Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The end of myth


From the creation of the world to the birthing of a child, from the work of fire transforming wood into ash to the alternation of day and night, from considering all appearances and all disappearances, the mind of man from unwritten times till now has evolved explanations of how and often why everything happens in the world around him.

Modern man puts on an air of superiority and treats with patronizing indulgence, and often overt contempt, the cosmologies and the pseudo-sciences of ancient and primitive men. The world tree, the cosmic egg, mythic images for the unenlightened to help them feel less afraid in a universe which, when they confront it without them, is too terrifying.

So the mind of man thinks, and his thought fits everything he sees, hears, tastes, smells and touches into a complex, ever-increasing pattern of perceived relationships that gives meaning to the universe. The more primitive the tools of analysis at his disposal, the more primitive (we think) his body of explanations, and we call them ‘myths’.

But as I see it, having better analytical devices, having what we call a scientific basis for interpreting and understanding the world around us does not deliver our thought from one intrinsic and inevitable characteristic: Everything we analyse, and our very conclusions and body of knowledge, we are still cutting down to fit into a very limited frame, our mind.

Our thought, with all our sophistications, even now still has the nature of myth, no less than what we consider the childish fancies of the ancients and the primitives. We all still deal in myths, man’s explanation—from miniscule observations—of the meaning, purpose and nature of the universe. We simply replace the older anthropomorphics with new, ‘new lamps for old.’

So then, human thought itself is a myth, that is, in the sense that it is a generator of explanations of what is inexplicable. Religion, then, becomes no less rational than science, and science is no more than a religion. Experimental evidence is still siphoned through a conduit too narrow for it, and so experiments, whether scientific or magical, lead to the same conclusion: the universe as a subset of man’s mind.

But along comes a Man, from all appearances at first, an ordinary man, not prominent, not wealthy, not intellectually trained, from a primitive people, living in an ancient and tradition encrusted culture, one of those less attractive to most moderns and even to most of His contemporaries, the road-building Romans and the philosophical Greeks.

He is trained in the family profession, woodworking, and in the national religion, synagogue Judaism. He has very little to make anyone think Him special, except an incident in His adolescence, when He was found engrossed with some members of the educated elite in prodigious discussions (and then whisked quietly away by his embarrassed parents).

Surprising them all, and us as well, this boy in the fullness of His manhood becomes an itinerant preacher (though not of His ancestral religion) and even a miracle-worker. Oddly enough, though He seems quite capable of it, He does not waste a thought to giving answers to most of the questions that His contemporaries, and us, have about the universe.

He passes them over in silence. He does not contribute to the growing body of myth that we now hold up as our claim to be rational beings. Instead, when He teaches at all, it is on practical matters, and even His miracle-working, from supplying a shortage of wine at a wedding party, to healing the sick and (gulp!) raising the dead, is all very practical. Myth has no place in Him.

If this man lived, taught, worked wonders, and passed into history, we might have thought Him a great teacher, perhaps, or at least someone worth studying, analyzing, writing books about, and adding to our ever-increasing matrix of myths, but not only did He not contribute to the myth, He shattered it. He is an embarrassment now, as He was then, to the myth-makers.

He gives us plenty to think about, but that is not His intention. He did not come to increase our thought but to coax us over the imaginary lines that our thought produces in us. He comes now not to refine our thought, which is no more than myth, but to call forth our faith, which paradoxically carries us over imaginary lines and delivers us from myth.

If we could show the location of His tomb, or better yet, find His bones, then the universe would still be safe inside the reliquary of our science and religion. We could still say with confidence that we know the universe to be rational, and this is how it works, from greatest to smallest detail. Yes, and there are the bones of the great Teacher. We have an explanation even of Him.

But no, He has not left us that option, He has not spared our thought or our myths, He has not deposited His soul in She’ol or His bones in a grave, He has not experienced corruption, but instead He has emptied Hades of its inhabitants, dissolved the imbecility of dark, partial human reason in the bright lightning flash of His divinity.
He has made the end of myth.

The only Savior

I think the story of ancient genocide by the Hebrews is possibly true, as other ancient peoples did similar things.

If it is true, I also do not believe that God, the real and living God, ordered them, and desired them, to commit such acts.

The Bible is divinely inspired, but it is not a Qur'an, a book divinely written in detail and 100% accurate and perfect. (Neither is the Qur'an, though some claim it is.)

The Bible is a group of writings produced by religious, God-believing people over a long period of time, that our Holy Church 'canonised' for our use.

The God portrayed in its pages is sometimes the real, living God 'breaking through' our ancestral people's literature, and sometimes (in the Old Testament) the stories are 100% historical. Other times they are myths. But even myths can convey God's truth.

Except for the 4 Holy Gospels themselves, the Bible is still man's attempt to cooperate with God's Holy Spirit in writing about the interactions of God and men. It's progressive and it evolves, the God in its pages becomes more like the real, living God and less like the 'best guesses' that people come up with, as time goes on.

Notice that it is only the book of the Gospels that we venerate in Church by kissing it. The Holy Gospels reveal to us the real, living God, not the one we have arrived at gradually by our own efforts.

Jesus says, 'If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.'

Whatever in the rest of the Bible we can see Jesus saying and doing, is probably true. As for the rest, it is useful and true only because the Church says it is, in conformity with what Christ in the Church of today or any age wills for us.

The God of the Old Testament is God trying to break through our stubbornness, rebellion and self-defenses.

The God of the Gospels does break through, and here before us, among us, and even within us, He stands.

Jesus Christ, the only God-man, the only Savior.

Lord, have mercy

What do you do with people who break the commandments, but break them in such a beautiful way? Involuntarily and spontaneously this thought arose in my mind when I viewed this image of a man’s forearm tattooed with a depiction of the crucified Christ in realistic perspective.

The quality of the image, if it were applied to canvass, would be remarkable enough, but applied to human skin, and taking into itself one part of the human anatomy, the wrist and hand, elevates its degree of realism to the unimaginable yet imageable that is now and forever a part of one man’s physical body. It is in this body that he shall face the Original on the Day of Judgment.

Now my question and the reality provoking it are elided, and I find myself wondering, if the whole spectrum of scriptural laws from prohibitions to positive commands are really ‘there,’ and for what purpose.

No bother asking the Orthodox Jew, for the laws are for him given through his lawgiver Moses by the God of whom he cries, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.’

No bother asking the fundamentalist, ‘Bible believing’ Christian, for he knows the Book as absolutely, infallibly the exact word falling from God’s lips, as the Muslim knows the Qur’an.

But the ones who have heard and comprehended the words of Jesus, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,’ thus overturning the money-changers’ tables of our moral sense and showing them bankrupt of the real wealth of Divine mercy, these we may ask.

For even the Ten Words scribed in stone by God’s very finger hang still from the Cross of His Son, as He hangs ‘there’ for us, thus overturning everything the world affirms good or evil, and are silenced in the Presence from which there is no excuse or escape.

‘You are not to gash your bodies when someone dies, and you are not to tattoo yourselves. I am Yahweh’ (Leviticus 19:28 JB), says the irrefutable Word, and we winnow it to separate the wheat from the chaff, each according to his need, even I according to mine.

But the Love upon which the whole creation stands, which supplies our every need, which bestows life and soul in the wombs, and life to those in the tombs, says even His law was made for man, not as a curse but as a blessing, and that ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’ (Matthew 12:8).

So I look on, uncomprehending as any beast of the field, not knowing my left hand from my right as any Ninevite, knowing only by Whose hand the world was created, and by Whose hand it is restored, and that Love covers all offenses, even mine. As for the rest, ‘Lord, have mercy.’

ορατων τε παντων και αορατων

…ορατων τε παντων και αορατων, oratón de pándon ke a-oráton, all things seen and unseen, visible and invisible. Thus the first confession of the universal Church forced out of it by the Christian emperor in pursuit of a difficult vision of one empire under one God and of one faith—an impossible dream then as now. Yet it shows that Christianity was, and still is, a faith with intellect, despite what its detractors and its fanatics believe. The Creator that we believe in made everything that is, both things we can see and those we cannot. We're not here speaking of such speculative entities as angels and devils, heaven and hell, and the like, but of things that we know for sure really are there, even though we cannot, at least without special instruments or frames of reference, see them. Of course, we are also using sight as a placeholder for any number of senses, not merely vision. We will never see an atomic particle, but our instruments tell us they are there, and tell us some of their characteristics. The early Christians may not have known about such things, but they did know about other things just as invisible yet incontrovertibly real.

Thus arises another idea, that of the real and the unreal. Obviously, we cannot say that the Creator who made everything there is made the real and the unreal. At least, I don't think so. Philosophy can ponder such things, being and non-being, and there is a long tradition of such speculation, stronger in Judaism and some other religions than in Christianity. But it is not God who made the unreal. It is we ourselves. And what is or are the unreal? Isn't it at least what we may call, the world of ideas? Yet, this world too, when God is thinking it, is a real world. God's ideas are real, even if ours are not. In fact, the universe we live in, along with ourselves and all other life, are in some sense God's ideas. But in our case, though made in God's image and thus capable of creating ideas, our fall can be defined by the fact that many if not most of our ideas are not real. They are unreal, though they are not powerless to trap us and drag us into themselves. The linguistic continuum of idea > ideal > idol is no accident. Where stop our wills along this continuum determines our trajectory into being or non-being.

There are many things that we believe or accept as real that are not, and yet believing is beneficial, at least, serves some good purpose. Other unreal things we believe have the opposite effect. We may laugh at such things as papal infallibility or unscientific creationism, yet they have an effect on those who believe in them, and that impacts us. Others may laugh at the concepts of human rights, individual liberty, or free market economy, also invisible and not incontrovertibly real, but these ideas, even ideals, have an effect in the real world, shaping it and us. I believe that there is money in my bank account, but rationally I know it is just numbers. Those numbers, though, can buy me many real things. If I believe that those numbers are real and make them my prime directive, I will fail to notice that my real life is draining away while I chase after what is actually nothing. Thus the world of the unreal, made not by God but by us, even by me, is always around us, outside and, if we're not vigilant, inside us, an invisible ulcer bleeding us to death. As scripture says, 'Greed shrivels the soul,' and this need not be about money.

What exists, and what does not exist, 'to be, or not to be,' yes, that is the question, and for reasons we cannot know, He who made us gave us the power of choice, to follow Him into full reality, into real being, or not. It is not a question of opposites. There is only One, and nothing else. How can we hesitate?

Unconditional

Between religions, there are defections going in two directions all the time. The devil particularly delights in defections from clerical families. I have never heard of the son of an Orthodox presbyter becoming a Muslim, but I’m sure it happens from time to time.

We tend to rejoice (why should we not?) when Muslims or other non-Christians embrace Christianity, especially when we can tell from their living testimony that the conversion is genuine. Many times, though, converts talk as if they have really accepted our faith, when in fact they have just exchanged one religious ideology for another.

The same is true when Christians become Muslims or Jews, probably more so, because though Christianity expresses itself as a religion, at its core it is something entirely different: it is the presence of the living God who interacts with us in the most intimate terms.

In Islam and Judaism that intimacy cannot occur, unless believers in those creeds are actually in a relationship with Jesus Christ without knowing it. Aside from what anyone says, Christian or non-Christian, churched or unchurched, there is no mediator between God and man except the God-Man Jesus Christ, who is both Son of the Father and the Word of God.

Though we churchables define and try to confine Him within our doctrinal formularies, we know from watching Him in the written gospels and in today’s world where He is still active, that like the Spirit of God, He goes where He wants to go. He can go and show Himself anywhere, and He usually does.

Yes, He abides with us, among the sheep of His pasture, the flock that He guides, but at the same moment He is before His Father’s throne interceding for us, and again at the same moment He is out walking the world seeking His lost sheep.
Do we accompany Him there?

All of us, no matter who we are, or in what state of life, are poor before the Lord. We know we lack and all of us try to make up for it somehow. Just because we find what we think we lack in our native religious culture is not a sign that we have found it, found Him, who alone fulfills our every true desire and withers our every fantasy.

What we think about God is what comprises our religion, but He loves us and saves us without our thoughts, even without our doctrinal beliefs, that is, totally without our help. He loves us and saves us only because we come to Him in whatever way, crying out to Him,
‘I am Yours, save me!’

Don’t we believe that He knows all about us? Don’t we believe He knows who it is we’re crying out to? Just as He loves us in this unconditional way—what else can unconditional mean, if not, total abandon on our side, total mercy on His?—so we must continue to love our children, even when they sin, even when they stray.

It is not when our families have turned out as we expected because we faithfully carried out our responsibilities, because we were good examples, or because we loved and provided for them sacrificially, that we can consider ourselves blessed. These are the works and the expectations of the natural man. What if Christ wants to change us into men and women supernatural? What might that look like? This is not to say that when families stay true to the Lord in everything, it is not a good thing, or blessed, but that what we do when we are driven into the wilderness, proves our faith and purifies our inner man.

It is when things have not turned out as we expected, when we have suffered disappointments that mock our faithfulness, when our family members reject not only the faith we tried to hand over to them, which was the best we had, but when they reject us as well, and we still love them, still pray for them, still welcome them, still praise the good they do, refrain from judging them, abstain from blaming them, still want them even when they don’t want us, that we can consider ourselves blessed. ‘Be perfect,’ says the Lord Jesus, ‘as your heavenly Father is perfect…’

Life shall go for life

And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Deuteronomy 19:21

Things take time. The saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Another saying I learned from my mentor when I was catechized into the Church, “A fast change in Orthodoxy is one that takes about four hundred years.” I noticed, when studying Rabbinical Judaism, that converts are not readily received. A man approaches the rabbi and says, “I want to become one of you,” and the rabbi rebuffs him, scorns him even, and tells him to go away. The man is undaunted; he comes back, gives it another try. The rabbi receives him a bit more kindly, but explains to him that becoming a Jew won’t be good for him: Jews are plagued by so many persecutions; he surely won’t be able to take it. Again, he is rebuffed, and sent away. The man is confused, but determined. He returns, insisting to the rabbi that he is serious and begins to show reasons why he wants to be one of the chosen people. The rabbi listens a little longer, challenges him again, but lets him stay, just this once. Gradually, the persistence of the convert and the reluctance of the rabbi results in either final acceptance or final rejection. The process takes time.

The Orthodox Church in America, not the jurisdiction but the fact, also by and large throws obstacles in the way of converts racing to the finish line, to slow them down a bit, while at the same time offering hospitality, the “love of strangers” to those who come hesitantly, meekly, to observe the ways of Orthodoxy. It is not as some have unjustly criticized, a convert-hungry, mechanical contraption that sucks in converts like a whale feeding on plankton. A true convert coming to Orthodoxy is often like Jonah, fleeing from God only to be swallowed and caught in the belly of a whale—and that’s no plankton! Unlike Jonah, however, the convert is not spewn out to languish in self-pity under a withering vine, upset because “outsiders” are repenting and being saved. Rather he or she is spewn out of the Orthodox incubator, the process of formal and informal catechesis, to be sent to others, as they are now “in Christ,” as His witnesses.
We are all familiar with the high profile evangelistic crusades wherein a preacher comes and exhorts the audience to turn from their sins and accept Christ, and then people start streaming up to do just that, and to be prayed over, and ostensibly start their new life in Christ. Whatever is really happening in these crusades, God knows. But the world looks on, uncomprehending, because what it often sees is what Christ described as “seed falling among thorns,” and it is not convinced. The world wants it all right now, and expects that if Christ is the God that His followers claim He is, that’s how it should work. The truth is quite different. Conversion to Christ and life in Him may be instigated by a lightning strike, but that isn’t how it is maintained, grows, and bears fruit. Salvation is a process.
It takes time.

The law of Torah cited above from the book of Deuteronomy is a familiar one. We’ve all heard it at least in its shortened form, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” We all know this has something to do with crime and punishment, or with justice, but certainly not with mercy. It seems very unmerciful, in fact. If we know our bibles, we remember that Christ used this scripture to build upon it His teaching that we should “turn the other cheek” if we are struck on one. We think that is the end of it. Nothing more needs to be said. It’s just an ideal we are supposed to strive for, but rarely succeed. We’re all too ready to smite the offender, give “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” and Christ will just have to put up with us, so we bring the issue to happy closure by asking for His forgiveness.
“Lord, have mercy.”

Why do I cite this bible verse? Well, it means something entirely different to me. To me, it is linked to what holy apostle John writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). To me, this is what life for life means, indeed, even what the other incidentals mean, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Since Christ gave life for life, saving us, we too sharing in His forbearance, mercy and love, can also give life for life. Ours.
What does this mean?

Things take time. The world teaches us that “time is money,” and most of us, unconsciously at least, have believed this saying. We think we own our time, that we own ourselves, but scripture says, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price.” This buying of souls for eternal life goes on even today, because Christ is in our midst, He is among us. In us, He walks through the world seeking His lost sheep. When He finds them, He cares for them. He doesn’t just pick them up, hurry over to the sheep pen, and drop them in. No, He doesn’t treat us like that, but He remains with us, at our side, to guide and restore us, to save us.

Following Jesus, this is what we also do, no matter how long it takes.

Follow Me

It seems to me that the divine gift of love as it issues forth divides into four streams: profound prayer, intimacy with Christ, trust in His will for us, assimilation to His love towards all.

Profound prayer both surrounds and permeates us at all times, so that without thinking about it or even noticing it, we are speaking to God and hearing His divine words without interruption. This is pure gift, cannot be attained by our efforts (work) but only by His grace. Those to whom this is granted do not think that they merit it or possess it, yet in a mysterious way, their calmness reveals it to themselves and to others.

Personal love of Jesus Christ arises simultaneously and in the same unknown and unknowing manner as does profound prayer. Intellectually we may know that Christ is risen and is in our midst, emotionally we may sometimes feel it, though we know that both thought and feeling can betray or be captive of fantasy. But the gift of this personal love, again bestowed without our knowledge but not without our consent, makes us 'see Jesus', we cannot imagine being out of His presence, and seeing Him refines our love for Him as Creator, Savior, and Lord.

Realistic knowledge of ourselves does not, I don't think, dwell upon our sinfulness or our righteousness, and does not really include these. Coexisting in the soul with the Holy Spirit who has granted these gifts, our self-awareness reflects not on what we have done or did not do, but on who we are in the light of His presence. It is the knowledge that comes of following Christ with our eyes, ears, hearts, and feet as we see Him walking in the world in front of us. Realistic knowledge of ourselves comes also in an unconscious way, but this is the foundation of our spiritual discernment: when, where and how we are to imitate Christ, and in what degree. Because of the first two gifts, we no longer have to muse, ponder and worry about our actions, but simply offer back to the Lord what He grants us, without thinking about it. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is an excellent example of this.

Devotedness towards those we serve, certainly this is by God's gift alone, as we have all discovered if we have ever tried to serve God by our good deeds, done out of a sense of duty or guilt. This kind of devotedness is instantly revealed to its recipients as a failure, not a fulfillment, of love. That power of love which is experienced as inevitable and gracious, felt as fulfilling from the moment of its inception to its perfection in a mission accomplished, this is the kind of devotedness—though I prefer to simply use the word 'love'—that makes one automatically love the person or even any creature that is placed before us, in our path. When we quiet ourselves for a moment and see Christ before us in human form, our souls clamor within us to satisfy His need. Yes, His need of us, for which He presents Himself, revealing that He is love, lover and beloved, and into that Triad of Divine Nature He invites us to enter.

Again, all of the good news of Jesus Christ leads us to these things, if only we have faith. And faith in what or whom? Of course, faith in Christ who says to us at every moment, 'Follow Me.'

Greater things

These are the painted images of ‘the greater things.’ We are the reality.
‘I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. If you love me, you will obey what I command’ (John 14:12-15).

A Christian brother whose faith and witness I value highly asked me, ‘Could the “greater things” include spreading the gospel and seeing lives transformed? Is not the transformation of one life from darkness to being filled with the Spirit greater than any work that they had seen Jesus do up to that point?’

Yes, since at the moment Christ spoke these words to the disciples, the Holy Spirit had not yet been given as He would be on the day of Pentecost, one can say that ‘spreading the gospel and seeing lives transformed’ could be considered ‘greater than any work that they had seen Jesus do up to that point,’ but I believe there is more to His saying than we sometimes think.

More than anything, our personal and confessional understandings of Christ and His saving work shape what we think ‘greater things’ means. For example, when I hear ‘spreading the gospel and seeing lives transformed’ I do not feel that these works are ‘greater things’ than what Christ did during His three year ministry. Why not? Because Christ did not ‘spread the gospel,’ He was the gospel, He was the good news, in human form. As for ‘seeing lives transformed,’ it cannot be doubted that everyone and even everything He touched, came in contact with, was utterly changed, and forever.

When we say or think the words ‘spread the gospel’ we have in mind a set of actions and activities that we have come to accept as ‘what the Church does,’ and this sometimes, though not in everyone, limits what is called in the book of Revelation ‘the eternal gospel’ and which includes, but transcends, ‘what the Church does,’ what you or I do when we think ‘spread the gospel.’

To the immediate disciples of Jesus Christ, both then and now, during His earthly ministry and today, to ‘spread the gospel’ means no more and no less than to be what their Lord was, is, and shall always be, the good news, the bearers of the good news, the living testimony of the gospel, the permanent presence in the world of paradise. This is no mere idealism or religious fantasy. It is both bedrock and rafters of the gospel, the house not built on sand but on the momentous words of Jesus, who in speaking them has spoken us into existence as eternal beings, younger siblings of His, with whom He works, now and forever, transforming lives, yes, transforming the whole universe.

What ‘greater things’ can there be but this?

Monday, July 18, 2016

For God is with us

There is an ancient hymn, chanted in the Orthodox Christian Church in the service of Great Compline, whose inspiration and refrain are based on a text of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 8, verses 9 and 10:

Raise the war cry, you nations, and be shattered!
Listen, all you distant lands.
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
Prepare for battle, and be shattered!
Devise your strategy, but it will be thwarted;
propose your plan, but it will not stand,
for God is with us.

The hymn opens like this,

God is with us, understand, O ye nations, 
and submit yourselves.
    For God is with us.
Hearken ye unto the ends of the earth.
For if ye again strengthen yourselves, 
ye shall again be vanquished.
    For God is with us.
And whatsoever counsel ye shall take, 
the Lord shall bring it to nought.
    For God is with us…

Gradually the hymn evolves into a testimony of personal spiritual transformation, and of the eventual redemption of the whole earth, yet at its end, it repeats what was chanted at first, ‘God is with us, understand, O ye nations, and submit yourselves. For God is with us.’

This is a Christian hymn from a period even earlier than the founding of Islam by Muhammad, and we can be sure that he was familiar with its lyrics, as there was already an Orthodox Christian community in Arabia.

Although the Jews and Christians both used warlike texts from the Old Testament in their prayers and hymns, at least in the Orthodox East they had already shed most of their literal meaning, at least to those inside the Church.

For Muhammad and his followers, however, they retained all their literal meaning and entered the newly revealed and developing Islamic ethos, resulting in a permanent reversion to violence. This is what we are experiencing in the world today.

It has become more and more evident with the passage of time that the restoration of the Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria is different from its near relatives and predecessors in waging jihad, holy war.

Whereas previous orders of mujahideen were tied to local grievances and perceived anti-Islamic westernization, the revived caliphate has as its basis total fidelity to shari‘ah and world conquest.

Moreover, even when it perpetrates what to the rest of the world is the most horrendous catalog of crimes against humanity, the caliphate can justify every act by reference to Islamic law.

This law, called shari‘ah, is based on the literal and strict interpretation and application of what is found written in the Qur’an and in the vast corpus of Hadith, traditions of Muhammad’s life and sayings.

Islam as a faith community includes as many interpretations and practical traditions as any religion, evolved after the last ‘rightly guided’ Caliph, Ali, was assassinated in AD 661, and the sects arose.

What makes the restored caliphate such a tremendous menace to the modern world, and such a compelling movement to many Muslims, is its uncompromising fidelity to primitive Islam.

Religions evolve, despite what many of them maintain. Even my own faith community has evolved. Orthodox Christianity today may be unchanging in theory, but in practice it changes gradually.

This change in revealed religions is to be expected if the deity worshiped is indeed the living God. It’s not that God changes to keep up with us, but that we as a race change to keep up with God.

To take up the cause of religion as it was practiced and promulgated in former times is infidelity to the living God. The caliphate imagines that it follows Allah but, if He is the living God, it uses Him instead.

This movement forces into the light the whole faith of Islam and its history, and places upon every Muslim the necessity of choosing to submit to its decrees or be classified as an infidel.

And so I ask my Muslim brothers, ‘Do you see the world divided into Daru’l-Islam, Daru’s-Sulh, and Daru’l-Harb, Abode of Peace, Abode of Truce, and Abode of War? And which of these are we?’

The revived caliphate exists solely to make war and to subjugate the entire world, forcing everyone into the ‘Abode of Peace’, the nation of Islam, and killing all who will not submit.

It looks upon the Christians who still remain in the ‘lands of Islam’ as the fault of earlier, illegitimate caliphs who did not remain true to their faith, but compromised for a price, the jizyah, the ‘poll tax’.

So now I ask you, my Muslim brothers, ‘Will you join the new world-conquering caliphate out of obligation to the faith of Islam? Or is there a God in heaven who will judge the earth, and us as well?’

For if the new caliphate is with God, then it, along with its vision of Islam, must be victorious, and I shall shed my blood with those already slain, the sooner the better, and there is no world but Daru’l-Islam.

But if the caliphate is, along with the rest of the history of blood beginning in the time of the four successors of Muhammad, a stain on the faith of Islam, it too shall fail. What, then, of Islam?

Can we not continue in brotherhood, nursing not grievances, but nurturing love of God and man, imitating our living God, ‘the Compassionate, the Merciful,’ as we, working for peace, await Him?

… for He comes, He comes to judge the earth, to judge the world with justice and the nations with His truth.
Psalm 96:13 Jerusalem Bible

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The recovery of the Gospel

If Orthodox Christians should understand anything, it is this:
Salvation is a concrete, existential encounter with the living God.

Moreover, this Lord gives gifts, including wisdom, knowledge, insight, and courage—all the elements needed to confront the maelstrom of confusion in which our culture finds itself, and all meant to be applied in the work of daily life, whether as mother, researcher, mechanic, priest—whatever our vocation may be.

Salvation is not understanding the correct theological concepts;
it is not nostalgia for civilizations past;
it is not formal membership in a long-standing parish;
it is not social activism;
it is not morally appropriate behavior;
it is not mastery of the moral vocabulary.

Further, it is not enough to recall the certainty of the past.

Nostalgic impulses, as comforting as they may be (including the Orthodox variants, such as the longings for Hellenistic Greece or Holy Russia), simply won’t meet the challenge.

Orthodox leadership today requires great courage.

Courage, said Winston Churchill, is the one quality that lets all other virtues flourish.

When Solzhenitsyn delivered his address three decades ago, he spoke not as a philosopher, but as a voice crying in the wilderness. He cried out against the dehumanization of men he experienced in the East and saw advancing in the West. Only people with moral clarity and courage could successfully challenge it, he exhorted. What the world needs is not more philosophers, but moralists.

The exhortation drew from a supreme confidence in the power of truth. Solzhenitsyn believed that truth is self-verifying. When the truth is spoken, its veracity is self-evident to the hearer. This is a profoundly Christian notion rooted in the teaching of the apostle Paul: When the Gospel is preached, Christ (who is Truth) is revealed.

Any Orthodox response to the cultural challenge must first presume a recovery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The wisdom of the Fathers, the artistry of the poets, the healings of the miracle workers, the courage of the martyrs, the knowledge of the scholars, the patience of the teachers, the foresight of the bishops, the faithfulness of the priests—all the elements that shaped and forged the moral tradition that founded Western civilization and must renew it today—start with the recovery of the Gospel.

As Jesus said, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).

Παράδοσης ~ Handing it over

…this baptism into patristic study brings what we need, which is not an additional load of patristic references and the memorizing of other people's opinions, but the acquisition of a new and clear-sighted sense which enables man to see things differently and rightly.

If we limit ourselves to learning passages by heart and classifying them mechanically—and teach men likewise—then we fall into a basic error which simply makes us fail to teach and make known the patristic way of life and philosophy. For what is altogether distinctive about the patristic creation is that it is conceived and held together, it is formed and grows, as a result of the grace and power of the freedom of the Spirit.

… Communicating the patristic word, the word of the Holy Fathers, is not a matter of applying their sayings to this or that topic… is not conveyed mechanically, nor preserved archaeologically, nor approached through excursions into history. It is conveyed whole, full of life, as it passes from generation to generation through living organisms, altering them, creating “fathers” who make it their personal word, a new possession, a miracle, a wealth which increases as it is given away.

This is the unchanging change wrought by the power that changes corruption into incorruption.

… How beautiful it is
for a man to become theology.


— Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry, pp. 34-35 passim

One thing more…

Follow the Lord to Golgotha.

A man wounded, knowing how to bear weakness

Isaiah 53:3 Septuagint

Be wounded
and know how to bear pain.
The Cross must be familiar and acceptable to you as a place to be and a mode of existence.

Then the Lord will come at some time, without fail, as He knows best. He will come and find you. He will touch your aching head, as "…He touched the leper" (Matthew 8:3).
He will speak to you. He will enter into you like light, repose, paradise. You will be aware of Him. You will feel Him. You will actually live His passion and resurrection. You will find yourself inside the icon of the Resurrection, of the Descent into Hades.

This icon will be an expression of your life. Christ will be constantly leading you by the hand, bringing you to light, to freedom, to an unending journey which is Himself.


You understand then the words of the Lord, "Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory?" (Luke 24:26) Christ had to suffer and to come forth as a Bridegroom from the tomb.
A great mystery!


You feel that you had to suffer, to endure pain, to die in the earth like a seed, so that there might shoot up from within you something that does not pass away.

I am created for some specific purpose, for something intangible, invisible to the naked eye, and yet incarnate.
I know it. I believe it. I experience it.


When I move away from it, everything goes awry, in my soul and in my body. When I am within it, I am firmly grounded and recover everything, the health of my soul and body. When I am alone, I am in communion with the saints. When I am in a crowd, I am nourished by the pure spring welling up in the desert within.

Reverence for this least and greatest thing takes the form of constantly going outdoors without protection, of asking at every moment only that His will should be done. Asking it not with my mouth and voice, but with my whole manner of living, all the time.

And when you ask that His will should be done, when your whole being is one bleeding petition, it happens. But this happening is not something you can determine in advance. It may happen by happening or by not happening. It may be that before your petition is even finished, the answer comes. Or you may wait years and wear yourself out, and be disappointed, and reach utter exhaustion, and be destroyed. And then, when you are no longer expecting anything—neither you nor anyone else—He Himself will come to raise you up, to take you with Him on a new journey.
Then you will understand why He was slow in coming for you. He was with you "in another form" (Mark 16:12), even when He had not come and you were waiting for Him.

How everything functions as a whole! How nothing is irrelevant, nothing is wasted! How the blessings go deeper than we hoped! How the afflictions, the pains and the perplexities till the field of our souls like a deep-cutting ploughshare! How totally and utterly the strange and heaven-sent rest differs in nature from the rest and satisfaction afforded by any earthly and temporary success! How it teaches us humility, how it schools us in love, how it reconciles us with others! It strengthens us, it invigorates us, and at the same time it makes us weaker, without any prickles or sharp corners which could wound others!
—Archimandrite Vasileios

Talking of the End


When a government establishes itself as the source of life for its people, it becomes the anti-Christ. This is represented in Revelation by the wearing of a sign on the right hand and forehead. Such decorations in antiquity are a form of social and religious insurance – they indicate that a person’s thought and deed are guaranteed and protected by what that symbol represents. If you agree to the assurance, you transact. This is the meaning of the statement that ‘without the symbol no one will be able to buy or sell.’ It doesn’t mean that they will be immature. It means those with the sign will not be capable of trusting those who do not have it. The sign on the person’s body is reflective of who they rely on for safety and protection, the brand they believe in, the cause that they believe will assure them of life, safety, security and comfort.

In our past history there have always been alternatives to earthly regimes. Every regime has its symbol. The Nazis had the swastika. The Romans had the eagle. The Jews had nothing: For many years, their aniconic sympathies prevented the use of a symbol to represent their deity. Instead they would have a piece of text affirming their resignation to the Lord as the source of life for His people. For many early Christians, this practice translated into the use of scriptural texts in talismans as a form of protection. The sign of the cross was a proof, not an ideological symbol. For some Jews and all Christians, their faith communities represented movements that resisted earthly alliance in favor of a faith in divine providence and deliverance from all sources of death.

What happens, then, when those faiths ally themselves with earthly campaigns? What happens when church and synagogue fuse their motivations with the state? The romantic citizen believes that this brings the fruits of divine economy to civilization. However, prophetic scripture has always claimed the opposite. Theocracies are terminally mundane and, what’s worse, they displace God as the ultimate provider of all things to all of creation.

The ‘end times,’ then, represent the final prophetic path, the cycle where all representation of the faith of God on earth falls into the mundane, where there is no longer an assembly to appeal to, that is not tainted by the ambitions of humanity. Every hand reaching to God is grabbed by something else. It is the only prophetic path where grace is wholly inaccessible, and all are lost.

Are we there? Are we drawing closer to it?

We may not have to make martyrs of those who are faithful to what they cannot see. In our modern world all we have to do is stop teaching the gospel. Those who know it will die, just as Joseph died, just as the whole generation who knew Joseph died, and the knowledge of God will stop. And we will find ourselves like the Hebrews making bricks for some walking god-man ruler like pharaoh. We will find ourselves awakened from the slumber by a final return of the true God to deliver those, who have been asleep, out of their slumber. And like the Hebrews, some of us will stumble forward, following a God we do not know, to a place we have never heard of. Yet many will opt to stay in Egypt: They’d rather die than change.

It is easy to see how, within this prophetic framework, life and death, location and specific personalities and players fall away into irrelevance. The ‘end times’ are not about these kinds of specifics. They are the ultimate case of a protypical drama that we live out in small portions every day of our lives.

The question is, when all paths end in the same place and the age of freedom is over and done, will we have the wisdom and courage to leave all that we know and rely on behind, to embrace deliverance from beyond our known world in order to attain life? Or will we dwell forever wanting, in pursuit of our own shadow?

— Jacob Aaron Gorny

No matter what it takes

This is the project of the rest of my life…

If Jesus meant it when He said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ and if He was serious when He said, ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the Age,’ then why would He send us up a blind alley by saying, ‘I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. If you love me, you will obey what I command’ ?

I am always on the lookout for anyone and anything that can open the door to this kind of faith for me. I believe it is possible. Now, I am asking the Lord to lead me out of all my unbelief, no matter what it takes.

Bless my enemies, O Lord

By Nikolaj Velimirović,
Bishop of Ohrid and of Žiča in the Serbian Orthodox Church

Myself, I have no enemies, but I want to keep this prayer close to me, as I pass through the valley of the shadow of death, which is this world. Though the way is a suffering way, the destination is joy.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.
Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.
Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world.

Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an un-hunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.
They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.
Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf. Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.
WheneverI have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand. Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep. Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.
Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me: so that my fleeing to You may have no return; so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs; so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul; so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger; so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven; ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.
Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.
One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.
It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies.
A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand.
But a son blesses them, for he understands.
For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.
Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Not my will, but Yours

Whether you have a degree or not (I don't),whether you're ordained or not (I'm not),
as a follower of Jesus there isn't a moment when you're not available for ministry,
not a location where you're exempt from doing His will. It's all just a matter of choice.

Not only in a "Christian" context does the seed of the Word get planted in the souls around us by every action, every word, even every thought that issues from our being.

The call of Jesus is so fundamental, so basic, so universal, and so available (in the Word of God) that most people miss it.

The incense smoke screen between the sacred and profane is pierced by a mere puff of breath, of the Holy Breath (το πνευμα το αγιον, to pnévma to ághion) who lives in us.

It's good that you say, "His will, not mine."
In a slightly different form, that's another one of the prayers of the hesychast—"Not my will, but Yours, not my thoughts, but Yours, not my love, but Yours, not my life, but Yours."

Over and over, we whisper it under our breath, we wake up hearing it flowing as the blood pulsing through our temples, we feel it reverberating with our very heartbeat. It is the background silence (ησυχία, hesychía) to our waking stream of thought.

Everything is consecrated now, all water is holy water, all paths walked in obedience to the call of Jesus become paths to paradise, though they pass through the valley of the shadow of death.

Go with God, dear brethren, and pray for Romanós the sinner who prays for you. I am here with you.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Who comes to my door

This morning, just as I was about to leave for the market, through the window in my study, I noticed two well-dressed black gents coming up to my front door. I knew, of course, that they would be Jehovah’s Witnesses, so I hurried to open the door and find out what they wanted. Most people would draw the blinds and pretend they are not at home. Not me, I am always eager to fellowship with people who are brave enough to cold call at a stranger’s door. You never know, it could be Jesus in one of His many disguises. In this case, of course, there were two, and I already knew their mission, but I ran to meet them anyway. Perhaps the Lord sent them. You can’t second guess God.

I opened the door and pulled down the glass panel of the storm door so I could speak to them through the screen. My quick movements startled the senior partner and he expressed his surprise at the miracle of a glass panel changing so quickly to a screen. I don’t like to talk to people standing outside my door through the screen, so I went outside to talk to them. This twosome was no one I had ever seen before. Earlier this year a lone ranger Jehovah’s Witness came to my door. After going outside to greet him, I invited him inside and asked him if he would like something to drink. In an affable and friendly way the two of us sorted out our respective theologies, and respectfully dialogued.

He did not even get as far as pulling out a copy of Watchtower literature. My welcoming manner seemed to have made him forget whatever mission he was on. He seemed to know a bit of Church history, and was intrigued that he had stumbled upon someone who reads the New Testament in the original Greek and understands it ‘as it is.’ When I mentioned that I have almost as good a handle on reading and understanding Hebrew, at least in the Psalms, that further surprised him. The two of us had a pleasant time of sharing, without polemics. Neither of us criticized the faith community of the other. We talked about Arius, the Council, the Orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity.

He had not heard much of this before. As it turned out, he wasn’t really a ‘lone ranger’ after all. His other half—they always go out two by two, as the Lord sent out the Seventy—showed up in a shiny, late model ‘tank’ with two other black brothers in the back seat. He waved to them through the front room picture window, bade his farewell to me, said he hoped we might get together again, and departed. As we was leaving, I said, ‘Come back any time.’ Though we had introduced ourselves, I had quickly forgotten his name. Not long after that, I met him again at the market, and exchanged friendly greetings, again extending the invitation to visit again.

He did take me up on the invitation one afternoon, but I had company over, and so he didn’t want to intrude. I think that time he was accompanied by another, and after a few words, they departed. I haven’t seen him since, nor have any other Jehovah’s Witnesses come up to my door again, until today. The two that came today were on a mission, nothing more. The senior partner did all the talking, the junior watched, listened, and nodded. The famous one-sided dialogue began. ‘We are living in troubled times, aren’t we? You know, this isn’t the way we should live…’ I interrupted him, ‘Yes, times seem troubled and bad, even dangerous, but after the elections in November…’

That was the extent of my exchanging tit for tat. He wanted to present a controversy that he can take charge of, and by means of it introduce, little by little, what seem to him to be plausible positives that only the Jehovah’s Witnesses offer. His hand was already reaching for a Watchtower pamphlet and had it fully out of his bag by the time I told him that I don’t need any literature, because I have the Bible. I next identified myself as a Greek Orthodox follower of Jesus, and let him know that I had studied and understood the Jehovah Witness teachings, and that they aren’t of interest to me. I did tell him, though, that I had a Jehovah Witness friend with whom I discuss faith issues.

It must be a no-no for a Jehovah’s Witness to actually have a real conversation with a non-Witness, and the two of them tried to pry out of me the name of my friend. Luckily, I honestly didn’t know it. They asked if he was a black brother, and I said ‘yes.’ They responded, ‘Does he talk a lot? I bet it was Leo. He’s always talking, always talking too much.’ I didn’t want to get Leo in trouble, so I said nothing. The two of them seemed happy that they had a piece of evidence on their ‘brother,’ that he not only talks too much, but that he talks to strangers. The pair then bounced along back to the street, and I got my wallet and cell phone and keys and hopped into my car to go to the market.

I passed them on the road, and I waved to them, so they would see that I wasn’t just making excuses when I didn’t invite them in. I really was going to the market today to buy lumber to build a book shelf. I finished that project by lunch time, and now my collection of old National Geographic magazines has a place to live. My morning encounter with the Jehovah’s Witnesses made me ask myself, what is it that they are trying to accomplish? and, is it possible to actually have a real conversation with one of them? I guess I know the answer to my second question. My friend Leo—if that’s his name—seemed to be a perfectly loyal Jehovah’s Witness, and yet he made room to hear me.

And I am a perfectly loyal Orthodox Christian, yet in obedience to Christ my Lord and God, I welcome Leo as well as other Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I am willing to hear them as people of faith, but I refuse to hear or read the scripts that others have written for them, because those unknown authors are themselves caught in a net of lies and seek to entrap others. If God is love, and if there is only one Church, and if the commandments of Jesus are to be obeyed, and if His prayer to the Father for us to be one and holy is to be amen’d, then by our unnamed witness to that God who is love, by our hospitality, by our love of strangers, the Father can draw souls to His Son, Jesus.

And that is what I have to offer to anyone who comes to my door.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Healing rain

I awoke in the dark night, the cool air drifting into my room through two wide opened windows, the soft sounds of a gently falling rain soothing to my mind and soul. Healing rain, the heavens liquefying to lay down on hard, unyielding pavements and dry, thirsty soil a moist blanket of peace in the night, peace after a day satisfied with its work, peace and stillness.

Always welcome to me, rain by night or by day invites me to pause, to return to my inner home. I would curl up in a cushioned chair in a corner between two windows, maybe a light blanket over me, and read a good book, or the Good Book, or even just the book of my memories. Taking pause, the selah of the psalms, after words or work, to stop and consider, it is enough.

This night the rain remembered another day when it healed the earth and those that live upon it and are buried in it. That bright day many years ago when, after a week of my wife’s family reunion at Buffalo Lake, Alberta, some of us turned aside to a graveyard in Camrose to commit to the soil the ashes of one of its own, my father-in-law James Raymond Mabbott.

He had come home from Australia to die. After a stormy marriage that produced five children in short order, he had disappeared, leaving his wife and oldest daughter to manage a fatherless family. Canadian farm boy of good stock, he was descended from Christian people from England’s smallest county, Rutlandshire, that came to settle in Wisconsin before the Civil War.

That family fanning out over the great plains, always west and north, to the Dakotah Territory, then spilling over to fill the prairie provinces, to Saskatchewan, to Alberta, leaving sturdy sons and swarthy but fair daughters to build homesteads, first from sod houses, at last produced the generation that was cast into the fiery furnace of the second world war, turning farm boys into killers.

After that war, wishing to forget, one took to alcohol and riotous living, but obligations to kith and kin must still be met. A young man took a wife, daughter of Ukrainian settlers who wished to become ‘white’ as quickly as possible. To be like other Canadians, my wife’s grandmother Domka, daughter of Father Theodosius Taschuk of the Russian Orthodox mission, became Doris.

She sent her children to the Protestant school and church, never spoke the ancestral tongue, the better to make Canadians out of them. When my mother-in-law was six, the old country reappeared in Father Theodosius coming to the settlement, rounding up all the children who hadn’t been baptised, and giving them the triple dunk in a large washbasin. Nancy became Anastasia in a hidden moment.

Then, back to Nancy as she grew up, a nice ‘white’ girl like all the other Smiths and Gordons and MacDearmids, when she became ripe for wedding, the young school mistress became the missus Mabbott, and started bearing children for her gallant young man. But the war had left large scars on his soul, and Christian though he was, what little faith he had was traded for drink.

Before long, the inevitable happened. Paper Christianity doesn’t have much holding power, and the young family was torn in two. As usual the children weighted down their mother’s boat, almost capsizing it. And the father, clinging to his piece of driftwood, was finally lost at sea. They never saw him again for a decade, hearing only rumors that he, like many others, had gone down under.

When he finally returned, it was to come home to die. The family was mostly grown. His oldest daughter had just become my wife. He went about trying to gather his sons and daughters together, and to make amends, tried to give them what he thought they needed, but money can’t atone for missing years. Before long he couldn’t hide his throat cancer any more. He had to pay the piper.

I knew him very little, but I could see what sort of man he must have been, and could have been. He was no stranger to virtue, but even loaded with virtues, a man can still be felled by one carefully aimed vice. Not wanting to ‘be buried in the cold earth’ he requested, and was granted, to have his remains cremated, so his bones would not feel the frozen clay, but his ashes had no resting place.

Not even an urn, just a cardboard box contained him, or what was left of him, as we opened the trunk of my car parked at the roadside. His oldest son was angry, was outraged that his father had nothing to show for him but a box of ashes. It was a bright day, its sharp outlines blunted by the steady drizzle that drenched the ground and muddied our boots as we walked into the cemetery.

There was a grave opened and ready to receive his ashes. I don’t remember how they were interred, but someone took charge of them. My part was to perform the memorial service. James, my father-in-law, was not a religious man, but he was a Christian, not a victorious one, but a crushed one. He was a man who had to go through a dark wood by night and was attacked, robbed and killed by a brigand.

No one else in the family knew what to do, and the church affiliations of those present at the interment were sketchy, so it fell to us, to my wife and me, to ‘do something’ for a memorial. What we did was the Greek Orthodox memorial service, singing parts of it in Greek for that little crowd of pious but undiscipled Christian relatives. ‘Meta pnevmaton dikaion teteleiomenon…’

I had printed out the memorial service and the few parts that were in Greek I translated, but no one holding a copy in their hands was looking at it. Something I learned early about the rain: you can cry in it and not be ashamed, because no one can tell the tears from the raindrops on your face, unless they look very closely. One of my wife’s sisters joined in as we sang ‘Aionia i mnimi…’

That simple melody, Aionia i mnimi, ‘Eternal be his memory,’ still hung in the air as we slowly parted from each other and returned to our cars. Some of the family had stayed in their cars because they were afraid of the rain. It made me wonder at the time, and even now, what people think is important, and why. Me, I am as much an Indian as I can be, bare-chested I love to go out in the rain.

As I sit here by my open window, that beautiful, constant sound of water plays music on the dark hardness outside, finding echoes within me, and I hope that when the sun rises in about an hour, the rain will continue. The world and I both need healing right now, and we cannot heal ourselves. Our memories cannot heal us, our doctrines and covenants cannot heal us, only the rain.

The rain, no, not the water falling that I love to run in or sit quietly under cover and listen to, not that rain, though it can be the harbinger. No, the real rain, that which God sends to water the earth, to water the heart, that is the rain I am talking about. We know the name of that red rain that washes away all stain of sin and the sting of pain. It is blood. It is grace. Healing rain.

We're no longer what we were

Today, at ten minutes past seven in the morning, my wife and the mother of our four sons, Anastasia, passed away. And now we are starting out on the road to what must be.

Of course, we can piously say, ‘God is in control, and He knows what He is doing.’ Of course He does, yet even God doesn't desire the death of anyone, as scripture says, ‘Death was not God's doing, He takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living’ (Wisdom 1:13). Myself, I have somehow escaped the feeling of grief when it comes to the death of my loved ones. I sometimes wonder, was it because I never loved them at all? That can't be it. It's quite possible that years of trusting in the promise of Christ that ‘If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’ (John 11:25-26) has worn down any possibility of me feeling grief. Probably not. I think my prayers to God to protect and prolong the lives of my loved ones have been answered. Yes, even today. To me, our God has been a truly gracious God, and though His blessings have sometimes contradicted my desires, He has never ‘left me lying in the dust of death’ (Psalm 22:15c).

I have written that death doesn't have to be awful, that it can be beautiful, and that those who are truly alive have nothing to fear in death. That may sound alright on paper, and such an explanation may work for the dispassionate person, but I think, for most people it simply doesn't hold water. In fact, even for Jesus Himself, such an explanation doesn't work. How do we know? Because in the shortest verse in the bible, considering the death of his beloved friend Lazarus, scripture says of Jesus, ‘He wept’ (John 11:35). Yet this same God-man—though at the time He asked this question, no one knew for sure or exactly what or who He was—said to the sister of Lazarus, ‘whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ At the same time that He truly grieved and really wept for the death of His friend, He still knew that He could, and would, raise him.

Martha said, ‘I know he will rise at the last day.’ Well, to her that was no consolation, and by her words and tone she let Jesus know that that was not enough. She wanted her brother back alive, now, though she didn't say it aloud. Christ, knowing everything about her just as He knows everything about all of us, testified, ‘I am the resurrection,’ even though He knew that unless He demonstrated it, what He said was just words. People then and now had some kind of belief in the afterlife, though no one ever has a clear picture of it. Some say it's just an extension of life on earth, where we appear the same and know each other, and live forever, carrying on as we did on earth, only without end. Just as the resurrection on the last day was not enough for Martha, so this kind of imagination about the afterlife is not enough for me.

God is real. Jesus Christ the God-man is real. Paradise is real. Therefore, all that we can think about or imagine of the life hereafter is at best a kind of pill we swallow to keep our anxieties quiet. The fact is, we can't know, we can only believe, and so sometimes we let our beliefs carry us away into fantasy. Whatever else death is, it is without doubt the end of our lives on earth, all that we are and were is no more. We will be seen here no more. There is only one of each of us, and nothing about us or anything else in the universe really repeats itself or can continue forever as it was. I once wrote, ‘The perfection of anything solely human consists in the fact that it must end,’ and I meant what I wrote. We exist only to run our courses to the finish line. When we break through that line, our utter exhaustion from the final effort to finish sends us careening into ‘the great cloud of witnesses’ who catch us as we fall, completely out of breath and, if we were still alive, close to suffering a heart attack.

But we are dead—thank God!—and so a heart attack is simply out of the question. We made it to the finish, but we're no longer what we were, not at all. As we lie there dazed for a moment in the arms of the heavenly host, for a moment we remember what we were on earth as one almost remembers the figments of a waking dream, and then, as we come back to ourselves, we are as different from our earthly identity as uncreated is from created. Where once we were contained in our bodies, now our bodies are contained in us. It would not be an exaggeration to say we are no longer human, but only as we say that an oak tree is no longer an acorn. Lord have mercy! Here I go imagining the afterlife and what we will be just like the next guy! And after all I just said! What I really wanted to write was something I just feel, something I just ‘know in my knower,’ but there aren't any words for it. Holy apostle Paul writes something that gives me the same feeling, ‘We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed’ (1 Corinthians 15:51).

It's that word ‘changed’ that comes closest, without defining, to what it is that we are, after we have expired in the body of flesh. But, back to grief. We are right to be sad, to mourn, the death even of an aged parent or grandparent, just as we grieve for the death of a child or still-born. Why? Well, again, because He who created all, who knew us all before we appeared on earth, and who by knowing us after we have disappeared holds us forever suspended in a new and unknowable life, He too grieved, He wept, He was sorry that His beloved friend had to physically die. And did He weep knowing Lazarus was just dead, or even more so, because He must raise him temporarily again so that he must endure that same disembodiment and transformation again? Only God knows all, including the answer to this. ‘Memory eternal,’ that hymn with the haunting melody, tingeing the air of purply pre-dawn with expectation and transformation: ‘Awake, my soul, to the real life!’

God became man, that man might become God. We can say the words and even imagine, but there is nothing we can say truly, until happens to us what holy apostle Paul wrote, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Apostles

Two men more unlike each other can hardly be found, and yet here they are, cheek to cheek, the father and father of the Church, proving that there is more than mere flesh and blood involved in spiritual parenthood."What is born of the flesh is flesh. What is born of the spirit is spirit" (John 3:6). Yet the flesh is not to be discounted, for that is what we are made of to begin with, where we start from, but that is not where we end up.
Today is the commemoration of holy apostles Peter and Paul. The ikons show their appearance as it has been handed over to us generation after generation. I love it that the family is so faithful in keeping the treasury of faith intact. Peter is always shown with a head of thick white or gray hair and a short beard and mustache, an industrious and fair small businessman. Paul always has his characteristically balding pate, his hair and mustache dark, his beard and sidelocks curly, just as you would expect of a man who was groomed to be a great rabbinical scholar in Israel.

Did they ever really hug each other like this? Well, probably not often, but even once would be enough to warrant it being recorded on spiritual film. Two men almost fated by their backgrounds to be enemies, or at least to feel superior to each other. The one a man of the people, roughly educated, speaking just enough Greek to trade and just enough Hebrew to pray, attending to the business of wife and family and providing others with a livelihood, a small town fisherman, careful of his affairs, clannish with his friends, loyal, trusty and true. The other, a cosmopolitan man of some means, a tent-maker probably by hereditary trade, though trained for better things, the study of Tanakh—the Torah (law), the Nevi'im (prophets) and the Ketuvim (writings)—unmarried because not yet a rabbi worthy of a wife, Greek and Hebrew second nature to him, Aramaic for dealing with all classes of men, prepared to meet every man on his own ground, a man for all seasons.

Our ikons and paintings show them together, but this is a spiritual unity not a historical and personal one, for little did they actually collaborate in their preaching of the Good News. Between them, though, the Lord who chose them, "you have not chosen Me, I have chosen you" (John 15:16), has all the bases covered until the end of time, with the help, of course, of the other ten. When we see Peter in the ikon, we should remember that it is not he alone, but all the original apostles, that are there represented. The holy eleven, or twelve if you count Matthias who was chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot, are with Peter. And among them all, there is not a single one that is not a friend for our inmost soul.

They walked with the Lord. They were present for most of His miracles. They touched Him, ate with Him, lived with Him. He slept in their presence, and they in His. They were as close as a band of brothers could be. Their fellowship seemed impenetrable, but for the intrusion of the "one untimely born" Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:8), who would not have been found walking with them and with Jesus during His three year mission. He had more important things to do then, to sit at the feet of the sages of Israel thirstily drinking in their words, so that he would become worthy of their company and fellowship. If Paul had been among the Pharisees who knew and met Jesus, like Nikodemos and Joseph, he wouldn't have been quiet about it. But no, he admits to having been born "too late."

We are now at the end of the Apostles' Fast, and tomorrow the rest of the holy apostles will be commemorated. With them we share the Good News of the Kingdom, of the Living One, Jesus the Christ, "the Word co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit, born of the virgin for our salvation" (Ton synanarchon Logon, Resurrectional Apolytikion, Tone 5). We are not imprisoned as holy apostle John was on Patmos, "for having preached God's Word and witnessed for Jesus" (Revelation 1:9). We are still free to do these things, there is still a little more time left for us to go out into the field of the world to the harvest of souls.

What is keeping us idle? What treasure have we counted more precious than the death of God's Son which has granted us eternal life and great mercy?

Now is the acceptable time of the Lord, now if ever, the fields are white for the harvest, and the sower and reaper rejoice together, to reap what in reality they have not worked for, to reap what others have planted, following Jesus the Lord of the harvest, who says,
"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters" (Luke 11:23).

Though it be the eleventh hour, come, brethren, labor on.
The Lord of the harvest is always ready for us.
Let's not just honor the apostles.
Let's join them.