dark slavery, the sunlit lands of the Most-High. If you even remember His Name, you tell yourself, ‘It was all a dream. Pharaoh’s world is the world, the only world.’ Your work there is valuable. You believe yourself prosperous, and ignore the warning that you are ‘one with the cattle doomed to slaughter’ (Psalm 49). Yes, life is hard, very hard, working in Egypt, but no matter, ‘Tis the season to be jolly,’ though you don’t know why,
‘fa la la la la la la la la…’.

The ancient songs. No, I’m not talking about the centuries’ old hymns of the Orthodox Church, composed in Syriac and Greek, that remain hidden from the world just as the birth of Christ God is hidden. But the songs that were long ago laid as foundations of true joy in the Western lands, composed to celebrate the Savior’s birth, His first and, yes, His second coming. The first in obscurity, the second for all to see, the Master of mankind making Himself their servant, came, comes, and will come into this world called ‘earth.’ Unbury these ancient songs. Sing them again to regain your freedom. This I say to the world, to the Church, and to myself. The world blinded in its bondage hasn’t heard them in many a year and is now nearly deaf to anything except the noise it surrounds itself with, gives itself to, and calls ‘peace.’ But the songs that were sung by our pious and divine ancestors, ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King,’ are still there for us. They have not lost any of their power. That is precisely why they are forbidden in the world of the present Dark Age. They make us remember. Remember a time before pharaoh enslaved us. Remember a time when exodus was possible.

It is wintery, cold and dark in these northern climes. We are heading for the shortest day. Even the earth bears witness to its own fall and rise in the seasonal cycles, and so the Holy Church, who is the one and only Bride of Christ, has let herself be drawn in His footsteps (cf Song of Songs 1:4), as the Lord of All, of the heavens and of the earth, dances His way through time. We approach the ‘holy night’ where not a myth was born, but the Sun of Righteousness in human form (cf Malachi 4:2), who let Himself be called ‘my son’ by man, who is called ‘my Son’ by God, who says, ‘Today I have become your Father. Ask, and I will give you the nations for your heritage, the ends of the earth for your domain’ (Psalm 2). And then, to add insult to injury to the prince of this world, the Divine irony of the Word, ‘With iron scepter you will break them, shatter them like potter’s ware. So now, you kings, learn wisdom, earthly rulers, be warned: Serve Yahweh, fear Him, tremble and kiss His feet, or He will be angry and you will perish, for His anger is very quick to blaze’ (Psalm 2). No idle threat these words, but promise waiting for fulfillment, for when ‘He comes, He comes to judge the earth, to judge the world with justice and the nations with His truth’ (Psalm 96).

‘Happy all who take shelter in Him’ (Psalm 2).

Monday, December 15, 2014

Into the adventure

I am no fan of Rick Warren, but as an Orthodox Christian I do not judge him or his Christian ministry. If he feels called to do what he is doing, that’s fine with me. I don’t agree with him, or with anyone, who sets up a ministry outside the Church. I understand that there are many sincere Christians whose views of the nature of the Church are simply wrong, because they cling with mistaken loyalty to outdated protestant opinions. As long as I have been a Christian, I have noticed a constant, discreet movement of protestant believers towards the historic Church.

Though baptised a Roman Catholic as an infant, I too was part of that progression, passing from nominal belief, through questioning faith, passing through high church Anglicanism, back to Orthodoxy. Sooner or later all Christians must answer for themselves what Christ’s prayer to the Father, that His followers be One, means. If they don’t, I don’t think they will realize what salvation is. They will have only ideas, not the reality, of either salvation or the Church.

I am not saying that they will not be ‘saved.’ I am only saying that on the human side of the equation, they have made a serious error. I believe that Christ saves even those who do not know who He is, let alone those whose ideas about Him are incorrect. The only ones He does not, because He can not, save are those who, as He says to the Father, ‘chose to be lost’ (John 17:12 Jerusalem Bible). Judas Iscariot was the first, though not the last, of these.

So Rick Warren, by cozying up to the pope and recommending that other Christians do likewise, has now fallen under the gun of many who claim to be Christian apologists. The truth is, they are just ‘splitters’ who can’t stand the thought of Christian unity. I find it sullenly humorous that one of Warren’s detractors has as his surname an adjective which to my mind aptly describes his polemical style.

Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM) repudiates what he deems Warren’s heresies in embracing Roman Catholics as brother Christians. He writes,

‘Sure, there are Catholics who love the real Christ, the one who died on the cross for our sins. That is not the problem. The problem is the Roman Catholic Church’s false teachings concerning Mary and salvation. Rick Warren says both the Catholics and the Protestants believe in the Bible. But, there is a significant difference between the Bible of the Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church, which has added seven books. There are numerous problems in the apocryphal books, such as the teaching of salvation by works [and] the offering of money for the sins of the dead. Warren implies that both Protestants and Catholics have the same view of salvation. Though it’s technically correct to say that Catholics believe in salvation through Jesus Christ, they reject justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Instead, it teaches that good works of various kinds are necessary for salvation.’

This ‘Christian apologist’ then points to several Roman Catholic teachings on Mary, mainly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), such as that Mary ‘by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation’ and that ‘by asking Mary to pray for us, we acknowledge ourselves to be poor sinners and we address ourselves to the Mother of Mercy, the All-Holy One.’ To conclude his scathing criticism, he adds,

‘Rick Warren has not only failed to recognize the problems in these serious areas, but he has lent his credibility as a Protestant pastor in support of the Roman Catholic Church. This should never be done by any Protestant pastor who takes the Bible seriously. I must conclude that Mr. Warren does not take the word of God seriously and/or he does not understand the damnable teachings of Roman Catholicism regarding salvation.’

I am not a polemical Christian. I do not battle other believers on points of doctrine. My actual faith in Christ is very simple and comparable to that of any other believer, Orthodox or not, and if and when I must disagree with a brother Christian, I disagree fraternally. As an Orthodox I cannot allow a split in the Church. I know that we are saved not by doctrine, but by love. I know the Lord says, ‘Love one another,’ and not, ‘Correct one another.’

I cannot, like the slick critic of Mr Warren, call the ‘teachings of Roman Catholicism regarding salvation’ damnable, even though I do not agree with them. I know that whether I agree or disagree with anyone’s teaching, that has little or nothing to do with my salvation, or anyone else’s.

Yes, I call Mary the Theotokos (Birth-giver of God) and the Panagia (All Holy One) and many other poetic and honorific titles. I am not ashamed of calling on her by these names and titles, because my Lord Jesus Christ was not ashamed to take human form in her womb, call her ‘Mother’ and obey her as her only son.

No Christian can even begin to understand this until he or she has decided to enter the community of faith called the Church, that is, ‘the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic’ Church that is cited in the Symbol of the Council of Nicaea. The Church, understood as it is in the Symbol, is no less than God’s family.

In this light, the saying rings true that ‘you cannot have God for your Father without having the Church for your Mother.’ This saying is not uttered to exclude those who are ignorant of what the Church is, but to include and invite all who are willing to wager all into the community of saints. It is only when we have decided to ‘believe in One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church’ that we can know ourselves and the saints, especially the Virgin Mary, and the roles we have been given in the plan of salvation.

Isn’t it time we stop playing Christianity and, unafraid of the wiles of men, go bravely forward into the adventure that our Lord Jesus Christ sends us?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The heavenly banquet

Holy Mount Athos
by painter Alfons Mucha
Today is the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ in the Orthodox Christian Church. The appointed gospel reading is the parable of the heavenly banquet, Luke 14:16-24. In my mind this parable points to the commingling of the Divine Nature with human nature that occurs during the worship of the Church.  I came across this wonderful painting by Czech artist Alfons Mucha, which I want to share. For me it makes visible what is invisible to the naked eye during the Divine Liturgy, what the eye of faith can sometimes catch a glimpse of. Notice that the saints joining the humble people of God in worship are both majestic and passionless. I especially love the expression on the face of the Theotokos (Mother of God) in the platytera. Ikons do not have to be stiff and unhuman, but should display a deep and abiding mercy and tenderness. Of all ikons or images depicting what happens during the Divine Liturgy, this is my favorite. In fact, this image depicts what is happening all around us, all the time, if we only bring ourselves to be aware of it. There is no place on this earth where the heavenly banquet is not going on. The temple during worship is only a time and place where the Church gathers to draw attention to this reality. It is for this reason alone, that we should heed the warning in the parable, as people who have been called and invited to the feast of faith and not, like those in the parable who made excuses, forego the opportunity to 'go up and feast and look upon God.'

Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel. They saw the God of Israel beneath whose feet there was, it seemed, a sapphire pavement pure as the heavens themselves. He laid no hand on these notables of the sons of Israel: they gazed on God. They ate and they drank.
Exodus 24:9-11 Jerusalem Bible

Holy unreason

I picked up my Jerusalem Bible and began to read again the 1st book of Maccabees, just because I like to read history sometimes. I’ve read this book a dozen times or more cover to cover. It’s the book that underlies the Jewish feast of Chanukah.

What struck me today, and what always strikes me when reading the history of God’s people, whether Jews or Christians, when they are under attack by their enemies, is how reasonable, sometimes, their enemies try to be in attempting to convince them to submit to their overlordship.

True, when it’s an invading enemy like the Seleucids, the successors to Alexander the Great, who subjected the ancient Near East to Greek rule, they start out with quite violent and merciless attacks. That’s stage one, and its method is to break resistance and dishearten the victim people by an extreme show of force and cruelty. After the political conquest, though, they have to somehow keep it, and to do that they have to win over the vanquished.

Tetradrachm (Shekel) of Antiochus Epiphanes
Antiochus Epiphanes, like the modern statesmen of today, wanted to establish peace and order under his iron-clad rule, and his method, stage two, was to make all the nations he conquered give up their ancient culture and religion, and adopt his—Hellenism. For all the nations, this wasn’t a problem: just add a new layer of pagan gods and ceremonies to what they already had. For the Jews, it was another matter. They were the worshipers of a single God, the only God, Yahweh, and they had a Law from Him they must obey. Though some Jews complied with the king’s command, many did not.

As the king’s representatives visited each village, they came to Modein where the family of Mattathias Maccabaeus had taken refuge after the conquest and desecration of Jerusalem. They were addressed by the king’s officer in friendly terms and promised special status and an increase of wealth, if they only would come forward and make the official sacrifice, to show that they obeyed the king’s new ‘one empire, one people, one religion’ edict. Mattathias refused, and while he was refusing, a Jew stepped forward to take his place at the pagan altar to offer the sacrifice. Filled with zeal for the Law and in righteous indignation, Mattathias threw himself on the Jew and killed him on the spot, then turned and killed the king’s representative. That was the beginning of what is now called the Maccabaean Revolt.

But really, how unreasonable of Mattathias and his five sons and their followers not to comply with the king’s decree! The king wasn’t asking for much, just a token performance of a pagan ceremony to show that they accepted their new rulers and agreed to shed their out-dated, fussy religion. The rewards offered were great, amounting to prestige and success as members of a new elite, the ‘friends of the king.’ How unreasonable of them!

This is not my feeling, of course, but the sentiment of those who saw no harm in going along with what was apparently the “wave of the future.” It would bring Israel a lot of benefits to become part of a world government that stretched from Egypt all the way to the frontier of India. Think of all that they would forfeit by resisting! Why couldn’t they just be ‘nice’ Jews and cooperate like the others?

I notice this same pattern when I read the stories of the Christian martyrs. They are so much closer to us in time and culture. There are reports that have come down to us that read like today’s newspapers. The Romans weren’t all that bad. Except for mob violence against Christians, the authorities always tried to do all in their power to make it easy and attractive for a Christian to show allegiance (or worship) to Caesar, who represented the Roman one world government—in fact, when reading the dialogs, one is impressed by the fact that in most cases, the Romans were being as reasonable as they could be; it is the Christians who seem stubborn and unreasonable.

St Theophilos Neo-Martyr
Drawing even closer to our own times, we have seen the same thing happening in the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, with Turkish judges trying their best to get a Christian off the hook and live, rather than die because of his stupid insistence, ‘I was born a Christian, and I will die a Christian.’ How unreasonable! The Turks really had to exert a lot of patience with these ‘new martyrs of the Turkish yoke.’ Some caved in to the friendly persuasion, but many didn’t. That’s why there are still countries like Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia even today. If it weren’t for their holy unreason, they would all have become part of the mass of Islamic states that now fills the Near and Middle East.

Knowing a little bit of history like this helps as we face the next surge of that ‘Prince of Persia’ (it really all started with Nimrod, and continued through tyrants like Xerxes) who wants to make us all one under his authority. All we have to do is give in, just a little.

We are not alone, brethren. From the time of the three hundred Spartans, to the Maccabees, to the Christian martyrs through the last two thousand years, we are in good company as we face the age old enemy, the shape- and name-shifter, as he again amasses his millions with their sky-darkening cloud of arrows aimed at us.

Let us stand firm, as we approach the Day. Our redemption is always close at hand. Our God is faithful, and true. Let us continue in our holy unreason till He returns.

It is from Heaven that strength comes

How ironic it is that I work for a company whose trade mark slogan is ‘Because size does matter.’ I did not come up with that one, thank God, but the clever chap who did still loves it. Does it sell machines? Who knows, but it does raise eyebrows. We make automated measuring equipment and saw systems that help improve efficiency and lower costs.

Because size does matter? What’s that supposed to mean?
Well, you can give it any meaning you like, some will be true, others false. Yes, if you’re a cabinet-maker you want your pieces the right size. That’s what my company offers, a machine that does that. But slogans like this are of limited meaning, and in the real scheme of things, they mean practically nothing. How’s that for size?

In an odd sort of way, size is really nothing but a function of our sensibilities, our perceptions, our thoughts, which are themselves sizeless.


The universe of an ant, its dimensions, its speed of movement, its duration of time, is no smaller, no faster, and no shorter than the universe of a man. The universe of a star, if such objects have consciousness (can we say they don’t?), is no larger, no slower, no longer than the universe of a man. At every gauge or scale of physical reality, it is perception alone, the consciousness of measurement, that recognizes ‘size.’ That’s why I’ve always thought it a nonsensical argument to say ‘How can you believe our tiny planet in the infinite universe so important that it alone hosts human life?’ Well, why shouldn’t it? And what has that got to do with size, number or location? This point has already been better examined by C. S. Lewis than I could ever hope to do. All that I want to emphasize is that this is not a trivial and unimportant idea, but a foundational one.

Size not only doesn’t matter, but it actually is not a valid basis for gauging anything but physical characteristics. This orange is large, and the other small. But without cutting them both open and tasting them, I cannot tell which is sweet and which bitter. Perception makes all the difference.

This has wide application to human life, wider than we imagine, but we keep the notion at arm’s length, because it is so terrifying.
More terrifying than the idea that we are a small planet with sentient life forms cast adrift without provision or protection in an infinite and dangerous universe, is the idea that we are a small, populous world of spiritual beings who have a personal Creator, Owner and Judge, with whom each of us has personally to deal, and that our choices, not our sizes, matter.

Forgive me, brothers, for this ramble.
We read in the Anagignoskómena, in 1 Maccabees,

‘How can we, few as we are, engage such overwhelming numbers? We are exhausted as it is, not having had anything to eat today.’ ‘It is easy,’ Judas [Maccabaeus] answered, ‘for a great number to be routed by a few; indeed, in the sight of heaven deliverance, whether by many or by few, is all one; for victory in war does not depend on the size of the fighting force; it is from heaven that strength comes…’
1 Maccabees 3:17-19 Jerusalem Bible

So, size doesn’t matter in the world of the acts of God, maybe only in the facts of nature, and though we appear to belong to one universe, our minds are eyes that see into another. And somewhere we’ve heard that ‘we will become like Him, because we will see Him as He really is.’ That sure gives a new twist to the saying, ‘seeing is believing.’
No, it doesn’t give the saying a new twist, it abolishes it altogether. There’s a new saying now. ‘Seeing is being.’

And that is just the beginning of another Story.

Postscript
The graphic at the beginning of this post really is quite illuminating. Click the image to enlarge it fully. Studying it over in detail with the thoughts here presented in mind does help illustrate them in a way mere words cannot. I'm not sure of the source, but it looks like a 2-page spread from a science magazine.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Church, and church, and you

If the official churches have had no other merit but that they have preserved Christ as the treasury of the world, yet they are justified thereby. Even if they have solely repeated through all the past centuries ‘Lord! Lord!’ still they stand above the secular world. For they know at least who the Lord is, whereas the world does not know.

Churches may disappear, but The Church never will. For not churches are the work of Christ, but the Church. Moreover, if the Church disappears, as an institution, the essence of the Church cannot disappear. It is like rivers, sea and water: when rivers disappear into the sea, the sea remains, and if the sea disappears into steam, water still remains.

If Christ ever meant to form the Church as an institution He meant to form it not as the end but as the means, like a boat to bring its inmates safely over the stormy ocean of life into the quiet harbour of His Kingdom.

Like the body in a bath, so the soul disrobes in the Church to wash. But as soon as we get out, we clothe our soul in order to conceal it from the curious eye. Is it not illogical that we dare to show our imperfections to the Most Perfect, while we are ashamed to show them to those who are just as imperfect, ugly and unclean as ourselves? The Church, like a bath, reveals most uncleanness.

The initial and most obvious idea of the Church is collectiveness of sin and salvation. To pray alone and for one’s self is like eating alone without regard to other people’s hunger.

When the sun sees a man of science, wealth or politics, kneeling at prayer with the poor and humble, it goes smiling to its rest.

Full of beauty and wonders are all the Christian churches, but not because of their pretended perfections: they are beautiful and wonderful because of Him whose shadow they are.

You are a Christian? Then do not be afraid to enter any Christian church with prayerful respect. All the Churches have sworn allegiance to the same Sovereign. How can you respect a cottage, in which once abided His Majesty King Alfred, or Charles, while you would not go into a building dedicated to His Majesty the Invisible King of kings?

The real value of any Christian community is not to be found in its own prosperity but in its care for the prosperity of other Christian communities.


Nikolaj Velimirović, Bishop of Ohrid and Žiča

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christoholic

Nope, there’s no cure for a christoholic. Sometimes I don’t know for sure if I think this is good or bad. Sometimes I don’t know if I am one or not. Most days I’m not, at least I don’t feel like one. I guess I am just afraid of being obsessed. And I ask myself, what the difference can be, between being obsessed and possessed. I know the term ‘demon-possessed,’ but I also think demon-obsessed would better fit some of the negative predilectious fantasies of today’s world. Even though the red skins, horns and barbed tails have joined the ranks of other mythological beings, the reality is still with us, and is now even more dangerous, as a shape-shifter.

But christoholic? What does this mean? Well, it’s Greek, after all, so that should make it hard to understand. Listen up! From Strong’s Greek Concordance: hólos (a primitive adjective and the root of the English term ‘whole’) – properly, wholly, where all the parts are present and working as a whole – i.e., as the total, which is greater than the mere sum of the parts. This factor is especially significant in metaphorical contexts or those focusing on the spiritual plane.

Duh! There we have it! Christoholic defined, a person for whom Christ is everything. But again, I ask myself, is this a good thing? After all, we’re just humans. Aren’t we supposed to have a life of our own? Paul can’t be serious when he writes that it is not him who lives, but Christ who is alive in Him. It must be metaphor—aha, yes! Even Strong’s agrees with me! ‘…especially significant in metaphorical contexts or those focusing on the spiritual plane.’ So being a christoholic can just be your, uh, imagination after all! You don’t really have to do anything. Yes, I like that.

But there really are people who act, at least, like Christ is everything to them. Maybe they’re a kind of fundamentalist christoholic. They don’t seem to know when to stop. A few of them are even clergy. Imagine! Priests (and even presbyteras) who live as though they hadn’t a private bone in their bodies. They just always seem to be available. (I wonder if their kids are a mess?) I personally knew a priest like that once, but after serving the community for nineteen years he reposed early, from cancer, not from exhaustion. His presbytera just kept going, as if she were the Energizer Bunny. The last time I saw her, she was leaving to visit some more shut-ins. As for their kids, well, they all turned out as far as I can tell.

‘I know a woman in Christ,’—taking off on a phrase of St Paul’s but changing gender so you know I can’t be talking about myself—I know a woman in Christ who is such a christoholic that almost nothing keeps her away from church, and I’m not just talking about services. Wherever she goes and with whomever she hangs out—her family, her friends, yes, probably even her enemies if she has any—she speaks and acts as if the Lord Jesus and His blessed Mother were also with her, and she never seems to stop giving. The strange thing is, she never makes you feel obligated to her. Afterwards, you just feel thankful. People like her go beyond metaphor, skirting metamorphosis, radical change. That’s a real christoholic.

When I was younger, though I hadn’t thought of giving christoholism a name yet, I really thought I had this dis-ease. I called myself a ‘total immersion’ Christian, to point out that I didn’t just want the triple-dunk and then a merely ordinary, work-a-day life. I wanted to be a disciple. I had many good examples, but here I am ‘still crazy after all these years,’ but still not a real christoholic like my mentors. I haven’t given up, though. I still hope to make the grade, but even if I don’t, I am just glad to know that christoholics exist, and whenever I meet one, I am deeply grateful.

Yes, ‘still crazy after all these,’ as poet Paul Simon sings. I just hope my kind of ‘crazy’ is the same sort as the Desert Fathers had, those intrepid christoholics who lassoed me, a wild horse, and brought me to curb, for Christ, so that I might let Him be for me, ‘all in all.’

Rubrics of salvation


Believers, no less than Pharisees, have been known to shut the doors of the Kingdom of Heaven in men’s faces, while not going in themselves.

They do this by citing the sayings of Jesus or the apostles which are expressed to define boundaries, but they apply them as unjust judges, themselves not keeping the Law.

Quick to exclude others on the slightest pretext—whether moral or doctrinal it does not matter—applying to others what they do not apply to themselves.

If the apostle writes, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Romans 10:13), they agree provisionally, which means not at all, and then cite other verses to qualify it.

If the Lord says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die’ (John 10:25), again, they rush to qualify Christ’s words, to fit their rubrics:

‘No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit’ (John 3:5), they quote, as if to pull out a trump card, changing Christ’s invitation into a stipulation.

But consider, salvation is nothing less or more than returning to our Father, we who have strayed. It is no more nor less than turning around, repenting, and accepting God’s mercy and pardon.

Over and beyond our return to Him, God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—imposes no other conditions, erects no other barriers between Himself and us.

Our sin covers us when we depart from Him, so we cannot see the road back. But His mercy also covers us when we accept it, and it hides our sins from us, and from Him.

Rubrics may be written well when they assist our return to God, but they are ‘lies from the pit of hell’ when they nullify our attempts to return by imposing restrictions.

‘For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).

These are the rubrics of salvation, which even one for whom all is lost, even life itself, can take hold of, by confessing, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

For Jesus answers, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:42-43).

Monday, December 8, 2014

Two by two

Some years ago, I used to go downtown on a Saturday morning and, with a friend, find a suitable spot near the marketplace or in a well-known public square, and read one gospel cover to cover aloud, taking turns. We did not preach or comment, nor did we stop reading for discussion with passers-by. When my friend was reading, I stood alongside him and quietly looked on at the people coming toward us, greeting them with a wordless smile. When I was reading, he did his best to do the same. People would sometimes stop and listen, but we were never attacked in any way. Once, when I was reading, some insolent adolescents threw a handful of change at my feet. I left it there for the next homeless person to pick up. Another time, a young couple walked by, and paused to listen, and as they walked off, the girl placed a short-stemmed red rose in my open bible.

As we became a regular phenomenon, regular listeners started showing up. One was a young ‘butch’ Lesbian, who liked to stand close to me as I read. She and I never spoke, and after listening while, she would walk off with a nod and a smile. The plan was for us to read aloud one gospel cover to cover, then take a break for lunch, and then return, usually to a different spot, and read aloud the entire book of Revelation, cover to cover. Our gospel was usually St John, but occasionally we read one of the synoptics, and though we almost always read the book of Revelation, once or twice we read excerpts from the Prophets, at random, and from the Epistles. Why we usually read the Revelation aloud, is because it is a kind of mystical ‘fifth gospel,’ and the only biblical book that includes an explicit blessing for those who read it aloud, and for those who listen to the reading, and ‘keep’ what it says.

Why did we do this? And how did we start? Well, once a few years earlier, I had seen a young man standing downtown on the sidewalk in front of the Saturday market reading the Bible aloud. I slowed my pace as I passed him, and then stopped momentarily to listen, and then continued on my way without saying anything. Afterwards it really bothered me, that I had not uttered a word of thanks or encouragement. After all, it was a very brave thing to do. I never saw him again, but I could not get the memory out of my mind. Yet I did nothing. It just lay there in the back of my mind like a sleeper waiting to be awakened. A friend who worked with me was a fellow Christian, a Baptist, and one day I told him about the young man I had seen. I mentioned to him that I would like to go and do likewise, but that I was too intimidated to go alone. After talking about the idea for a few days, we decided to give it a try.

It was both exciting and scary, the first time. We went downtown carrying our favorite bibles, he used the NIV and I the Jerusalem Bible. Taking the train, we got off at the Saturday market, and looked around for ‘the right place.’ It felt like we would be led, but neither one of us felt ready to start. Suddenly, I opened my Bible to the Psalms, and started reading the first psalm and started walking away from the market, nowhere in particular. Looking down at my open bible as I read, I wasn’t able to pay attention to where I was going, but my friend latched on to me and nudged me out of the way when I was about to bump into someone or something. It must have looked quite comical. But as I read psalm after psalm, somehow a confidence grew, and I began to look up as I read, reciting the psalms from memory. We were walking toward the Pioneer Square, so decided to make it our destination.

On the way I stopped my reading, and my friend opened his Bible and read psalms where I had left off. He was a generation younger, and not at all used to public speaking as I was, so at first he read little above a loud whisper, but soon he too was reading aloud with confidence. Presently, we arrived at the square and were just drawn to a spot at one of its entrances. Stopping there, we turn to the gospel according to St John, and I began reading, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…’ When chapter one was finished, my friend started reading. One by one, every chapter of the gospel was read aloud. I was reading it from the Jerusalem Bible with feeling and emphasis, as the Lord directed me, for now I was feeling the force of His presence in the spoken Word coming over me. Something similar was happening to my friend as he read his chapters.

People kept coming toward us, walking past, some pausing, a few stopping to listen, a few uttering ‘Praise the Lord!’ not in mockery but in honest thanks. After a short time doing this, it seemed like the Word was reading itself, we ourselves being as much an audience as the people standing around. Before we knew it, the gospel reading was finished. I raised my Bible to my lips, said, ‘the Word of God,’ and kissed it. My friend, having gotten used to my Orthodox ways, surprised me by doing likewise. Then we put our Bibles away in their pouches and headed for a restaurant we knew to have some lunch. Afterwards we walked back to the square and found our place unoccupied, and began to read the book of Revelation. The same thing happened. Most people walked past, but some stopped to listen, a few for a long while. Again, no one mocked or challenged us. They knew the words were not ours, but His.

Years have passed. Rarely do I go downtown to shop or do other business. Once in a great while, though, on a sunny day, I will take the train to the Saturday Market and, after browsing the stalls, continue walking to the Pioneer Square where with my friend I used to announce the Word of God. It still seems like a worthy endeavor, and I wish the Lord would call me to do it again sometimes, but the world has changed. At least it feels different. The winds blow colder now, spiritually speaking, and I wonder if the fields we once worked in are not only fallow but no longer fertile. Others, people who like to preach at people and warn them that their sins and faithlessness will earn them a place in the lake of fire with the devil and his angels, still are heard in a few public places, but their audience seems to have disappeared. Who would have patience to hear their own condemnation from a street zealot?

The Message, that is, the Good News of Jesus Christ, always has a place in the arena, whether it be in our daily walk amongst those who have not heard it, or once believed but now do not, or whether we go, not on a hunch or out of a feeling of obligation but by the call of Jesus, and literally preach (or read aloud) the Holy Gospel. The field is the world, and all we need do is ask the Lord to send workers out to harvest that field, even if the yield is meagre. It is never ours to judge, for we know so little, almost nothing, about who should go, when, how, and where. Only if the call comes to us, one by one or, more usually two by two, then we must go. How can we not? For the Lord who is faithful will always support us and endorse the Message, when we follow Him in simple obedience, doing what we see Him doing, saying what we hear Him saying, and loving the people as He loves us. Glory to God.

For whom, when, and where?

It’s funny how the use of the internet has changed the face, and maybe even the spirit, of contemporary Orthodoxy. The ease with which we can find and post images and ikons of the church fathers, but especially of the recently reposed great elders of the last two centuries, and selectively share snippets of their various writings and advices, seems to have turned the ancient, holy faith into a kind of religious platitudes bazaar.

I am bombarded, when I open up my Orthodox social networking sites, with billboards of the elders, staring me in the face with their sullen, or joyful, eyes, till I wonder, ‘what do they think of all this?’

If I were a holy elder, alive in the body or reposed, I would have to try very hard not to be annoyed by all this repetitive activity and imagery, and wished instead that, if anyone felt they could be helped by anything I did or said, they’d just be helped, and not keep spinning it, like yarns or pagan prayer wheels.

Can there be such a thing as Orthodox consumerism? Or, even, a weird and unacknowledged competition among believers as to who can accumulate more patristic stories and teachings? I don’t know, but I do know there’s something about this that bothers me, and so I usually look the other way.

But not this morning. When I saw Elder Joseph the Hesychast staring at me in his iconographic glory for the hundredth time, something inside me just screamed, ‘No!’ and I asked the elder for forgiveness, for me and my brothers and sisters.

For in our human weakness and desire to be noticed, we adulate beyond measure, instead of secretly imitate, those who have gone before us, and like collectors of rich treasures greedily accumulate for ourselves what we should rather lose.

Yes, we search and find and share, we tell ourselves, but what are we really doing, for whom, when, and where?

Night of the last day

The calendar year 2012 was fraught with fear of the coming end of the world, if not also the Day of Judgment, all because an ancient people’s calendar ended on a certain day. To be sure, Christian would-be soothsayers, end times prophets (will their generation never cease?) dinned their warnings in our ears, but all in vain. Neither we fools living at the world’s end, nor the doomed world itself, paid much more than fleeting attention to them. The earth rocked along in its orbit, hiccuping quakes of all richters as if it were traveling a pot-holed dirt road. People continued to marry and parry, oblivious as was the generation that saw Noah build his big boat, that time to their hurt, this to their mocking amusement. But there will be an end, someday. There has to be. Even our star can’t last forever but must one day engulf our tiny patch of the garden universe. Good gracious! And we won’t be there to see it. Well, maybe not exactly.

What? No predictions of doom and gloom for the world this year? Could it be that they who know all else know too that we can’t be fooled by their usual drivel, while we have real ‘here and now’ threats at our earthly gates? The end times audience is by now thoroughly too burned out, perhaps, to even care. With all the others I too was once attracted to their train by those popular writers who penned books like Late Great Planet Earth, filling our minds not with the Word of God as they claimed, but with their self-confident delusions. No reader of history could be taken in, but I was only an amateur, then, and also wanted people’s approval for my Christian views. I didn’t want to be ‘left behind’ and yes, even believed for awhile that fable. Lord, have mercy! How we scamper after tramps and vagrants spouting what they tell as God’s laws, when the Book itself, humbly confirming what is certain—the yoke of Jesus, the love of the apostles, and simple trust in God—can be in everyone’s lap.

Now we find it difficult, because spectacle saturation is so solid, to tell what is true and what is false, even with the unwaning light of the Resurrection shining in Holy Church, when we meet ideas in the world that claim to be Christian and biblical, yet divide where there should be unity, and deceitfully lead faithful but unspiritual people astray. Faithful but unspiritual? Yes, Christians can be both at the same time, as holy apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and like them, become factions in the Body of Christ that uphold false ideas and act on them, as did the Nicolaitans spoken of by Christ in His letters to the churches at Ephesus and Pergamum. Mistaken theology is much worse than a run-on sentence. Its excessive length tires out the vigilant and lulls the indolent, both falling asleep without knowing it, and sometimes becoming impossible to wake up. Thus, the mystery-mongers of Babylon, disguised, lay waste the vineyard.

We are returning by our pilgrimage to the Nativity of the world’s Redeemer, brethren, drawn thither, whether as wise kings migrating with stars, or as shepherds following their sheep after hearing undying song, or even as dumb beasts turning their heads toward the manger from mere hunger. Unremembering what we were before we heard and obeyed the summons, let us withholding nothing of ourselves give all because we have received all, and welcome without hesitation whom God sends. He was, He is, He is to come, and in His presence all ideas like idols fall as He enters the Egypt of this world. Let us follow Him, and abandon all earthly care, as did Peter and the disciples who left their fathers, families and nets, to receive a hundred times more in this world and in the age to come. Though earthly gates may seem to be closing all around us, do not fear. For the gates of Paradise are flung open wide.

And very soon, very soon we will find ourselves inside.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

God is good to me

This was, is, and always will be, my favorite ikon of Christ.
Thank you, Jesus.
‘God is good to me, He has bestowed on me a healthy dose of unawareness. I just do what I have to do. From the start I said to myself, Jorge, don´t change, just keep on being yourself, because to change at your age would be to make a fool of yourself.’ These words are attributed to Pope Francis of Rome, something he said recently in an interview. Talking to him is as easy as talking to anyone you know well and trust as a friend. I could have said the words quoted above about myself. Yes, God is good to me, too. I wonder sometimes, if He isn’t good to everyone, it’s just that not everyone notices. They’re too busy criticizing and judging others, the world around them near and far, and even God Himself.

Yes, and He—still speaking of God—has also bestowed on me a healthy dose of unawareness. I’m not sure I know exactly what these words mean to the pope, but I know what they mean to me. The Lord has spared me much suffering by not letting me see or know the whole picture of what is going on around me, in others, and even in myself: for the greater the awareness, the greater the pain. He has dealt with me gently, keeping from me what He knows would break me, if I knew. It’s not the He will keep me unaware forever. No, reason itself dawns on us gradually, as does all knowledge of things earthly and divine. But the ‘blinders’ are God’s, and I trust Him to remove them when He wills.

The last part of what Pope Francis said—except I exchange ‘Romanos’ for ‘Jorge’—I could say as well. I’m not seventy-eight years old yet, but I hope I am as healthy and open as he is when I reach that age. I too ‘just do what I have to do,’ without worrying about the outcome, or caring what it looks like or what others think. I don’t change, either, but just keep being myself. The pope says that to change at his age, or even at mine maybe, would be to make a fool of oneself. I don’t believe that he means that it would make a fool of us in the sense of our being ‘fools for Christ,’ because that is, I think, what we are: anyone who intends to follow Christ and gives it an honest try is going to be considered a fool by the world.

No, to make a fool of oneself by changing, that is, by trying to be in your words and actions before the world what you know yourself not to be, is what I believe he is talking about. ‘To thine own self be true,’ is certainly not an unchristian saying, though some Christians think it smacks too much of individualism and the tendency to selfishness. So, the pope has spent his life being himself, whether in private or in public, and look where it has got him. A man does not ‘volunteer’ for the priesthood, he is called. Nor does he make himself a bishop, or a pope, he is likewise called, or elected. True, people sometimes do put themselves forward, promote themselves, but that is not God’s way, nor should it be man’s.

I keep saying to myself, ‘I like this pope!’ I find myself praying for him spontaneously when I pray. No, he’s not my pope. Jurisdictionally I belong to the Patriarchate of Antioch, ecclesiastically I am an Orthodox Christian, but as to my faith, what can I say? Only what the holy apostles themselves say, ‘One Lord, one faith, one baptism…’ and only what that one Lord Himself says, ‘I pray that they may be One, just as You, Father, and I are One.’ I don’t see things as they really are. I see only in part. I know and I understand only in part. Again, this is what the apostle predicts of me, and of all of us. And along comes a pope that confirms this, ‘[God] has bestowed on me a healthy dose of unawareness.’

Glory to that good God and Lord, whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine! Glory to Him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever!
Ephesians 3:20-21 Jerusalem Bible

The cost of discipleship

The cost of discipleship. Yes, the cost of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s never been easy in any time or place. It’s precisely when my life in Christ seems easy that I become uneasy—am I not only a failed human, but a failed, and rejected, disciple as well? For though Jesus says, ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28), He still does not accept volunteers as disciples. He accepts only those whom He personally calls. This can be frightening to contemplate.

How do I know I am called? Doesn’t He say, ‘many are called, but few are chosen’ (Matthew 22:14)? Yet, what does the holy apostle say, but ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Romans 10:13)? Yes, ‘will be’ but not yet, for the same apostle also says, ‘our salvation is not in sight,’ and ‘we are not saved yet—it is something we must wait for with patience’ (Romans 8:24, 25).

Is part of the cost of discipleship not only the pain and suffering inflicted on us by the world that hates us just as it hates Him (cf. John 15:18), which we must bear in silence and humiliation as He did, ‘like a lamb to the slaughter… and as a sheep silent before the shearers, not opening his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7), but also, the accusing doubts that afflict our very hearts and minds from within? 

Is this why we are warned ‘to do as the LORD your God has commanded… not turning aside to the right hand or to the left’ (Deuteronomy 5:32), not even to enter our own door, because ‘a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’
(Matthew 10:36)?

No, the cost of discipleship is not now or ever, easy.
What the Master says of Himself is true for His disciples, since ‘a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him’ (John 13:16): ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20). This ‘no place’ may be literal for some, but for all it is more than literal.

The cost of discipleship, the bitterest and yet the sweetest, is to have no home in this world at all—not in its thoughts, its loves, its hopes—to be suspended in tension between heaven and earth—heaven not yet ready to open and receive us, earth making no room for us because we are pregnant and about to give birth.

Give birth to what or to whom? That is its greatest fear. As holy and divine scripture says, ‘When peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run the half of her swift course, down from the heavens, from the royal throne, leapt Your all-powerful Word; into the heart of a doomed land the stern warrior leapt, carrying Your unambiguous command like a sharp sword, He stood, and filled the universe with death; He touched the sky, yet trod the earth’ (Wisdom 18:14-16).

So the world as inn-keeper slams the door in the face of Joseph in Bethlehem, ‘No room!’ because it’s terrified of an unborn child (cf. Luke 2:7). So the world as would-be king sends soldiers to dash hoards of infants against the rocks because it senses its slayer nigh (cf. Matthew 2:16). Death cannot cohabit the universe with life, so life becomes death so that the dead may live. The cost of discipleship is a price too high for anyone to pay, but that price, the Blood of a Lamb without stain, was prepaid before time even began or place became (cf. Revelation 13:8).

No, the cost of discipleship is not now or ever, easy.
Yet now, and always, we are, you are, I am, carried in arms that too support the heavens, even while nailed to the Tree. And we still hear that voice that says to everyone who has nothing left to lose and is unafraid to ask, ‘I tell you truly, this day you will be with Me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Except for Jesus

‘I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner.’
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This is of course very true, that if and as we pray, intercede, for others, we cannot condemn or hate them. I wish I could say that this is a truth in general practice, but it is not. By and large the Church of today does
not pray, even when it goes through the motions formally in liturgies and litanies, even when it gathers in little clutches of ‘Spirit-filled’ prayer. No matter where you go in Christianity today, real prayer is at a bare minimum, carried on probably more in private, in ones, twos and threes, perhaps a few more, but still pitifully thin. So should it surprise us that the churches are in the state they're in?

Bonhoeffer says, ‘A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed’ (ibid.). This is rather strong language, but is it true? I think it is. What we see around us is in fact destroyed Christian communities. Notice he didn’t say, ‘annihilated’ but ‘destroyed.’ I would be interested to know whether the word he used was zerstört (German, utterly destroyed) or some other expression.

Coming from America's greatest poet, ‘no man has ever yet been half devout enough; none has ever yet adored or worship’d half enough,’ and these words coming from a man who was certainly not a mainstream Christian, if he was a Christian at all. Yet, I agree with him, adding, ‘no man has ever yet prayed enough, interceded enough,’ and I can say that with only one objective piece of evidence—myself.

I don't know what else to say. I try to pray without ceasing. I even pray while I am consciously sinning, if you can call that prayer. Yet, even my standing before God as I am in complete confession of my sinful state, trusting in His mercy and grace alone to save me from myself, I know that the greater sin is my inability or lack of dedication to pray, asking for the needs of the brethren. I hold up the lives of those I love, but rarely those I hate, or am indifferent to. And my prayer to Him, to help me to pray better, to intercede more manfully, seems to me to be pure hypocrisy.

In the end, I can only say, ‘Father, let it be unto me according to Your will, not according to my deeds, for I am pitiful, blind and lost, except for Jesus.’

Outgrowing Christianity

Churches often present ‘salvation’ as something that will bring one the ‘good life’ as epitomized by the American Dream. It’s the perception that ‘this is what Christianity is about’—because by and large this is how it’s portrayed in the media and on church billboards—that has turned off the average unchurched American to the possibility of Jesus Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed this issue already in the 1930’s in his book Nachfolge, translated into English as The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote that the church’s trafficking in what he called ‘cheap grace’ is what bores the world to disgust, and I agree with him: it bores me to disgust. Orthodox Christians may object that this is not applicable to the Orthodox Church, and I agree with them, provisionally.

‘Orthodoxy’ is the intact form of the Church and presents a consistent, homogenous doctrinal and even practical face to the world. It is this alone which probably accounts for the majority of converts who come not by marriage but by choice, swallowing elements of strange dogma without question or turning the other cheek to things they don’t really agree with. But the same affliction that has decimated the ranks of non-Orthodox Christianity is intrinsically present even in Orthodoxy. I have seen the beginnings of the purveying of cheap grace in my own community, and the sorts of converts that are being drawn to us because of it. It’s all very, very green. It should not be about, ‘what are they looking for?’ It should be about ‘Who…’

I have met many good Christians ‘out there’ that are unchurchable precisely because they cannot find the Church. It’s not exactly that the Church is invisible, but that it’s too visible, and not dressed in the humility of the Lord, but in the cheap, flashy garments of self-love and false hope, proud of itself and flaunting its illusory achievements, its building programs, its seminars, its selective charities and its roster of learned, professional leaders. It may be for different reasons, the externals may be different, but for the Christian today the churches have made the following of Jesus Christ within churchly structures nearly impossible, just as they did in Germany when Bonhoeffer wrote his book.

The outcome of all this is what I have called outgrowing Christianity. Those who are churchable pursue the American dream and justify it with selective scriptural abandon. Those who are unchurchable pursue the American dream and go it alone with their conscience as their guide. And as for me, I simply don’t know which group has outgrown Christianity more, or worse, whether they have outgrown Christ.

But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first…
Matthew 21:28-32a KJV

Advent rant

Working these past nineteen years in a company where it is impolitic to be expressive of Christian sentiments, any such accidentally emitted either overlooked with evident embarrassment, or harshly and mockingly censured by others who have tactical authority to do so, people tend to categorize anyone suspected of this as ‘religious’ and an enigma to be avoided when possible.

Hence, there is no one who ever asks to go to lunch with me, except one who is likewise a Christian (a practicing Roman Catholic), and who when first hired was my close co-worker. It wasn’t always this way. When the company first started, whole groups of people went to lunch together, as many as six or eight, including me. There was no categorizing, no polarizing or marginalizing in those days.

As a historian, from my studies of books and life I have noticed a consistent pattern. Things always start out beautifully, harmoniously, supportively, and generously. Then, gradually, and at first hardly noticed, things start to devolve. Conditions between humans deteriorate and are excused as ‘human nature,’ or smoothed over by statements like ‘everybody makes mistakes.’

True, it is human nature that is modifying the environment human and terrestrial, dooming to chaos, destruction and death what originated in order, creativity and life. Unless you are a Christian you find others to blame, never yourself, and even as a Christian the temptation to shift the blame is sometimes overwhelming. Sunday brings me, ‘among sinners the chief,’ home to truth.

Still, it bothers me when people I have sometimes known for years pass me in the hallway and look the other way, or with silence and an expression on their face that seems to ask, ‘What? Isn’t he dead yet?’ A newer co-worker bumped into me this morning in a doorway with a look of apprehension and, again, silence, not a smile. Was he afraid I would turn into a three-headed monster before his eyes?

This is not about me, though the ideas come from my daily experience on the job. People who work at close quarters—my experience as a summer employee at the post office during college years initiated me into this—often come to ironically misguided conclusions about others. Whether it’s unchurched people keeping Christians at arm’s length, or talkatives pushing quiet people into untouchability.

Is it the fear of the unknown that makes us feel unsafe with people who are different? Is the side-lining of Christians or other people perceived as intrinsically dangerous part of this fear? Breaking the silence, from the Christian’s side, from my side, sometimes parts the waters, but then, a day later, the waves come crashing back into the seabed, and I am back to being accused as pharaoh’s murderer.

Accused, but not convicted. Things don’t usually go that far, though I have known and worked with people who were likewise ostracized in a politically correct way, till the weight of the accusations—in reality false suppositions—brought about their demise, even ‘old timers.’ A friend whom I’ve known and worked with on and off for nearly forty years was ‘let go’ in this way. He was fired for being ‘subversive.’ His actual crime, being a Christian.

Advent season is finally here. For me as an Orthodox Christian, the Christmas Fast. For some reason it’s easy for me to forego the piles of chocolates and other goodies that have started coming our way here at the factory. I positively cling to my ‘vegan plus sometimes fish’ diet with the tenacity of a fundamentalist, but actually I’m just glad to have the opportunity to eat little and healthfully.

Thank God I am not on anyone’s hit list for a luncheon date, except my one friend, with whom I dine on Fridays at a Thai restaurant, always ordering something vegan, an easy and delicious choice. Come the season of Christmas, I will prove my allegiance to holy tradition by ordering a plate of ‘drunken noodles with beef’ on any day we lunch together until Holy Theophany.

So much for my ‘Advent rant,’ by which in your hearing I have once again proven myself a fool and a sinner, and even partly performed my Lenten confession publicly. If I believed in the sinfulness of such things, I would confess in advance that at the only Christmas dinner I have been invited to, on Friday, December 12th, I will probably eat meat and dairy products. But then, that evening is also Hanukah. Luckily, my Jewish side can kick in, as long as I don’t mix meat and dairy in the same gulp!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

In God we trust

Once upon a time the entire Middle East, as well as both northern and southern shores the Mediterranean Sea and all of its islands were predominantly Christian lands, or at least lands with large and vital Christian communities. This includes the peninsula now known as Sa’udi Arabia, where the prophet Muhammad and the religion of Islam arose. These regions, before the advent of Christianity, were, except for the Jews, inhabited of polytheistic peoples worshipping a pantheon of various deities. It took six centuries for Christianity to establish itself in these lands, the first three by voluntary conversion inspired by the blood of the martyrs, the latter three sometimes by imperial decree combined with the enticement of social and material advancement. It took less than two centuries for Islam to overrun these same territories and peoples, arguably by military expansion and forced conversions of the population, either by threat of death or by enticement to social advancement as in later Christian times. The eighth wonder of the ancient world, that any Christians should remain in the Middle East and North Africa, is still with us.

Though I began with a formula used in English to open a fairy tale, ‘once upon a time,’ this is no fairy tale but the reality of history ancient and modern. I am a Greek Orthodox Christian but a member of an Arab Orthodox community in America, composed of families whose roots are in the Arab Christian communities of the Middle East, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and other places. Our community belongs to the Patriarchate of Antioch, whose head sits no longer in Antioch (a city which no longer exists) but in Damascus, Syria. It is composed of ‘cradle Orthodox’ from Arabic speaking lands, along with a large minority of American (mostly ex-Protestant) converts, and a sprinkling of other European and African Orthodox. We are the evidence and contemporary witness of the Christianity native to those lands now under the rule of Islam, churches belonging to three of the four ancient patriarchates, Antioch (Syria), Alexandria (Egypt), and Jerusalem (Palestine). Though we are Arabic speaking and worship in English and Arabic, this language is the heritage of the conquerors of our ancestors, who originally spoke Aramaic, Coptic, and other ancient tongues.

The current crisis in ‘the lands of Islam’ is not so much the occupation of Palestine by ‘first world’ Jewish Zionists, nor the appearance of aggressive Islamic fundamentalism, no, not even the boasted restoration of the Caliphate. The current crisis is the desperate state of the Christian communities of the region, all of which have roots in antiquity, all of which are lineal descendants of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. These are the people whom I earlier called ‘the eighth wonder of the ancient world.’ They are those who did not, and who do not, submit to Islam, despite threats of death and enticements of worldly gain. They have submitted to the language of Islam, Arabic, but not to its ideology. They can claim the bismillah as their own, even though that formula was stolen by Muhammad from his Christian relatives and neighbors, and they can call on God as ‘Allah’ without confusing their faith with the beliefs of their oppressors—for yes, though they were, or are, in various times and places on ‘friendly terms’ with Islam, they were usually demoted to inferior status, called dhimmi, and denied many of the rights of their Muslim neighbors. Their status in the lands of Christianity’s origin is that of an endangered species.

An endangered species, yet they are human, not animals. Unlike endangered animal and plant species, the world does not give them any protection in order to let them replenish themselves and escape extinction. No, on the contrary, the world—I am now speaking of the ‘first world,’ that which was formed by Christianity though it now denies it—does everything to push them over the cliff. The governments of the West bend over backwards to support regimes that when they fight each other use their Christians as cannon fodder. Or else, as they did in the Kosovo crisis, look the other way while the Christian heritage of an ancient land is materially eradicated, and its Christian inhabitants declared to be aliens in their own homeland. Not only do the governments of the West ‘mind their own business’ while Christians are being rooted out in the Middle East, but missionaries from the West, calling themselves evangelical, seek to undermine the Church with their divisive and competitive ‘evangelism,’ not recognizing that the people they consider ‘unsaved’ are the very ones who gave them the Bible and who still sit at the feet of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. God, help us!

Once upon a time there was a nation called America. It started out as a small community of Christians of various denominations who worked together toward a common goal of living the good life, ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ Though its beginnings were humble, and it did not deliver these promises to all its inhabitants at first, it gradually came to the point where at least the opportunity for ‘living the good life’ was secured for most, if not all, its inhabitants. This is because in freedom, human wills can follow their own course, and not everyone’s will is unclouded and bright. At both the high and the low ends of society, severe social ills existed, and secret human rights violations occurred at all levels. Yet, the land was still blessed with promise, and peoples from the world over still looked to it as a beacon of hope, many of them immigrating there to share its blessings. Through its inventiveness the nation earned great prestige and power, and in times of great need and danger came to the relief of its neighbors. But it often tripped over true justice in applying help to them, and finally, forgetting that the source of its blessings was Christ, no longer could tell friend from foe.

This too is no fairy tale, but it could portend the unexpected finale of a great nation that is now teetering on the brink of an abyss. All good graces have been granted to us—I am now speaking to my brethren in Christ who inhabit these western lands—and all opportunities are open, if we only return, if we only turn our faith to work, if we only unprivatize our Christianity, and make this country ‘Christian’ not in name only but, at the risk of offending those of other faiths, in spirit and in truth. This has nothing to do with triumphalism, this is not making the Christian faith supreme over other religions, but giving all religious faiths their due respect as co-worshipers of the Divine Nature, denying to none what we ourselves would enjoy. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promulgated by the United Nations and signed by many states, does not even go far enough. No, Christ goes even beyond that declaration. He always did and He always will, because He stands, even if hidden, amidst every people and every faith that seeks the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Let us listen to Him, as He continues to preach among us, ‘You have heard it was written that… but I tell you…’

Yes, brethren, let us make it real, let us in spirit and truth, say ‘In God we trust.’

Monday, December 1, 2014

Fervor

‘Dýnamis! More fervently! With strength!’ I have always loved this exclamation, this exhortation in the divine liturgy. The deacon, hidden from our view inside the altar comes momentarily to the beautiful gate in the center of the ikonostasis, as we pause after singing the thrice-holy hymn of the Trisaghion, to exhort us, ‘Again, but with greater fervor! Dýnamis!’ And we take up the song one more time, ‘Holy God! Holy Mighty! Holy Immortal! Have mercy on us!’

Fervor is much misunderstood by all classes and creeds of people. For Christians, fervor ranges from being religious, or ‘Goddy’ as some Baptists I once knew defined it, all the way to being positively hateful of the ‘unsaved’ because ‘God hates these sins and those who commit them.’ Recently I was appalled when I read a tract published by Westboro Baptist Church that asserted in the most unequivocal terms the hatred of God, that is, not that men hate Him, but that He hates them!

Lord, have mercy! It’s no wonder that the man in the street has little use for God or His Christ. Look at what has been made of Him by those who say they serve Him! This is not going to be an accusation or even criticism of any denomination or fellowship. Misguided fervor afflicts us all. Believers make themselves easily offended, and justify their retaliation by declaring that it is God who is offended, and they are only His defenders. Don’t we realize how absurd this is?

Yes, we, not just they. As I just wrote, misguided fervor afflicts us all. I wonder, is this what St Basil means when he writes, ‘We are all deceived’? Yet fervor itself, far from being a bad thing, is a very good thing, perhaps even an indispensable one. ‘Dýnamis!’ cries the deacon, and I can hear the echo of Christ’s own words, ‘I have come to bring fire to earth: how I wish it were ablaze already!’ Prometheus was only the mythic longing for Him who really does bring fire to earth, the Christ.

So what can fervor be, if not the acceptance of the fire from Him, of whom holy and divine scripture says, ‘our God is a consuming fire’? We must first, of course, decide for ourselves, who or what this God is. Yes, we know He is almighty, that He is creator and Lord of all. We have been told that ‘the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,’ but what exactly this fear consists of, we cannot know until we experience that God for ourselves. Until we do, we can only be afraid. That is not fear.

Fear is akin to awe but surpasses it, for awe is engendered by our love and appreciation of beauty, but fear draws us to worship and serve beauty. It is active, not passive. Yet, fear is only the beginning of wisdom, of which the end is love, as the apostle writes, ‘Perfect love drives out all fear.’ Like everything else that pertains to the living God, the passage from fear to love is an exodus and a transfiguration.

I wrote, ‘we must decide for ourselves who or what this God is.’ For most, this decision is made for them: they merely accept what they have been told without question. This kind of decision is found in every form of religion, Christian or not. It is this kind that can deaden sensibility to humanity and, if followed to its logical conclusion, results in a self-justifying fanaticism. Fortunately, most people who believe in God this way never reach the final stages of the delusion. Spinning their wheels satisfies them.

If we are brave and adventurous, not just curious, we will seek God and soon enough find ourselves in the situation where our decision is also made for us, but in a completely different and unforeseen way. It becomes easy to decide who God is because He fills our vision to the exclusion of all else, yet He allows us to see the world around us, especially our fellow humans, in a new light. From this proceeds what spells the end of religion, because it is swallowed up in relationship, with Him, and with all through Him.

‘Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit…’ I remember this phrase from my childhood in the Catholic Church. I was raised by a fervent mother, yet her fervor was not for religion, and she lived her life in Christ as a penitent outside the walls of the Church. Her fervor, as I remember it, was for God’s love. Acknowledging her sins before Him, she relied on His love to forgive and cure her, even when His cure seemed worse than the disease.
She knew better.

The Word of God declares, and quite openly, that ‘God is love.’ The Lord Jesus Christ reveals in the parable of the prodigal son that the Father is more willing to receive us than we are to go to Him, yet to Him we must go. Again, Christ Himself declares that if we see Him we see the Father, that is, the Divine Nature is revealed to us, both who and what God is, according to our capacity and desire, when we come to Christ. This is not an ‘altar call’ but a humble acceptance of God’s will for us.

Fervor is not defending God and His righteousness against the unbelieving world, but seeking God and His righteousness before everything else. Fervor is not withholding grace, that is, mercy, from those we judge unworthy, but returning grace for grace, loving others as we have been loved. Fervor does not wreak depredation, it works miracles. It does not tear down, it builds up. It does not complain, it encourages. In short, fervor, because it is essentially love, covers all offenses, ours and our neighbor’s.

A fervent man is a quiet man. Of course, I include women in this, and it is often women who are more fervent than men, who sometimes mistake zeal for fervor out of manly pride. A fervent man is a strong man, not to defend but to save. His protection is for the weak, and the most potent weapons in his arsenal are peace and love. He knows he can trust His God to command his every move, come what may, and he fears not the judgment of man any more than Christ did.
Even losing, he wins. Why? Because he is Christ’s.