Friday, October 9, 2015

Made with wings

Written to a young Nigerian who wrote on a social networking page, ‘I can prove that Christianity is fake.’

Brother, I don't know your name, but this word is for you,

You have done a lot of study, you have displayed your knowledge for us, you have even shown us that you can include Greek and Arabic text and names in your demonstrations, though I am not sure that you can read and understand those languages. Myself, I can read Arabic with some understanding, so the Qur'an is open to me in the original. But more importantly, I can read and understand Greek fluently, and so the New Testament as well as the Greek version of the Old Testament are open to me in the original. (I also can read Hebrew and understand it relatively well, so the Tanakh and Talmud is somewhat open to me.) These are not my boasts, but I want to be fair with you, to know with whom you are dealing, though I am not here to debate. This is what you apparently want to do, so my words will be brief and do not require a response.

To help you along with your reasoning, I have this to say.

Do not make assumptions or build your arguments on the English text of the Bible or the Qur'an, especially the Bible, because no translation perfectly expresses the meaning of the original. What are we to do then? Can't we argue from the translated texts? To this I would answer, No, we cannot, but the reason may be not what you might expect. It's not because the translations are not exact or various between the many versions, but because meaning is dependent on living reality, on actual existence, and does not really reside in the words of the Bible (I limit myself to the Bible, as the Qur'an to me is not scripture at all), in no matter which language.

You have learning, intellectual ability, access to documentation. You have a reasoning mind, a perceptive mind, and you have found a field in which you have done a lot of digging with your mind, but you will never find what is living under all that weight of topsoil, clay and rocks. You may find a buried treasure there, if you are lucky, but only the dead are buried in that field, not the Living. I think you want to find the Living, because you want to justify your own life, you want to be convinced that you are alive, and for a reason, and you want others to be as fortunate as you are, in knowing the Truth.

But you haven't found the Truth yet, brother, because you are still digging where only the dead are buried. Thoughts have no life in them, ideas have no life. They take on reality only when Life is breathed into them. Until that time, they are merely thoughts, merely words to be blabbed into the air, creating sounds that could have meaning if someone heard them, but even then, only the Living can hear. All our study, all our enquiry, all our investigation, all our reasoning with the results, all of it, all of it is still-life, like a painting of fruits in a bowl, or flowers in vase, or a plate with bread, knife and a jug of milk. But you cannot taste those fruits, nor smell those blossoms, you cannot cut and eat that bread or drink that milk—it's only a painting, not the reality. This is where all our research, thinking and reasoning will get us: no further than creating a still-life, a mere image, not the Reality, not the Living, not the Truth.

What else can I say?
Brother, don't turn your life into death. Don't train your mind's eye on itself, but look outward, upward, receive your sight, and learn what or who the Truth is by living, by studying not words and ideas, but people, the world, life and death, faith and doubt, love and hate, man and woman, age and youth, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, and the list goes on in no particular order. But enter into this path as if there were no other, leave behind all opinions, even yours, abandon all defenses and the desire to win, let yourself be as fresh from the taint of death as a newborn baby, and then breathe in as for the first time the breath of Life, and in due course your eyes really will open, and not in books and words and ideas will you find the Truth, but in the face of the Living, the True, the Faithful.

What was all this banter about religions true and false?
Did I dream about it long ago? Was I ever awake before, or only now?

This is where you want to go, brother.
Stop yourself in your tracks,
raise your eyes up, and fly, don't walk.
You were made with wings.
Use them.

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way He asked them, ‘Who do people say I am?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ He asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’
Mark 8:27-29 NIV

Come, labor on

Perhaps I am losing it, but as I have gotten older and walked further that road to Calvary, I see that everyone, absolutely everyone, has a call on my love. The question is, will I give it? I no longer see the world in black and white, bad guys versus good guys, and I no longer espouse any causes, political, religious, even moral. This is not because I don't believe there is a real right and wrong, or real good and evil, or because I am just tired of the struggle. No, I have laid down my arms, so that I can lift up my arms to embrace, following Christ who stretched out His arms on the cross to embrace, and save, everyone, everyone who does not resist Him.

The love of God is not only inexhaustible, not only free, but imposes no conditions except that we accept it from Him, and that is what salvation really is, as I know you know, just the willingness to turn around and face the Lord, knowing or at least trusting that as far as He is concerned (not what we or anyone else thinks) we have been made worthy in spite of our shame, righteous in spite of our sin. God is so good. He is pure mercy. He even prays from the cross that the Father forgive those who killed Him, on that cross and on every cross till the end of time. He didn't qualify in that prayer which of his killers to forgive. He just asked that all be forgiven. And like every prayer of Christ, how can we even think that His heavenly Father would not have granted His request? How could we hope for the granting of our own requests if even the very Son of God was denied His prayer request? God forbid we should be so faithless.

The whole world is white for harvest. That means, every soul has been saved by Christ. Pray that the Lord sends laborers to that harvest, to tell every man that God loves them, that God is in fact love, that there is no darkness or hatred in Him at all. Yes, God is holy and cannot abide sin, but does He banish it? No, He descends into the midst of it, to break its bonds and release its prisoners.

Yes, Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life. Yes, He empties the tombs.

Come, labor on!
Who dares stand idle, on the harvest plain
While all around him waves the golden grain?
And to each servant does the Master say,
“Go work today.”

Come, labor on!
Claim the high calling angels cannot share—
To young and old the Gospel gladness bear;
Redeem the time; its hours too swiftly fly.
The night draws nigh.

Come, labor on!
The enemy is watching night and day,
To sow the tares, to snatch the seed away;
While we in sleep our duty have forgot, He slumbered not.

Come, labor on!
Away with gloomy doubts and faithless fear!
No arm so weak but may do service here:
By feeblest agents may our God fulfill
His righteous will.

Come, labor on!
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
“Well done, well done!”

Come, labor on!
The toil is pleasant, the reward is sure;
Blessèd are those who to the end endure;
How full their joy, how deep their rest shall be,
O Lord, with Thee!

Keep close to Him

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

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

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

Keep close to Him.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Source

Foundation, by Grace Carol Bomer
Soli Deo Gloria Studio
We all have this experience. There is something that we could do, something that we think we really want to do, something we’ve never done before but thought about, that we know, if we did it, something would change irreversibly forever.

In most cases, these are probably good things, but sometimes they are things that are not good (we know they deviate from the true north of our moral compass), but in either case, if we did them, we know for sure that something would change irreversibly forever.

The moment of decision and the moment of action are usually so close, when we choose to act, that we can almost justifiably look back and say, ‘it was done in a fit of passion,’ and thereby try to alleviate the blame, if the act was an bad one, or if it seemed good at the time but later produced bad fruits.

On a micro scale, this process of choice-decision-act is happening to us all the time, and we scarcely notice the effects. As the scale of cause and effect increases, we become more aware of the intentionalism and realism of the process. At the top of the scale, though few are aware of it, there is going to be one action which, if we take it, will change one thing irreversibly forever, and catastrophically.

The irony of this one action is that, in the desiring of it resides the source of all the moral energy that we have, all the energy that is in us for good, to achieve good things, to desire good acts, ultimately to do the one truly good act, to believe in God and in Jesus Christ whom He has sent. To refrain from committing this one act makes all other acts possible; to commit it, renders all other acts useless.

For all its other meanings, the account in Genesis 2 and 3 has this meaning. Our first parents Adam and Eve were given as food the fruit of every tree in the garden of paradise which God created, except for the fruit of one of two very special trees.

The tree of life, whose fruit they were permitted, of all the other trees in the garden, not only nourished them physically, but also spiritually—by eating the fruit of this tree, they would never die. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, its twin in being specially created, was the only tree in paradise the fruit of which was absolutely forbidden to them as food. They must not eat of its fruit. They could see it, they might touch it (though they probably dare not), but of its fruit they must not eat.

Though they might desire it, with or without the help of the tempter, they must not eat of it, else they would die. Something would change irreversibly forever. It was in the desiring of it, while not partaking of it—in the single-hearted obedience to the word spoken in their ears by their Creator—that resided the source of all the moral energy that they had, all the energy that was in them for good.

That was how He had created them. Nothing He created was meaningless or just for show. No word of His spoken to them, or to us, at any time, has ever been only to dominate us or to rule over us, to show us who is in charge. He does not need to do that. We know who we are, who He is, instinctively, just as we instinctively know wrong from right, darkness from light. We are not blind.

No, He created Adam and Eve this way, and paradise with its two special trees, and spoke the one commandment, to reveal to them and to us how reality works, and what our part in reality is. It’s not merely a story, but the revelation of the nature of all that is, against the learning of all that is not.

In the children’s book by C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, there is a parallel story that alludes to this very same idea, that which I am trying to describe here. There is no need to recount the story from this book, but perhaps to quote a short poem from it will add some hint of meaning that I have may have missed.

Come in by the gold gates or not at all.
Take of my fruit for others or forbear,
for those who steal or those who climb my wall
shall find their heart’s desire, and find despair.

* * *

‘…the source of all the moral energy that they had, all the energy that was in them for good,’ I wrote a few paragraphs above. This post is about the mystery and the problem of what empowers us for good as human beings.

Well, of course I know the simple, easy answer from most Christians would simply be ‘God’ or ‘Christ’ empowers us, but that’s the obvious answer. I wanted to know how does He empower us?
What is the spiritual mechanism of this empowerment?

I believe this mechanism to be our deepest desire, not what we admit to others or even to ourselves is our deepest desire, for that is often the answer that’s expected. Instead, it’s the deepest desire which may not seem to have a direct bearing on religion or even on spirituality, and yet it is the thing we were born desiring.

It is the thing we were born desiring but know, by the light of Christ when we accept Him, that it is impossible to obtain in this life without forfeiting Him.

This seems so unfair when we first encounter it in all its dreadful majesty. We are not forbidden to desire, but we are to obey the one commandment that prevents its fulfillment, and by that obedience become instruments of God in this world, and finally fit rulers in the next.

The ban will be lifted. The Throne of God and of the Lamb will be in its place in the City; His servants will worship Him, they will see Him face to face, and His Name will be written on their foreheads. It will never be night again and they will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will be shining on them. They will reign for ever and ever.

Revelation 22:3-5 Jerusalem Bible


A baby is born. If all goes well, it is born with no serious danger to mother or child. Though we know what pains the mother endures in giving birth, no one has yet told us of the labor of being born. No one remembers, unless they are hints of it, those odd, terrifying dreams we sometimes are plagued with as children, of darkness, of our extreme smallness, of the threatening largeness of our room, of the strange terror of seeing light through our slightly open nursery door, those strange dreams that bridge our sleeping and our waking.

A baby being born, first the head emerges, again, if all is as it should be, with foamy hair and then suddenly, there is an absolute urgency for the rest of the body to follow. Everyone is tense, and the labor of birth is one that cannot be stopped, it must press on till completion—Push!—till the babe is out. There is the struggle for air, to clear the passages of fluid so the little creature can draw in its first breath, and exhale it as a cry. When it does, everyone exhales too a massive sigh of relief, and then the cord must be clamped and cut. For a moment all attention has focused on the child, but very quickly returns to the mother. The midwives attend her and the child, for it seems both are totally helpless.

This is how it is with us. We come into the world unasked but welcomed as Job says, “Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed?” (3:12). We come into the world totally helpless. Everything must be done for us. Not only do we not know where we are, but we cannot even see clearly. If we see at all, what is that sensation? What are those movements in that brightness, those shapes what are they? And now, what is that vibration? It’s different from the smooth, dark and rumbling sounds we thought were our world. Then something pops, and we hear the new sounds even more loudly and clearly. But where are we? What are we? Totally helpless.

Being born is not much different than being born again, that is, from above, as Jesus tells us, “unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). He is just as helpless to do anything for himself as that newborn babe. Everything has to be done for him. Everything is pure gift, even the fact of his birth is pure gift, and all is due to a sacrifice that he is totally unaware of, by a being, his mother, whom he doesn’t even know yet, but begins to know, as his lips feel her soft nipples nudging his unknowing mouth. This is how it is with us in being born again. Everything is gift, all is grace and love and generosity, and we little know at first, and even for long afterwards, how great the sacrifice was offered on our behalf. But we feel the Spirit nudging us, coaxing us to feed and, in feeding on the pure milk of the Word, to drink, be filled, and grow.

We are totally helpless in our new birth. Who can deny that all is grace, that everything offered to us has been given for free, that Someone chose us to be born, not we ourselves? And how can we overlook this miracle? And why would we want to? We all have been born into the most beautiful of all worlds, even though the devil’s envy has defiled it with the spectre of physical death. We all can be born again into a world even more beautiful, that cannot be deformed by the destroyer of souls, because he cannot even see it.

Totally helpless in our birth, we grow by love into the image of our earthly parents and our heavenly Father, until we too conceive, and bear, and love, all for free, until our lives become grace itself.

Indeed, from His fullness we have, all of us, received—
yes, grace in return for grace,
since, though the Law was given through Moses,
grace and truth have come through Jesus Christ.
John 1:16-17

Good, as it ripens

C. S. Lewis writes in his book The Great Divorce,

We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the center: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. Even on the biological level life is not like a pool but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.

Yes, each of us is in the image of God, and as there is only one of Him, there's only one of each of us.

Yes, I know the Divine Nature is a Triad, but then, we are too. In fact, the deeper our experience of God becomes, the more we know ourselves, and see how we are potentially perfect copies of His nature—that is, when we allow Him to finish creating us, with our cooperation—that is synergy in its theological meaning. That's why the same rules simply do not apply to all or in every situation.

Law is a placeholder for love until love appears, and then love can be trusted to be our guide, and ceases being a feeling, a sentiment, an ideal—it becomes... a Person!

Yes, He!

Yes, the Living God who in Christ has joined us to Himself, and shown us how unique, and how loved, each of us is.

Scripture does not exaggerate when it calls all of us first-born sons and citizens of heaven’ (Hebrews 12:23 Jerusalem Bible). That means women as well as men, of course, because the writer of the letter to the Hebrews (some say it was the apostle Apollos) just wants us to know that each of us, regardless of our sex, age, race or any personal characteristic, is as important and loved by God as much as a first-born son is by his father and mother.

We are ‘the apple of His eye,’ and there are so many of us!

To be happy

God wants us to be happy. Yes, you heard me right. God desires our happiness. Call it happiness, call it joy, even call it blessedness, they’re all facets of a single thing, a sole state of affairs, what theologians and poets often name ‘Paradise.’ Yes, and the tourist bureaus too, even when they call Tahiti or the Caymans, or Bali, ‘Paradise,’ except that for them, they’re actually offering a limited and temporary visit to an approximation of that elusive location.

But God wants us to be happy. He is glad when we have not only our basic necessities but even our luxuries, happy when we are hard at work doing something that fulfills us, and pleased when we find pleasure in those exalted gifts that He prepares for us—love, music, literature, and all the ‘fine’ arts, adventure and, yes, even entertainments. How could God, our loving Father, not want us to be happy? Even we want that for our children, don’t we?

It seems that what separates religious people from the non-religious is their attitude toward human happiness. Often the religious take it for granted that ‘this world is in the power of the evil one,’ and therefore any pleasures we take in it are automatically somehow sinful and need to be extinguished. And what do they offer as a replacement? Well, there are religious services, revival meetings, bible study and prayer, sometimes even charity work.

To the non-religious, this seems a sorry substitute for what they think will make them happy. We all know what that is. Well, I mean, whether we’re religious or non-religious we know what makes us ‘happy.’ Again, it’s only our core beliefs or indifference that divide us. Carnivores will enjoy a tasty steak and be happy to eat it, but some of the religious will choose a vegan salad over the steak if it’s Friday. How they regard the carnivore seated across the table is the real divide.

God wants us to be happy. He wants us to be able to live our lives without fear of violence. He wants us to be well-fed, clothed and housed. He wants us to have and to be good neighbors. He wants us to be healthy, physically, emotionally, spiritually. He wants us to know love, to be able to experience ‘the joy of sex.’ He wants us to be literate, avid participants in the cultures in which we live. He wants us to be creative on every level. He wants us to be free.

The religious, when they read what I just wrote, will immediately raise objections, or at least want to attach stipulations. Yes, I am one of them, but I will bide my time. The non-religious, reading my list of what makes God happy, will possibly agree with me, except that they might say, ‘Well, right, but then, who needs God?’ Some of them will have had their mindset shaped by the lyrics of the song ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon,

                    Imagine there's no heaven,
                    It's easy if you try.
                    No hell below us,
                    Above us only sky.
                    Imagine all the people
                    Living for today.

It used to grill me when I heard those words, even though something about the song rang true. I just couldn’t stand the thought of ‘all the people living for today’ because I have seen them doing exactly that—living for today, and leaving God out of the picture. Actually, this still does rub me the wrong way. I want people to give thanks and praise to God for all the good things they enjoy. When they don’t, it pushes me involuntarily toward resentment.

But I don’t have to defend God, only love Him, and show Him, if I can, to anyone who wants to see.

God wants us to be happy. Christianity has continued for two thousand years, trying over and over in many different ways to deliver that happiness to the human race, because deep down, everyone knows that it’s not wrong to be happy, whether there is a God or not. Now that we’re at the threshold of a ‘brave, new world,’ unexpectedly emerging from a mechanical to an information age, Christianity is in the best position to know itself and to transform society.

‘The world is in the power of the evil one.’ It still is, isn’t it? Certainly, as anyone can find out by exploring the internet, for with an increase in freedom comes an increase in sin, incontrovertible proof of our race’s urge to self-annihilation. But through the same freedom comes an almost supernatural transparency fulfilling a prophecy of Christ, who says, ‘there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing secret that will not be made known.’

This transparency makes available to anyone who wishes to see, what are the mistakes of Christianity and all other religions and social structures, and forces everyone, religious and non-religious, to come to an honest and rational recognition of what really is good, for the individual and for the race, and how what makes God happy can be realized on earth. This planet is not only the place where ‘God became man’ but also where man, at last, becomes God.

Now, after choking on that last statement—I am addressing both the religious and the non-religious—I have finished biding my time and want to close with this thought. God wants us to be happy. What this means is, He wants our relationship restored to what it was ‘in the Garden.’ No religion, just relationship. No sin and death, just one will and life. To recognize Him in us and in all things, to give thanks and praise, and to follow His commandment, to love one another.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The place He has prepared

The use and abuse of history, an enormous topic, too large for an essay, maybe too small for a book, or maybe just too fast—it’s happening all around us, right now as I write, I can’t keep up with it.

There’s a right use of history. If we don’t learn from it, the human race keeps making the same mistakes. Why is it that history must remain the preserve of historians like myself? Why can’t it be for all?

Surely, it’s interesting enough, but it takes commitment, you must make time for it, yes, make time to study… time! And to make that time, and to study, you have to step outside of history’s flow.

But history used, that is, for positive purposes, to learn from it how not to repeat our mistakes, that is a good thing. It can fuel the drive for progress, for improvement, for liberty, good citizenship, peace.

But history abused—I hate to think of it!—but I see it going around me every day, everywhere in the media, in the realm of personal relationships, in politics, and, worst of all, in the Church.

I am an Eastern Orthodox—at least, that’s what the world calls me. I am a member of, and live in, the Greek Orthodox, or Byzantine Christian faith. I have a lot of connexions in many places as a result.

By many places I mean, my faith connects or ties or joins me to many people, institutions, ideologies, and practices, all of which give structure to my daily life and thought, and shape my view of history.

But central to my view of history is the person of Jesus Christ, who has entered not only the history of the world and my personal history, but has divided both into a BC/AD split, and transformed both.

Now, the most important event in the history of the human world, perhaps of the whole world, is the incarnation of God, in Christ, and in the Church. God has entered the universe, both Head and Body.

This entrance transcends natural thought: it is unthinkable, and inexpressible except by being what it is. In Christ Jesus the human race was elevated to participation in God, all of the race, not just a part.

The man Jesus of Nazareth is the Head, and everyone else who has lived, lives now, or ever shall live, comprise in our totality the Body. We are a single, cosmic organism, greater than the natural universe.

It should be no surprise what we are capable of—I mean, on the positive side—if we are, in fact, a divine race, again, all of us. We have ample evidence from history what we’re capable of, on the negative side.

That evidence against us, against our restoration in Christ, is the primary theme of history, which can be used in either of two ways: to educate and elevate us, or to drag us down, and the universe with us.

This is where use and abuse enter the picture. Though ‘history is written by the victors,’ that does not let us off the hook, whether victors or victims, from using history as a corrective to our human condition.

Just in the field of ‘religion’ we have a potent example. We can perpetuate our failures, or we can overturn them, by the way we teach and study history. Wrongs can further sicken us, or be an antidote.

Shall we teach a class, ‘The Great Schism of 1054,’ and proceed to list and analyze the historical events that produced it? And if we do, is it to remind ourselves why we are still justified to perpetuate this ill?

Or do we examine the topic, study the historical sources, attempt to understand what went wrong, and search out how this defect in the Church may be removed, knowing that we are part of the solution?

If I were a teacher—or lecturer, since we have only one Teacher, the Christ—of history, and if the topic was the so-called Great Schism, whatever I called the class, I would endeavor to lecture on ‘unschism.’

Yes, maybe even the ‘Great Unschism of 2016’ since I have heard there is to be a Pan-Orthodox Council next year. Lecturing from this angle is not to deny the past, however written, but to conjure the future.

For it is never by the remembrance of past evils that any present or future good is realized. Whether one is Christian or not the word of Jesus is true, ‘Behold, I make all things new’ (Revelation 21:5).

That is why He came, why He comes now, and why He is to come forever. That is why He is the Head of that pan-human organism which is His Body, and which we, too narrowly defining it, call the Church.

The use and abuse of history, how does it escape us that we abuse it so often without recognizing that as a sin? We celebrate ourselves and our victory over others while abjectly ignorant of our own defeat.

This is not the time, brothers, for plundering the tombs of our deadly past, but to bring history to the life-giving tomb of Christ, who has taken captivity captive, and enter the place He has prepared for us.

Monday, October 5, 2015

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.

Jesus says, ‘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).

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Love, love, love

‘Love, love, love! That’s all you ever talk about! Why not just tell us about the saints, about church history, about the truth of Orthodoxy? Why not remind us of all the wrongs done to us, so we can be motivated and mobilised to go on the offensive? Why not, like some pentecostal preacher, provoke us with phrases like ‘Becoming armed and dangerous!’ The faith must be taught, understood, accepted, defended. The borders of the Church must be defined, the doors barred and guarded. We have a job to do. Keep out the sinners who want to sin, so that the righteous within can be saved, them, and only them—I mean, us!’

Nobody has said this to me, or written this, but maybe some have thought as much, even as I have. What is so great about love that it can take over one’s life, that it can be a worthy pursuit? Isn’t love the product of all these other things? Don’t we acquire love like we acquire the Holy Spirit, by doing lots of works of purification, guarding the mind, fasting, praying, study and all the rest? Yes, charity is part of the plan, but isn’t it only just a part?

I wonder about this sometimes. I wonder why I feel more love than I can express. I wonder why I never seem to be able to give or receive enough love. I wonder why love seems to be missing in so much of what passes for Christianity. I wonder why people are afraid to accept love. I wonder why they want to limit their love to person, place and time. I wonder how something so universal can be so rare. I wonder how something so true can be so easily counterfeited. I wonder how something so valuable can be so cheapened.

The evangelist John writes about love too. ‘God is love,’ he says, and though church fathers have warned us that the reverse is not necessarily true, ‘love is God,’ it can still be proven by the willingness to lay life down for a brother. That is the extreme, but everyday to smile at, to speak kindly to, to encourage, sometimes even to tell the truth to a fellow human being, these are the proofs of a love that can be God, because only God can do such things, in us, through us, and for us. Helping not harming, blessing not cursing, freeing not oppressing.

Yes, love, love, love.

Mighty and fearless love

When Francis of Assisi was ushered into the presence of the Sultan of Egypt and was told he must walk across a carpet that was covered with images of the cross, he did not hesitate, much to the surprise of the Muslim onlookers.

After he crossed the carpet, walking naturally and not trying to avoid treading on the crosses, he said, ‘I have walked on these crosses because they are the cross of the bad thief, which you may keep. I will, on the other hand, keep the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ.’

This unexpected outcome so impressed the Sultan that he admitted Francis into his intimate company, and allowed him to evangelize. Though it may be only a legend, there is a tradition that the Sultan told Francis, ‘I know that yours is the true faith, and that Jesus is the Lord, but if I openly confess Him here and now, we shall both be put to the sword. Living for Him in secret will allow me to work for Him openly.’ And before his repose, the Sultan sent for two Franciscan brothers to attend him at death, and they baptised him into life eternal.

Our love must be as mighty and fearless as Christ's, and then every blasphemy, every attack, every unfounded hatred and mockery shall be under the soles of our feet, just as the cross of the bad thief was under the feet of Francis of Assisi on that day.

Ikons, ikons!

Seeing that naturalistic ikon of the Mother of God holding the Child Jesus in the platytera of the Kiev cathedral of St Vladimir made me think of another image that is deeply etched in my memory, and it has to do with the way the Savior's arms and hands are portrayed in the ikon by Vasnetsov.

The infant Christ isn't doing with His hands any of things we normally see Him doing: He's not holding an open or closed evangelion in one arm and blessing with the fingers of the other. No mystic spelling of the Divine Name with those tiny fingers.

Instead, He's doing what any child being held like that is likely to do: He's all arms, and His gaze is direct, lively and true. With them He speaks greater blessing and desire for us than anything else He could have done. He's here, and He's one of us. He even has a mother. Yes, He is the Son of God, but even His heavenly Father needed a daughter to become His Mother.

What the ikon made me remember is a scene in Franco Zeffirelli's film of the life and passion of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Everything about that film is, to me, ikonic, and it is obvious that the casting and the costumes were done with reference to Orthodox ikons. When Christ stands before the tomb of Lazarus about to call him forth into life, He suddenly and abruptly raises His arms in the same way as He does in the ikon. I was hoping the arms would be in exactly the same position as in the ikon but, alas, they are in mirror image. Yet, the enigma of why He holds up His arms like that, resembling the hands on the face of a clock—what is He trying to tell us? Do Zeffirelli and Vasnetsov know something we don't? Or am I just being captured by an odd visuality?

Back to the ikon. In most images of the Theotokos with the Child Jesus, the focus seems to be on the Mother, even when by her hand gestures and her look she is supposed to be inviting us to worship her Divine Son. The same is true of most Western art renditions of ‘the Madonna.’ But in Vasnetsov's work, the Divine Child practically leaps out at us, and the look on the Mother's face is something like, ‘Don't say I didn't warn you!’ I just love this image, it's so real.

Although Zeffirelli's film Jesus of Nazareth is now somewhat dated, it's still a very powerful film about Christ. In the same scene, the raising of Lazarus (which is one of my favorites) as Christ approaches the moment when He will call Lazarus forth from the tomb, there is a gradual movement of the camera toward His face, as He is praying to His Father, thanking Him beforehand for letting Lazarus be raised, confirming His authority as the Resurrection and the Life. In this frame taken from the film, we can see the resemblance to the face of Christ as depicted in the traditional ikon, ‘Holy Face.’

Yes, Zeffirelli was thinking of ikons when he directed this film. And why shouldn't he have? They have passed into the human psyche and so deeply that most people don't even notice they are there. We all know what Jesus looks like in our hearts, even though our minds may deny it.

Ikons, ikons! Where would we be without them? And the more closely we look at God's world and our own, the more ikons we find, until we finally discover, it is all ikon, and all pointing to the Artist.

Francesco di Bernardone

His simplicity and poverty alienated him from or endeared him to his contemporaries. His fresh and honest boldness drew a sultan’s heart to his Savior and to the path of peace. His utter conformity to the pattern of the gospel attracted Christ Himself, by whom he received in a mystery the signs of His passion imprinted in his flesh. His gentleness brought nature’s creatures to full obedience to a son of Adam, revealing possibly for the first time in history the truth that Paradise is no mere myth, confirming Christ’s word that it still exists, ‘I tell you, today you will be with Me…’

When first I wrote this, it was a rainy evening. I thought, how apt for the feast day of this blessed saint, who trod homeless miles in the winter rains of Italy, begging his bread, not because he was too lazy to work for it, but because in working he never asked for wages. Knowing for Whom he labored, he expected his faithful Lord to supply all his needs, and he was never disappointed. We peer at Francesco of Assisi across a chasm more than eight centuries wide, squinting, because our eyes cannot look directly at him any more than we can gaze at the sun. God became Man once, and that was enough. Now this

Personally, this is my ‘other name day.’ Yes, that name, Francis, has claimed someone in every generation of my family, my father, me, and my fourth son. Not just the name, either, but hopefully a share of his spirit. I too want to be included among his ‘little brothers’ even though I am unworthy. Like the rich young man in the gospel story, I have often gone away sad at the word of Christ, instead of joyfully and confidently following His command. I am no better than anyone else. We have all fallen short, but here is one who, once as fallen as us, dared to follow his Master…

Brother Francis, you spent your youth in earthly revelry, providing generously to your companions not from your own, but from your father’s store of, wealth. We find that we never really change: what we are deep inside we always remain: it is the pattern of our being. You also remained the same, but you exchanged the old world for the new, to become the herald of the age to come, providing generously to us, once more, not what was yours, but your Father’s. Following your Master Jesus as He walks in our needy world, pray for us, and help us, to find the heavenly treasure of Paradise.

Light of the world

The world can’t ignore Jesus, but it can ignore us. And in fact, it does. And can you wonder why? The world looks at the Church—and I am not dishonoring her in any way, the Church, I mean, because I belong to her, I’m a son—the world looks at the Church and doesn’t see much to write home about. At her best, the Church is as effective at helping people as some other charity organizations, as successful at educating and civilizing them as some schools, but when it comes to maturing people, to healing them—which is supposed to be her forté—the Church even at her best seems a sorry attempt. What does she put all her energy into? What is she—I’m speaking of the Church, right?—what is she here for?

The world can’t ignore Jesus, but it can ignore us. How do I know this is true? Look at how the world sits up and listens when Pope Francis speaks. He’s just a man like you or me. True, he is the Pope, but he’s not speaking and acting as the pope, but as himself, a man in Christ just as any of us. His papal dignity gives him an audience whether the world likes him or not, but until he came along, a Jesuit paradoxically mirroring another Francis whose following of Christ changed the world of his time, the world might stop and listen a moment, and then continue with its work, ‘it’s just the pope, who cares?’ But no, the world can’t ignore Pope Francis, because it can’t ignore Jesus. It’s not dumb. It can figure out who’s speaking.

The world can’t ignore Jesus, but it can ignore us. This doesn’t apply only to the world versus the Church. It applies to the Church herself, to what goes on inside of her, in the Body of Christ, which is what we are. Christians are also part of the world. We can’t ignore Jesus, but we can ignore the many voices—authorities, officers, programmers, money-changers, and other hirelings—that speak ‘in His name.’ Not all Christians are as dumb as doormats. Nor are we deaf. Nor are we incapable of distinguishing the voice of the Shepherd from the many voices that try to deafen us to His voice. When the Church is healthy, when her leaders don’t ignore Christ, then her people don’t ignore them. We listen, we obey.

The world can’t ignore Jesus, but it can ignore us. There’s no way we can fool the world. It is as cunning as serpents, as the Lord tells us to be, but it has abandoned the innocence of doves that faith in Him bestows. The world can’t ignore Jesus, but it can disobey Him. And in fact, it does. Isn’t it strange, then, that we who are supposed to be ‘in the world, but not of it’ also disobey? Can this be why the world can’t ignore Jesus, but it can ignore us? ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned’ (Isaiah 9:2). Of whom is the prophet speaking? Is it us, or them, the Church, or the world, or both? Whom does Jesus call, ‘You are the light of the world’?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Christianity as religious artifact

The Portland Greek Festival will be happening this weekend. This is an annual event at Aghía Triás (Holy Trinity) Church in Portland, Oregon, that began the year I was born. It's been going on for sixty-four years! I've heard that it was the first of its kind in America, and that all other Greek Festivals stem from ours. Who knows if that's true, or just part of tradition. I've been ‘working’ at the festival every year since I was thirty-eight years old. I put ‘working’ in quotes, because what I do is not considered work by some of the Greeks around here. Why is that? Because I am an usher or guide in the sanctuary—I stay in the church and assist visitors in understanding what they are seeing there, and I also witness for Christ, without Whom there would be no sanctuary, and no festival.

The Greek Festival is successful for many reasons and in many ways. To some, it's the money that matters. For others, it's the whole community pulling together, each according to his or her ability, to roll out a huge welcome mat for others to see what the Greek culture is about, to practice "philoxenía" (hospitality, literally "love of strangers"), the most highly valued of virtues to the Greek mind. These people really do live up to this ideal, they are willing to help and to accept others, even incorporating them into the Greek kinonía if they want to be. But sometimes I wonder if they are too welcoming, too accepting.

I wonder if they are susceptible to a kind of Trojan Horse in reverse. They know that the world is patronizing them as a cultural and religious relic, a beautiful anomaly in today's world, a kind of harmless entertainment. It doesn't seem to bother them.

The sanctuary being open to the public has been a part of the Festival as long as I've been in this community. It symbolizes what is at the heart of any of the goodness we are perceived by others to have. The church tours we have are informative, and delivered in a spirit of modesty, tailored to the audience's background whenever possible, and kept from becoming confrontational. But to witness to our guests about Jesus Christ is left to the laypeople who man the sanctuary. 

The clergy will tell you everything about the Church, its history, its culture, its tradition, even its understanding of scripture and theology, but that's the extent of it. People can listen and even ask questions and carry away just a little bit more knowledge about something beautiful and arcane, but what of Jesus Christ? Did anything they heard produce faith in them? Was the seed of the Word planted in them? Let's hope that it was and is, and may God give the increase. But are we just playing into the world's matrix, letting it turn our faith into a commodity, Christianity as religious artifact?

Take Jesus Christ out of the equation, and that's what you have, whether we're talking about Orthodox Christianity, or any other. Our form of church just has more tools than some of the others, but without Christ, those tools become mere toys, something for the world, or for us, to play with. For us, the "game of church." For the others, just more interesting artifacts to decorate their drawing room.

May it shock my readers to view the image below, from Phoenix Home & Garden magazine (July 2001 issue). Here is a room decorated with a collection of authentic icons, on the wall arranged in a cross-like pattern.

Notice the icon of the Resurrection is at the very bottom, near the floor. On the coffee table lie five icons just as artifacts to be handled (one of them in a glass frame). Let's hope they're not being used as coasters! (Of course not, that'd ruin the finish!) To the right of the arranged wall icons is an art piece of what looks like a male nude, and there are other objets d'art all over the room.

Brothers, this is where we are headed, if we don't reveal to the world the One in whom we live and move and have our being (cf. Acts 17:28), not just at the festival, but every day, wherever we are sent. The world will love us if we make it feel better, on its terms, but like the icons in an Arizona businessman's great room we may find ourselves hung, arranged in a cross, and ignored.

Without Jesus, welcome to the world "as it is."

‘Remember who your teachers were…’

In the sidebar of my blog I have this bible verse as a heading, and beneath it a list of (as of today) twenty-four individuals or groups of people whom I call ‘my teachers,’ confessing, of course, that Jesus is quite right when He says to us, ‘call no man on earth your teacher, for you have but one Teacher, the Messiah.’ What? Did I not listen to what I just heard the Lord say? ‘Call no man on earth your teacher?’ Well, yes, and I have no excuse. I am guilty. I am an evangelical criminal. Lock me up. Yes, and lock up the holy apostle Paul while you’re at it, because I call him one of my teachers too, and I’m even bold enough to quote him teaching me to ‘remember who my teachers were.’ Yes, we’re all guilty of building our houses on sand by not hearing the words of Jesus, and acting on them. Or are we?

This is not the time or place, nor am I learned enough, to defend either Saint Paul or myself for having ‘teachers’. No, I don’t really believe there is a double standard here, or even any real hypocrisy, but there are people who use this kind of logic to disqualify and condemn their brethren for calling presbyters ‘Father’ or taking exception to the expression ‘save us’ when addressed to anyone but Christ. Truly, these things are, and should be, matters indifferent, things we do not challenge each other about, but let everyone hold their own opinion, yet the Church has come to blows over such things, and still does. We destroy the handiwork of God, that is, our unity in Christ, over a question, not only of food, as the apostle exhorts, but over mere words. Yet, there are those who quote, ‘by your words acquited, and by your words condemned.’ What can I say?

So I remember who my teachers were, as the apostle recommends to his disciple Timothy. The list of names in my sidebar has been growing and would be much, much longer, but for my desire to keep focus. Even twenty names are too many. I could simplify it and just say ‘Church Fathers’ and leave it at that. But then you wouldn’t know from whom I have drawn my testimony and life in Christ, for we are all parts of one another. You wouldn’t know my spiritual mothers among the Fathers, though they are there. And you wouldn’t know that I draw on the testimony and teachings of many saints not included in the Synaxarion. That’s why I have made the list. That is evidence good enough to keep me at arm’s length from zealots of every faction who deal in names, and I am satisfied, because for me ‘there is only one name under heaven by which we are saved.’

As to the names of those I have not included, I owe my salvation and my life in Christ to many more, beginning with my own parents according to the flesh, my father Roman and my mother Irene (may their memory be eternal), and to the gentle teachers I had in the schools I attended whom I cannot name, except for two of my college professors, Doctor Dana, and John Forbes  (both of blessed memory). My parents were Roman Catholics to begin with, my two professors, the first a Presbyterian minister, the second a Quaker. I should name the great saints that shepherded me as a young Christian adult—they are my teachers too: Philip Holte the cabinetmaker, Bishop Matthew Bigliardi, Episcopal bishop of Western Oregon, Father John Goodyear, pastor at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church (all of blessed memory). And when the Lord led me to Holy Orthodoxy, my teachers and examples are many: Metropolitan Anthony of San Francisco, and Father Elias Stephanopoulos (both of blessed memory), as well as the presbyters Ihor Kutash, Michael Courey, James Retelas, Photios Dumont, and others.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and they are there and always have been there, not to hide us, not to smother us, but to love us and teach us by their love, which is exactly what these servants of God did for me, handing over to me what the Lord had given them, not directly, but through the hands of other servants of God like themselves. All these took to heart, without trumpeting it, the words of Jesus in holy and divine scripture, ‘If any man would follow Me…’ and they laid down their lives for me, bit by bit, as the Lord gave them moment, and I am unashamed to call them all my teachers, while still confessing ‘you have but one Teacher, the Messiah.’ The Lord knows everything about us, who we are, what or whom we believe in, and whose teaching we have received. In the end, it all boils down to this, doesn’t it? ‘My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you’ (John 15:12).

Glory to You, O God, glory to You!

Why the Lord came

The Lord came, not to do something easy, but to do something true. He came to bring truth and life. By His obedience unto death, He rent from top to bottom the veil of corruption and rebellion that separated us from God, and He opened to us the entrance to the Holy of Holies of freedom and unity. He did not come to unite men among themselves by making light of their differences. He did not come to exhort us to mere "peaceful coexistence." He came to unite us, through Himself, with His Father and our Father. "For through Him we have access in one Spirit to the Father" (Ephesians 2:18).

He did not aim to leave behind Him a group of individuals working well together, for even sinners do this: they cooperate with sinners (cf. Matthew 5:47). He came to give us rebirth and to bring a new unity, one which is trinitarian; to bring a peace which passes all understanding, His own: "My peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give to you" (John 14:27).

…He came to give Himself, to distribute His flesh: "Take, eat My Body which is broken." He came to give His Spirit: "Receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:22). So He created the little flock of the twelve, the Church. He brought to the world the dynamic force and health of the Trinity, the leaven of the Kingdom which will leaven the three measures which represent the whole of creation (cf. Luke 13:21).

What the world needs is the trinitarian flock, regardless of whether it is small or large. Its greatness is to be found in its trinitarian nature. What man thirsts for is eternity, "even a little part of eternity"; and this is what we have here. To have the character of the Trinity is to be eternal. "This is eternal life, that they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent" (John 17:3).

— Archimandrite Vasileios

“Remember who your teachers were…”

2 Timothy 3:14

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Here and now

Historical perspective gives depth to our picture of the Church and to ourselves as individual Christians, enabling us to see over the horizon of merely today. Yet history can also become a kind of false ‘ark of the covenant’ that subverts our worship ‘in spirit and truth’ by preventing us from seeing Him walking ‘in our midst’ whose death rent the veil of the temple, and blinding us from the reality of living the heavenly life on earth.

Christ is not only born, not only did He pitch His tent among us in history, but He is risen, He is truly risen, and He who was dead is alive, and alive for ever, pitching our tent for us among the Holy Trinity. As the Church believes, God in Christ becomes man, so that man, yes, we who live in love and walk by faith, become God. In Christ, Heaven did not pay earth a courtesy call, but moved in with us, not in the remote past alone, but in every moment. ‘I am with you till the end of time,’ says Jesus.

Yes, He was, He is, He is to come. The real ark of the covenant is revealed to be in Heaven, which is shown to our unveiled eyes to begin here and now, for God is with us. With us, within us, among us, and in us. History is the prophecy of the marriage of Heaven and earth, but we live its fulfillment and partake of the wedding feast of the Lamb here and now.

Belief, no, believing, prove

Belief in the literal truth and ‘infallibility’ of the holy scriptures is not enough. That only breeds fanaticism, placing devotion to an ideology over love of the man whom God has placed before you. The scriptures were made for man, not man for the scriptures.

No, we must believe in the bible, but only in order to love the man placed in our path, the one whom God has sent, because He comes to us in the form of man, not only historically in the God-man Jesus Christ, but theologically in our neighbor.

Believing only in the scripture, we place ourselves above the Church, justifying ourselves and all our righteousness and doctrinal correctness, our subtle disdain and even pious contempt of others who disagree with us, and we crucify Christ as He comes among us.

Prove that you love the Word of God by loving the sinful humanity that the Holy Spirit has gathered from the four winds and carries in the protecting sash of the Holy Church. For the Lord Jesus Christ has said and continues to say, ‘He who does not gather with Me, scatters’ (Matthew 12:30).

If only we give them room

Tomorrow the 64th Greek Festival begins in Portland in the plaza before the Greek Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. Those of us who are Orthodox Christians, and work at the Festival in various jobs, let's keep these things in mind, as we are going to be witnesses for Christ and our holy faith whether we try to be or not.

Let your words ring true and do not let them appear to create a divide between the systematic and holistic aspects inherent in Orthodox Christianity and all other Christianities.

We can be thankful for what we have accepted from our holy and pious ancestors in the faith and from the saints with whom we are living and working out our salvation today, and we can also praise them.

The opportunity lies in our invitation extended to those who haven’t yet ‘seen the true Light… received the heavenly Spirit… found the true faith.’ This is no scolding, but an invitation to greater love,

that greater love which causes us to lay down our lives for our brothers. And who are our brothers? People even closer to us than our neighbors, and yet even between them we draw no distinction.

We are all met by Christ Himself, regardless of whether we are Orthodox or not, even Christians or not. We are all met by Him and offered eternal life, by the Savior of the world who does not let His divinity overwhelm His humanity.

In the same way, let’s walk together in the seamless faith which confesses no tear, moving through the world as the One Body of Christ wearing His undivided garment, that which soldiers wagered to win.

‘He who does not gather with Me, scatters,’ says the Lord Jesus Christ, who does not notice anything about us other than our need. Just as holy apostle Paul says, we are unspiritual. The Spirit in us must take us to Himself.

The sheep who were wandering aimlessly without a shepherd have been gathered and are being gathered by the Shepherd of souls, who is presenting us to His Father, the heavenly King.

Come let us worship, and fall down before Yahweh our Maker, for we are the people He pastures, the flock that He guides. Keeping our eyes on Jesus, following Him closely, other sheep will follow, if only we give them room.