Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Nobody is listening

There are various reasons for blogging. Originally, mine was to share some experiences with others about witnessing for Christ. Over the nine years or so that I’ve been writing on line, my topics have ranged far and wide. The title of my blog came from my favorite spiritual book other than the bible itself, and in a very general sort of way, I have tried to stay with discipleship as a theme.

I confess, though, that I have also used my blog to vent my frustrations with Church. That in itself is enough to get me blacklisted and abandoned by all. Yet I still have a few friends who still visit, and some who even comment from time to time.

I never wanted my blog to be a flag advertising my opinions or to draw attention to myself, and thankfully, at least the latter hasn’t happened. For me, the best effect my blog has had, is that through it I have met many brethren who are faithful followers of Christ. If that’s all it has accomplished, I am satisfied, but I hope that among the anonymous visitors here, some have been helped in some way, and not hindered.

Lastly, I sincerely apologize and ask forgiveness of anyone whom I may have offended.

The question presented itself to me again, why should I blog, why should I express what the Lord has put on my heart to say, since in all likelihood nobody is listening?

One can get that impression from seeing how few comment, but that impression is unreliable. Most people reading blogs don’t comment on them, unless the topics are inflammatory or provocative. I never intended my blog to be such, so why expect lots of comments?
In fact, though my posts are often lengthy, myself I have little patience to read lengthy posts written by others. Hence I try to keep it short. Well, my friends, you have seen the results.

The complaint that nobody is listening should never stop anyone from blogging, or speaking, or doing anything for Christ, if He has supplied you. The fact is, this kind of thinking is the same as that of people who once criticized Brock and me for doing unprofitable work when we went downtown and read the gospels out loud in public.

They said, “what good does that do? Nobody is listening. It doesn’t bring a return.”

This way of thinking is man-centered, results-oriented. It is not for any of us to judge this way, but for God alone. What is ours is to plant the seed and believe on God’s promise to give the increase. If we prevent ourselves from planting seed, whatever form that seeding takes, then we have also kept back part of the money, figuratively speaking, that we received for the sale of our land, as Annas and Sapphira did. Only in our case, it was not mere money, but life itself, that we have withheld—and lives that can be saved by Christ only if those whom He has sent go forth and bring the good news.

I write this to encourage all who have been given the gift of faith coupled with knowledge of the truth of God, personal knowledge not mere book-learning, and joined to the gift of speech, to not withhold themselves from thus testifying, witnessing for Christ, even in so lowly a way as blogging. When God speaks to you, it is not only for yourself. Sometimes it is, but often it is for others. We cannot know what use the Lord has planned for our humble words, spoken or written in Him.

It is a wonder that anyone should hear the Word of God speaking to him, but if he does, how can he hold back from announcing it to others?

Can two walk together, except they be agreed?
Will a lion roar in the forest, when he hath no prey?
Will a young lion cry out of his den, if he have taken nothing?
Can a bird fall in a snare upon the earth, where no gin is for him?
Shall one take up a snare from the earth,
and have taken nothing at all?
Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid?
Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?
Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets. The lion hath roared, who will not fear?
The Lord GOD hath spoken, who can but prophesy?

Amos 3:3-8 KJV

I write as an Orthodox Christian, but what some of you may have suspected is true—I am actually a Baptist, of the same following as John the honorable forerunner. It took a child to teach me that living in my own tomb would only result in me dying there, when the Lord of life had been calling me to come forth and live. Though we are unprofitable servants, unworthy followers of the Lord of all, He has entrusted us with a real mission. Let’s not leave it lying at our feet, but pick it up, and carry it abroad, and speak the Word that He puts in our mouths, write it if He has given us the words, even if nobody is listening.

“Do two men take the road together…?
…the lion roars, who can not be afraid…?”

Both must die

This post was originally written and published on Sunday, February 5, 2012. That was three years ago. We were in a dangerous place then, the place where I went to church. But the Lord has shown mercy after our time of testing, and as I republish this, I beg the reader who knows the history that produced these thoughts to put that memory away. We are back again on the path of the blessed saints, on the journey to our true home. Let us draw near to the Lord in true repentance, forgiving all who have offended us, and enter the holy season of Sarakostí laden with mercy.

The Publican and the Pharisee
Christian Dare
This Sunday is the first Sunday of the Triodion in the Orthodox Church. The Triodion, ‘the three odes,’ is simply the name of the hefty volume that holds all the texts and rubrics of the services between today and the end of Great and Holy Lent, which I prefer to call by its Greek name, Sarakostí, not to be elite or mysterious, but because ‘forty days’ is implied in Sarakostí, and that holds a lot more meaning for me than the pious words I wrote down at first. For as we consciously turn from the celebration of the birth of Christ to the commemoration and experience of His death, a struggle begins at once for our attention and ultimately our souls.

A real war, though invisible to most of us because we’re already in the thick of it and don’t realize it, is taking place, between religion and reality. Piety, not the godly fear born of our encounter with the Living God, but the hand-me-downs of generations forcing us by a process of subtle mimicry, robbed of understanding, to imitate and finally become attached to everything that is opposed to life with Him who alone grants life. There is a church that was once alive in the Spirit, following Jesus and imitating Him not only in daily life but in worship, making the liturgy truly divine, truly ‘in spirit and truth,’ but as it seeks to protect itself and exalt itself, the living God visibly departs from it.

Ichabod. ‘The glory has departed.’ So, how is this possible? How can such a thing happen to a Christian people? I go to church. I hear a sermon preached on ‘the publican and the Pharisee,’ and though I pay attention and listen closely, I hear nothing. Only rhetoric, only philosophy couched once again the terms of piety, of religion. What sticks with me even now, hours later, is the announcement that fasting is forbidden this week. Eat whatever you want. Meat, meat and more meat. And there’s a luncheon to which we’re all invited after the service, yes, chicken will be served, and a vegetarian entrée as well if I heard correctly, but I’m not quite sure. It was tacked on almost in a whisper.

I’ve heard plenty of good sermons on the publican and the Pharisee in this church. I noticed just now that ‘publican’ isn’t capitalized, only ‘Pharisee.’ I guess that’s because only organized religion gets recognized. The preacher confessed that both men praying in the parable had worthy prayers. The Pharisee did as he was told, was a good boy from his religion’s point of view. What was his downfall? Comparing himself to the publican. Yes, I admit I did hear the preacher say that, and it stuck with me too. The emphasis, though, was on the righteousness of the Pharisee. Yes, somebody just like us, doing all the right things, following rules and traditions. Too bad he looked down on little ‘p’.

The righteousness of the Pharisee really made him the better man. The emphasis was subtle but unmistakable. It almost excused him for his transgression, at least that’s what was heard between the lines. Yes, well, let’s forget about the fact that his repentance was, well, imperfect. Let’s not even mention that it wasn’t accepted by God, in Christ’s parable. After all, it’s just a parable. And as for the publican, well, yes, his repentance was heard, even though he was everything but a good, upstanding member of society. Christ doesn’t go on to say what the ultimate fate of either the publican or the Pharisee was, but we can guess. Let’s just look at ourselves, at each other.
We’re saved.

The big question of ‘which one are we, the publican or the Pharisee?’ hardly needs asking. We already know that we are the publican even though every bit of evidence about us shows us to be the Pharisee, and we’re even proud of it. We have learned how to put on piety as a garment, our best somber face for church just like we put on our Sunday best. I look around me during the service. Actually, I have to move to a different seat. A family I know well fills the pew in front of me, and two teenage girls dressed up in their seductive best keep chatting and giggling. Meanwhile their parents seem to have fallen asleep standing. I find another place a few rows back on the other side of the aisle.

As I was saying before my Pharisee side came out and caused me to move to where I could repent in quieter surroundings, I look around me during the service, well, not exactly around. Just to either side and in front of me is enough. Pierced by scowls and saddened by socializing, I barely see anyone who looks as though they are really standing in the presence of the living God. The religiosity of some is evident, but it seems like they are crushed, or angry, or bored, or all three. Those who are gabbing and grappling with one another seem merrier, somehow, than one would expect when confronted by the Being who once commanded Moses, ‘Take off your sandals. This is Holy ground.’

Once again I am baffled by the mystery of the Church, how it seems to fade in and out, how it seems to open doors and then close them, how the Kingdom of Heaven can be manifested in a single service, and then next week everything speaks the flesh. We push religion and suppress reality, yet the Church is still the Church, no matter what we do. The Holy Spirit can and does come and go, staying when we are obedient and rightly pious, departing for a spell when we grieve Him, even if out of ignorance. What is constant, though, is the mercy of God, which does not depend on humans showing it. Sometimes those ordained to be merciful, simply look the other way. Perhaps that’s just how it is.

Have we ever considered that not just individuals, but perhaps churches themselves, can be publicans and Pharisees? I’m not now speaking of the Church, the Bride of Christ, but of those human congregations, whatever they call themselves, that claim to be what the Church is. Like the words spelled with a capital letter or not, churches can be publican or Pharisee without ever noticing what they’re doing. No church or congregation would admit that they are Pharisee, but what are we to make of the pronouncements we hear from some of them? Or of their attitudes toward other churches, which some of them don’t even recognize as churches, the big ‘P’ versus the little ‘p’ in action?

It’s a beautiful, spring day here at the beginning of the road on the way to Pascha, which begins at a signpost marked ‘Triodion’ at which we are told we must now leave behind all our baggage, all our wistful piety, false appearances, spiritual racism, our jeweled turbans and tiaras, yes, even our self-inflicted religion, and let ourselves be clothed in the rags of our filthy righteousness. Yes, clothed in what we’ve been wearing like concealed undergarments all these years, of which we are so proud. Clothed in them so that we can be unclothed, undressed, disrobed as we enter the road of no returning, no turning back, the road to the cross, to our own deaths, to meet Him we claim to believe in.

Both the publican and the Pharisee must die for their sins, even though the repentance of only one of them was found worthy, the other wanting. They must die so that the new man, nameless but for the secret Name bestowed by Christ at the meeting, can emerge at His command like Lazarus from his four-day burial. They must die and disappear, never to be brought again to mind, because their Redeemer has forgotten all their sin, separating them from it as far as the East is from the West. They must die because the age of publicans and Pharisees is drawing to a close, typically in this time, this year, and ‘in spirit and truth’ for each one who really enters this road, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.

You keep me alive

God desires and seeks the salvation of all. And He is always saving all who wish to be saved from drowning in the sea of life and sin. 
But He does not always save in a boat or a convenient, well-equipped harbor.

He promised to save the Holy Apostle Paul and all his fellow-travelers, and He did save them. But the Apostle and his fellow-passengers were not saved in the ship, which was wrecked; they were saved with great difficulty, some by swimming and others on boards and various bits of the ship's wreckage.

Though I live surrounded by trouble,
You keep my alive—to my enemies’ fury!
You stretch Your hand out and save me,
Your right hand will do everything for me.
Yahweh, Your love is everlasting,
do not abandon us whom you gave made.
Psalm 138:7-8 Jerusalem Bible

Psalms for the 28th Day
132 133 134 135 136 137 138

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The deeper call

Youth, or for that matter, Christians of any age group, are not ‘attracted’ to church activity by making it seem more like what they’re used to. Every church that has tried this has found itself getting caught up not in the gospel or real spiritual life, but in an endless recycling of half-baked ideas that moves them further away from what they thought they were seeking, or did they have it right in the first place?

Church attendance is not increased by devices or by attractions, or by replacing the ‘same ole, same ole’ with something new. The church thinks it’s doing us a big favor when they throw out the liturgy books we’ve finally gotten used to, replacing them with slim, abundantly illustrated, footnoted, and explanationed versions, that have even the Greek transliterated into phonetic English.

Few people will pay any attention to the transliterations. The Greeks, myself included, know most of the services by heart and don’t need the books—know them by heart in Greek. I used to pray and sing the English versions of the texts, but except for the Lord’s Prayer, I have given up, tired of the frequent re-translations of once familiar texts. Hasn’t the experience of the other churches taught us anything?

No, church attendance is not increased by anything short of taking the time to really make disciples, not just telling the people in your congregation to ‘disciple themselves.’ The language issue is really a non-issue, because it doesn’t matter what language the liturgy is in, because if you’re there for the right reasons, you already understand what’s going on.

The Church, like everyone else, wants to take shortcuts, wants to do as little with as little as possible to achieve as much as possible. Much of what? Whatever looks good, feels good, sounds good, is fun, gives us a chance to show off our religion or our charity, but what of the gospel, what of the life of sanctification? Yes, we preach it and teach it, but there is almost no follow-up.

‘Invite your neighbor or an unchurched family member to come to church.’ Does this exhortation sound familiar? It doesn’t matter what church you go to, this message is preached. ‘Hey, fish, go and do your job! Invite others to become fish caught in a net like you are. It will be fun. We have so many programs for you to do, the more the merrier.’

Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with this exhortation, but itself, it is not the Message. ‘Come to church’ is simply not the Message. It is not the good news. If it were, then people would be attracted to it like a poor man is attracted to a rich man who had limitless wealth to give away. People are not that stupid, and some are even too smart for their own good. ‘Nobody could be that rich!’

Why isn’t the church filled on the Lord’s Day? Where are the youth? Is salvation and the life of discipleship so unknown to them, that all, young and old, would exchange it at the drop of a hat for a trip to the beach, the mall, or the golf course? And if it is so unknown to them, why? Here we are, almost to the Great Fast. Why not try to read a chapter each day of the gospels?

A chapter each day? Not a chapter each ten minutes, and the whole book in three or four hours? Can people who spend hours of their time pursuing lifeless drama not turn aside and be quiet with the Word of God longer than one chapter’s worth a day? The suggestion even sounds apologetic, even sounds as if you know that no one is listening, no one is going to listen. No one obeys.

No, the Word of God is eternal life between two covers and an inch and a quarter thick. It needs eyes to read it mentally, and lips as well if read aloud, which has the added benefit of possibly drawing others in to listen. Hours of church attendance are nothing compared to the hour and a half it takes to read Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in effect, that is. And what is the effect? To truly be present when we are worshiping in church.

Myself, I am an unworthy, living an unworthy life. Like the Church, I don’t go seeking the lost sheep, I don’t go out on the sea at night casting my nets to bring fish into the Kingdom. I wait for the sheep to come to me. Like the Church, I should put up a sign that reads, ‘Fish wanted. Please apply within.’ I receive the call of Christ, and I respond. I don’t think about who is doing the work, but about Who is calling.

Once I was told by a fellow church member, that I should not wait for the church to ask me to volunteer; I should call the church and say, ‘I have free time. What can I do?’ I told her, ‘sorry, that isn’t the way I do it.’ That puts me in control. That puts discipleship to death. The call of Christ is not volunteerism. Christ accepted those who responded to His call, not those who put themselves forward and asked Him, ‘what can I do for you?’

The Church that acts on the call of Christ goes forth to make disciples, and making disciples, opens doors to their hearts to the deeper call of Christ day by day. It doesn’t wait for the lost sheep to find its way back to the fold. It doesn’t hang out a tiny net and wait for fish to jump in, or for a whole school of fish. It doesn’t turn people into sheep and then scold or shame them for being just that.

I was told once by a man who claimed to be a priest (and his claim was good, canonically speaking, he had been duly ordained) that he was afraid of the people he came to serve. I was astonished! But watching him ‘work’ in the community, I could see that for him, at least, his statement was true. He was afraid of us. He said that all priests are afraid of their people. I disagree.

But a priest should do one thing that many are afraid of doing today—actually, there are many things, but let’s concentrate on just one—that is, of identifying the real spiritual resources among their people, and call those who have them. In this, the priest of God is truly an ikon of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was not afraid to call any man to any task, especially to the impossible.

Day by day, never perfect, never worthy, never righteous, never wise, but trying to walk by faith, not by sight, trying to follow the Master whose blessed feet tread not the tame path of religion, but get dusty from the world’s roads, following Him even when it hurts, even when tired, even when unhappy, even when tempted, even having sinned, even when accused, judged and imprisoned falsely, day by day.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The sumptuous banquet of the Word

Just yesterday was the Sunday of Zacchaeus, just one week before the beginning of Triodion, the Orthodox division of chrónos time in which we make our preparations for the journey to Pascha, to the new paradise of the Tree of Life, the cross on which our Savior Jesus Christ hung as a ripe fruit, beckoning us to eat of it, that we might live forever. “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

The entrance gate to that new paradise is not permanently locked as was the gate to the old, from whence our first forefathers Adam and Eve were expelled for their transgressions, and we for ours. We have been invited, no, commanded, to open that gate and to enter, to seek Him whom our heart loves (cf. Song of Songs, 1:7), and we have been shown how, in the example of Zacchaeus, a man who though rich had come up short in his accounts with the Master, yet who was called to welcome the Lord into his house.

He entered Jericho and was going through the town when a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance; he was one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see Him for the crowd; so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way.

When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down! Hurry, because I must stay at your house today!’ And he hurried down and welcomed Him joyfully. They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house,’ they said. But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’ And Jesus said to him,
‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’
Luke 19:1-10 Jerusalem Bible

How can anyone who hears this true story not feel his spirit leap within him? Another chance to make good on everything that I have ruined, another chance to welcome back joy into my shattered life. Though I have filled my house with every good thing, it has been through pillaging what was not mine. Though I have exploited the poor, defrauded widows and orphans, He has seen hidden inside me the man that He created, and He is giving me another chance. He is letting me serve Him, letting me dine with Him, in my own house which He now has made His. “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.”

And so the Word of God comes to our personal Jericho, and we, having heard of Him, maybe knowing more about Him than we care to admit, run ahead to find a comfortable spot from which to view this parade of His followers, and actually lay our eyes on Him. All we wanted to do was just that—take a look. But what happens to us proves beyond all shadow of a doubt, that His love bestows on us more than we bargained for. Though we thought, ‘I am one of so many, I can hide among the leafy branches above this crowd, and see Him without being noticed,’ He sees us.

The crowd doesn’t see us, no matter what we do, good or bad, whether we try to be visible or invisible. No one ever sees us as we really are. We don’t even see ourselves. Yet we cannot hide from the One who made us, and who is all Eye. Though Jesus had never seen him in this world, He looked up and saw Zacchaeus and called him out by name, just as He calls each of us by name. ‘How do you know me?’ asks another man whom Jesus called by name. For that man, as for Zacchaeus, there was no gradual development into a follower of Christ; it happened in an instant, in a moment of kairós time
(cf. John 1:48).

It always must be this way. Jesus doesn’t wait. He calls us, and we either respond, or not. What must it feel like to be someone who has heard the voice of Jesus, and still turned away?

So Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus Christ into his home, prepared a feast, and dined with the Lord. No one had to tell him what to say or do. “Blessed are you... because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17 NASB), he just said it, and did it. “I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.” Zacchaeus returned to his senses, drawn back to reason by the Son of Man, remembered the covenant, came back to the commandments. Why? Because he heard the voice of Jesus say, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham.”
We too are the sons and daughters, not only of Abraham, but of God our heavenly Father, through Christ our heavenly Brother, Friend, Master and Lord, who says to us, “I shall not call you servants any more, because a servant does not know his master’s business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (John 15:15 JB) and “You are My friends, if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).

What an opportunity! Jesus calls us by name—even if we don’t know Him, He knows us—to the sumptuous banquet of the Word! With Zacchaeus, let’s return everything that doesn’t belong to us—sin itself—so that we can travel light, as we run the way of His commandments, because He has set us free.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

All things visible and invisible

Just a story…

The end of January, and spring is already here. He cannot get enough fresh air in his room or into his lungs, and he throws open both windows wide. Coolness hovers just outside, refusing to pour in—there is no breeze. He ponders the invitation to call a priest to visit his humble home and, praying profusely, splash its rooms and ikons with holy water, the water that was blessed three weeks earlier. Is it still fresh? Does the Spirit still indwell it? Or like the manna, does it go bad if you don’t use it daily?

Stavrakis sits and ponders. He went to church today, this Lord’s day. That makes two in a row. Each time the worship was so different. Last week, no choir, just a cantor chanting in husky, male syllables that intimidated not just the women but even most of the men from singing along. Today, a mixed choir reappeared like an orchestra on tour, bright with womanly voices and, if there were any males among them, they were cleverly disguised. Stavrakis sang both services as best as he could. He loved to sing.

As usual, a blind man is always something of a mystery, and even in church people tend to avoid him. Is it because they think he might accidentally bump into them as he stumbles around the temple? Or are they afraid of hurting him? Perhaps they’re thinking he has been hurt enough already, so it’s better to let him be, leave him alone to work it out with the Lord. After all, who is a better friend and comforter than God? Stavrakis, the blind widower of an insane wife, maybe God doesn’t love him. Who knows?

Without sleeping on it, he decides to call the priest and leaves a message, ‘Come sit with me, take a little tea, and bless my house, Father. I am always at home,’ on the answering machine. It isn’t as though he has been regular at this. He can’t even remember the last time he had his house blessed. Had he ever? He simply can’t remember. Maybe that’s why his house fell into ruin. Stavrakis was never one to be very keen on blessings. When he could still see, it seemed to him that God’s blessings around him every day were enough.

On a walk to the market, he hears a familiar voice. It’s the priest. ‘Thank you, Stavrakis, for your message.’ He feels for the father’s hand, bows slightly and kisses it, smiling but saying nothing. Then the two of them part ways with no more said, as if they were strangers. Did the priest smile? A blind man has the hardest time seeing a smile when you don’t speak. Stavrakis asks himself, ‘Does this mean he will come and have tea with me? Will he bless my house?’ He doesn’t know if the two activities can be combined, and wonders.

Later, a shallow knock at the door. Stavrakis, lost in meditation as he lies on his bed reciting from memory and praying  the psalms, thinks he is dreaming. Did I hear a knock? He pauses, and breathes deeply, a little nervously. Did the father come after all? Is he at the door? Better hurry down to see, that is, as much as a blind man can, and while he descends the stairs he hears another knock, unmistakably clear this time. Tap-tap-tap! There it is again. Tap-tap-tap! Always threes, everything Orthodox has to come in threes.

‘Agios! Agios! Agios! Kyrios o Theos…’ Stavrakis mutters to himself as he covers the last few steps to the door handle. To do anything outside himself, he must extricate himself from his prayer. He swims in it as a fish swims in water, unaware that it even is water, unaware that it is swimming. ‘Father, is that you?’ he asks as the door swings open. He’s answered by meeting a faint fragrance of Bethlehem incense, the same as he burns at his own ikon stand against the east wall of his dining room.

‘It is you, Father! I didn’t know if you’d come!’ The priest greets him with clerical reserve tempered by some natural human warmth. ‘I don’t know what to do, Father, so I hope you do!’ he jokes with the young priest to break the ice and make both of them feel a little more comfortable. Slowly, after a few more words of welcome and greeting on both sides, the father begins the prayer. As he prays in each room, Stavrakis stays near, making the responses, smelling the incense, feeling occasionally the overspray of the aspergil as the priest casts holy water about the rooms.

Then, it is over. Stavrakis is afraid to ask, but he forces himself. ‘Father, would you care to take tea with me? I would consider it a great blessing to sit down with you. Maybe we could talk a bit.’ There is a long pause, and then a negative but apologetic response. Then, another longer pause. ‘What’s he waiting for?’ he asks himself. Then, he remembers. ‘Give the priest something for his trouble in coming out to see you.’ His alter ego responds, ‘But that’s what the tea was for!’

‘Perhaps God doesn’t accept tea as an offering,’ he jokingly muses. ‘Even goat’s hair, He will accept as an offering, so say the rabbis. But tea? That’s another matter.’ Stavrakis’ heart is still Jewish like his mother’s, even though she didn’t survive long enough to make a Jew out of him. His Greek father’s grief at her death, like a family curse, was passed on to him: His dead wife, though she didn’t die early, early died her love for him, making life with her impossible to the end.

‘Father, I am sorry, but I didn’t think ahead to have any money in the house to give you as an offering for coming here to bless. Please, look about you. Is there anything in my house that you or Holy Church could use? If there is, please take it. Anything you can see. Please forgive me.’ The young priest takes a few steps and Stavrakis hears the jingle of something metallic, then the sound of something being put down on the dining room table, above which is mounted an ancient Hebrew manuscript.

‘No, brother Myron. There is nothing that I can see that Holy Church or I need to take away from you as an offering. I have already received an offering that I cannot see from you, and so we give you an offering that you cannot see. Your offering is spiritual, ours only material. But please, accept it, let it be our offering to the God you worship in this house, who has blessed me very much.’

And having said those words, the young father departed, leaving his censer on the table for Stavrakis’ prayers.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Everyone knows

Cost of Discipleship, this blog, was never intended to be more than a site where I could record and publish my experiences and thoughts in the following of Christ. At the beginning, it served in large part to describe the experience of witnessing publicly by reading the Holy Scriptures aloud in Portland.

After that initiation into personal evangelism I continued on, still blogging my experiences and thoughts, and promoting those of others, especially poetry, that I felt should get as wide a readership as possible. For myself, I never know if the post I am currently writing will be my last one. Several times I thought so, but then I’d write again. Cost of Discipleship really has been simply a work of saying ‘Yes’ to the Lord when He asks me to do something. It’s not a case of me ‘hanging out my shingle’ and hoping to be ‘discovered.’ I like to think that what I write about will help people, hundreds of people, unknown to me, and who will never acknowledge to me that they have been helped. At least, this is what is happening, I hope.

To this end, I have tried to stay clear of controversy, though not always have I been successful. There are things that I have written because I had to, there could be no holding back, come what may, even at the risk of causing controversy. As a matter of fact, very little controversy has occurred. I never argue, at least that’s my principle—I just deliver the message, and then stand aside. Most of my readers have been of like mind, knowing that what’s important is not whether we agree or disagree. What’s important is that whatever we think or say or do, we are following Jesus. He has a way of shutting us up, as regards our opinions and thoughts, though not with arrogance as a mere man would, but with meekness. In fact, it is remembering the meekness of our Lord that helps us to be meek.

But there can be issues sometimes that require not discussion but action, and thoughts that, whether they are agreed with or not, still provoke a response in us. The literal cost of discipleship is not something easily calculated or written about in books and blogs. It is something we simply pay by being willing to testify of Jesus Christ, who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Our testimony may or may not be received. Most of the time we will evade those who hate us because of it, but sometimes, like our holy apostle John, we will be banished and incarcerated ‘on the isle called Patmos.’ And like him, while we are in that place of exile and affliction, we too are often caught up ‘on the Lord’s Day’ to hear words and see things that He wants to reveal to us, many of which we couldn’t reveal to others, even if we wanted to.

There are dangers in this world, both to the body and the soul, that the life of discipleship, of following Jesus, do not take away. ‘Though a thousand fall at your side, though ten thousand are dying around you, these evils will not touch you,’ is a promise that has many facets. Though these evils did not touch Jesus, still He hung on the Cross and gave up His life there. Though these evils did not touch the martyrs, still they suffered the ill treatment and even death at the hands of those that hated them for Christ’s sake. Though these evils do not touch us, circumstances happen in which we find ourselves becoming passion-bearers, events beyond our control, in which we, like Christ, allow ourselves ‘to be led like sheep to the slaughter,’ opening not our mouths. It is there that we are granted ‘the peace that the world cannot give.’

When troubles happen and we nevertheless carry on, hopeful and determined to remain faithful, the world says of us, ‘He is in denial.’ They say this too, when they accuse us falsely of what we have never done. It is a kind of mantra with them, and they think it bolsters their own confidence or authority. But there are times when we can say the same of the world, ‘They are in denial.’ History is full of such times. In fact, almost all of human history is built on our civilization being ‘in denial.’ Denial of what? Not of what, but of Whom. Right from the beginning, ‘It’s not my fault. The woman tempted me, and I ate.’ Then, almost without time to recover, ‘Who am I? My brother’s keeper?’ Yet the truth has to be known before it can be denied.

We are now approaching, no, now approaching us are, the events that will close this present age. We won’t have to declare ‘For the time is close’ very much longer. When the most evil fiend has finally revealed himself in great terror ‘against Yahweh and His Anointed, and the kings on earth are rising in revolt,’ the world in unity with them says, ‘There is no threat. It is a religion of peace!’ Anything and anyone is preferable to them, even this ‘religion of peace,’ even surrender to it while it devours them, anything and anyone is preferable to acknowledging Him ‘Who Is, Was and Is to Come, the Faithful and True Witness.’ Theirs is truly living ‘in denial’ and a greater denial cannot be imagined. It’s not even necessary for me to spell out what the world is surrendering to. Everyone knows.

Glory to You, O God! Glory to You!

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”
Revelation 22:1-6 NIV

Memory eternal

My Dad, after whom I am named Roman, reposed on January 20, 2013. We used to talk by phone every week, and I tried to visit him at least once a year, even though we lived almost at the extreme antipodes of the continent from each other. It was hard for me, the first few months after he passed away, to get used to not hearing his voice when he would call me in the wee hours of a weekend morning, ‘Good morning, Norm... it’s Dad. How are you doing?’ It was also strange for me to not be flying to Florida to stay with him, after the last time, when I went to be with him as he was dying.

This morning, it has been two years. When my step-sister Jeannie, who lived with him his last year, called that January morning, I knew the end was soon. I quickly finished my work and got the first flight I could to Sarasota. Amazingly, and fortunately, I arrived before he passed. Before I left, I even had a chance to talk to him by phone, in case he reposed before I got there. I tried my best to tell him how much I loved and respected him, how thankful I was to have such a father, and I asked him to forgive me my many sins and offenses. Though he was almost out of breath, in his humility he responded, blessing me, and asking me for permission to go now, to be with the Lord. He had asked us the year before, and we said, ‘No, Dad, not yet, please.’ This time, we knew better. 

He was a good man, and a good Christian, as I finally discovered when I began visiting him and getting to know him, as an adult. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity. Many people miss this, because they stay distant from their parents and other relatives out of unforgiving resentment.

The evening before he reposed, I sat with him, holding his hand as he lay in bed. I talked to him gently and tried to encourage him to hang on to his faith in Christ no matter what happened, what he might meet ‘on the other side.’ He talked to me too, but because he was almost breathless, I could barely hear his words. Sometimes he beckoned me closer and I put my ear almost to his lips to hear what he was saying. They were fatherly, loving words. Sometimes, though, as I sat there, he would stop talking to me, turn his head and eyes upward, and seemingly speak to someone unseen above. I felt a presence too, but it felt like the ancestors coming closer to accompany him when he was finally released from this life.

In the morning of January 20, we were called into his room. We had just missed his leave-taking. A nurse who was with him told us that he expired peacefully at the moment of death. Since he wanted no funeral, we arranged to come to the funeral home, where they would lay his body out in a private room, covered with a white sheet, and sing the Orthodox memorial service. In the company of my step-brother and his wife, and a cousin, and my step-sister, I sang the memorial service and read the prayers, just as we do in church, since we had no priest available. My sister-in-law was the only Catholic, and she and I understood what we were doing more than the others, who were old time country Baptists, but I could tell, that beyond the unfamiliar ceremony, we were all of one mind and heart in bidding Dad farewell.

Though I’ve told these stories before, I want to share them with you, brethren and family alike, one more time.

I was 17 years old, had just gotten my driver's license, and had not yet really learned how to handle a car in all situations. I was working the 2nd shift at the Wheaton post office where my Dad was the superintendant. It was after midnight, and a drizzly sort of night, and I was going home. Filled with the sense of power I had, driving my Dad's new station wagon, I took a curve at too high a speed, rolled the car into a ditch, breaking the windshield and all the windows, lost my glasses and bumped my head really bad, but the car bounced back onto its wheels and was driveable. I drove the 18 miles to my house, my Mom was up waiting for me, but Dad was already in bed, snoring. She opened the door and asked, "Norm, are you alright?" and then looked at the car, roof smashed down and all the edges lined with grass poking out of sod fragments. She hurried me in, and then went and woke up my Dad. I went with her.

"What happened, Norm?" he asked. I lied. I made up a story of how there must've been oil on the road when I took that curve and rolled his new car into the ditch. He slowly got up and got dressed, "Where did it happen?" he asked, then, "Let's go and see if we can find the windshield and get the license sticker off of it, so it can't be traced." We went down and found the sticker and tore it off the shattered windshield, and drove home. We both went back to bed. I feared for my life in the morning.

What did Dad do? Nothing. He just started driving his jalopy to work, tried to salvage parts off the new car (he worked on cars), and rescheduled me to work in the Dead Letter department during his working hours, since we now had only one car in the family. He never blamed me or punished me or even mentioned what happened again. He took the loss, and acted as if he never had that new car.

I've never forgotten this incident all my life, and even though when I've reminisced about it with my Dad, he has said, “Well, that's not how I remember it!” ...well, he probably doesn't want to be made out to be a ‘softy.’ After all, he was an army man.

And another story about Dad which I first wrote without telling you who the old man was…

An old man sitting in his tiny room on a day bed. On the wall behind the bed are two glazed picture frames, the one on the left full of awards and ribbons from his American Legion days, the one on the right displays an arrangement of military decorations, bars and medals hanging from ribbons, with a sepia tone photo of a young soldier in his early twenties. He has company with him in his room, a rare event.

His visitor asks him about the medals, ‘What was this one for? And what about that other one?’ The old man’s eyes get a far away look in them when asked about a medal for his service in Korea during the war almost sixty years ago. ‘What did you do when you were in Korea to earn that? Were you in combat?’

‘No, not exactly what you’d call combat, but I was surrounded by it. Me and another soldier, we were assigned to carry mail between Pusan and the front lines. When we landed in Pusan, that’s about all there was of Korea, the Chinese had overrun everything. My original army unit was almost completely wiped out. I got placed in a different unit, and we took the mail back and forth.

‘We lived in the railway car that carried the mail, like a postal unit on wheels, it got hauled from the base at Pusan to wherever we had to get the mail to and from our troops. We took in a Korean boy, must’ve been twelve years old or so, named Kim Mun Heup. He spoke good English, he was from a rich family in Seoul, but both his parents were killed in the fighting. We took him in as our house boy. He cooked, washed our stuff, helped us buy food and supplies in the towns wherever we went. He lived with us in the railway car.

‘We paid him, of course, but I got a hold of a Sears Roebuck catalog, and we let him look through it and pick out clothes and other things. We sent away for them, and when they finally got here, boy, was he ever happy! He had a baseball cap and real American clothes, tee-shirts and blue jeans, and shoes. Boy, was he ever proud! Kim found five other boys, all orphans like himself, but younger, and became their manager. He got his orders from us, and gave them their work. He paid them, and shared with them, of course.

Kim Mun Heup (third from right) with his ‘cohort’
‘I was proud of him, too, and I wanted to adopt him and bring him back to America, but I knew that wouldn’t go over well. I’d just gotten married before being shipped off, and I had a baby on the way. I knew my wife wouldn’t want to see me bring home a kid just ten years younger than me, and not “one of us,” if you get my meaning.

‘When we were in the north, at the front, refugees would come to me and my buddy, maybe Kim told them about us, and we’d give them a place to stay and a ride in our mail car back to the south. We’d drop them off at various places along the way, where they had friends or relatives to take them in. Times were pretty rough, and they’d lost a lot. Once we even hid a bunch of Catholic nuns who escaped from the north and dropped them off in a safe area. They were Koreans, of course, but spoke good English, as did most of the people that came to us for help.

‘Boy, would we ever have gotten in trouble for hiding these people, if the base commander had found out! But he never did. That’s because we always dropped them off before the train got back to Pusan. We didn’t see any harm in it, helping those folks. What else could we have done?

‘I didn’t stay right to the end of the war. Our replacements arrived, and me and my buddy returned to the States. Like I said, I really wanted to adopt Kim and bring him home, but it just couldn’t happen. So before we left, we gave him a couple of thousand dollars and dropped him off in a small town where he had some relatives. The money was for his education. I hope he made it. We didn’t stay in touch after the war. Life had just changed too much for all of us.’

The visitor listened to the old man release his secret story and wondered, had anyone else heard this told in many a year? Was the buddy still alive, staying alone in some cottage like this old soldier? And where was Kim? Three whole lifetimes were lived completely apart, that once for a year or a little more had been more closely knit than family, two young men and a boy riding the rails together in a war-torn land, carrying messages between danger and safety, carrying souls secretly from oppression to freedom.

That’s worth more than medals.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The cost of indifference

Agnosticism, even atheism, may be a popular ‘testimony’ in today’s liberal society, but all the glories of humanism aside, what it boils down to is really just indifference. Here is the thought process of a man indifferent to God, and what Pascal had to say about him. This is Pascal at his densest—what I mean is, it’s hard to read him because he is saying more than his words say on the surface, and it’s all so true. This French philosopher doesn’t quote scripture in this passage, which is unusual, as his book Pensées is a treasure trove of biblical texts and rambling thoughts about them. But a true disciple of Jesus he was, and was found at his death to have been carrying his handwritten testimony of his saving encounter with Christ, sewn into the lining of the jacket he always wore. I can relate to that.

Here is the passage, which I would call, the cost of indifference. People haven't changed much in three hundred years. Do you know anyone who could be saying this today? I do.

‘I do not know who put me in the world, nor what the world is, nor what I am myself. I am terribly ignorant about everything. I do not know what my body is, or my senses, or my soul, or even that part of me which thinks what I am saying, which reflects about everything, and about itself, and does not know itself any better than it knows anything else.

‘I see the terrifying spaces of the universe hemming me in, and I find myself attached to one corner of this vast expanse without knowing why I have been put in this place rather than that, or why the brief span of life allotted to me should be assigned to one moment rather than another of all the eternity which went before me and all that which will come after me. I see only infinity on every side, hemming me in like an atom or like the shadow of a fleeting instant. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least about is this very death which I cannot evade.

‘Just as I do not know whence I come, so I do not know whither I am going. All I know is that when I leave this world I shall fall for ever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God, but I do not know which of these two states is to be my eternal lot. Such is my state, full of weakness and uncertainty. And my conclusion from all this is that I must pass my days without a thought of seeking what is to happen to me. Perhaps I might find some enlightenment in my doubts, but I do not want to take the trouble, nor take a step to look for it: and afterwards, as I sneer at those who are striving to this end—whatever certainty they have should arouse despair rather than vanity—I will go without fear or foresight to face so momentous an event, and allow myself to be carried off limply to my death, uncertain of my future state for all eternity.’

Who would wish to have as a friend a man who argued like that? Who would choose him from among others as a confidant in his affairs? Who would resort to him in adversity? To what use in life could he possibly be turned?

It is truly glorious for religion to have such unreasonable men as enemies: their opposition represents so small a danger that it serves on the contrary to establish the truths of religion. For the Christian faith consists almost wholly in establishing these two things: The corruption of nature and the redemption of Christ. Now, I maintain that, if they do not serve to prove the truth of the redemption by the sanctity of their conduct, they do at least admirably serve to prove the corruption of nature by such unnatural sentiments.

Nothing is so important to man as his state: nothing more fearful than eternity. Thus the fact that there exist men who are indifferent to the loss of their being and the peril of an eternity of wretchedness is against nature. With everything else they are quite different; they fear the most trifling things, foresee and feel them; and the same man who spends so many days and nights in fury and despair at losing some office or at some imaginary affront to his honor is the very one who knows that he is going to lose everything through death but feels no anxiety nor emotion. It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart at once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest.

Blaise Pascal
“Remember who your teachers were…”
2 Timothy 3:14

The price of success

What the world considers, what it holds up to be, success, is almost never the real thing. When I say ‘the world’ I don’t mean only what Christians and others call ‘the world’ and consider an enemy to their values. No, because ‘the world’ can operate from any location, including inside the walls of the Church. It operates for sure inside the hearts and minds of many who call themselves Christians. But my object is not to call out and judge others. The great divide between ‘the world’ and the Kingdom of God cuts right through the middle of every man, woman and child. What I want to say is only, what is trumpeted as success is often a cover for unacknowledged failure.

In fact, failure is the price that must be paid for success, that is, in every worldly endeavor, and perhaps in a somewhat different sense, even in every spiritual endeavor. The Lord has not called us to be successful, but to be faithful. To be faithful means to be obedient as well as trusting in the Lord. What we often find when pursuing success is that when we achieve it, we have lost something incomparably more valuable. Ask any rich man who can no longer sit still, or even sleep, for bombardment of covetous thoughts. Christ teaches, but who listens? ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ (Mark 8:36).

Brother Giles of Assisi, a close companion of St Francis, tries to ward off spiritual materialism from us. ‘If you want to see well, pluck out your eyes and be blind. If you want to hear well, be deaf. If you want to walk well, cut off your feet. If you want to work well, cut off your hands. If you want to love well, hate yourself. If you want to live well, die to yourself. If you want to make a good profit, know how to lose.’ It’s obvious from his latter utterances that he is not speaking of literally cutting off one’s hands or feet. I think he is counseling us to make nothing of our own our goal, because in the end, it becomes our god. True success is not to be gauged by what we do, but by what God does for us.

An example from life. An inventor starts a small company to manufacture an innovative product. He is baffled by his first successes, because he is unconsciously humble, but they give him a deserved measure of confidence to continue, and he does. Cautiously he grows his company. He deals honestly, generously and caringly for all his little group of employees, treating them as if family. He treats his customers trustingly and does business on a handshake. Nothing goes wrong. He is successful, and for awhile he is just happy, not thinking of it so much as ‘success’ but as a reward for his efforts. He promises his employees, ‘This will remain a small company, making quality products.’

Not long after, he gets a bug in his ear. His employees notice a change. He seems to be following an unseen star, and with a passion that begins to poison his relationships. He pretends that nothing has changed. He begins shutting out the very people with whom he started this endeavor, and then a pattern of abuse and compensatory periodic generosity emerges. Forgetting his promise, he grows the company beyond all recognition, quality is sacrificed along with loyal employees whom he can no longer stand. He has realized that he wasn’t successful before, that he was too personal with his employees and too trusting with his customers. Success, he thinks, has eluded him. He wants to win.

Years pass. He’s finally a success in his own eyes. He’s banished all thought of failure. His company has survived several recessions, and a few lawsuits. His products are known, sold, and used all over the world. He feels his success deeply, though he no longer has anyone to thank for it, but himself. He has learned a whole new set of behaviors to which he once was almost a stranger. He doesn’t consider his duplicity a fault, his greed a disease, or his occasional bursts of largesse a camouflage. He is on top of the world. His original invention has gone to the sidelines, but he’s lured new recruits to work for him catching bigger fish to fry. He’s proven that failure is the price of success, without knowing it.

Returning to wisdom, the psalmist says it in even more gruesome terms, ‘Man in his prosperity forfeits intelligence. He is one with the cattle doomed to slaughter’ (Psalm 49:20), but there is no need for us to join that herd. Don’t try to be successful, rather ‘seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,’ says Jesus, ‘and all these other things will be added to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33), and Solomon adds, ‘for He provides for His beloved as they sleep’ (Psalm 127:2 Jerusalem Bible).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The right and left hands of love

On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’ When he saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ And he said to him, ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.’
Luke 17:11-19, English Standard Version

The most important principle about prayer which is missed by so many, especially those monergists who say that man can do nothing to add (and even sometimes, they claim, to subtract from) what God does for man to save him, is that the prayer of faith requires action on our part as well.

We lepers cry out, ‘Lord, have mercy on us!’ and if we listen, since the Lord we ask has already decided to grant our request—‘You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it’ (John 14:14)—He will always ask something of us in return. What He requires is for us to confirm our faith.

‘How?’ you may ask. In the case of leprosy, He tells the lepers to go to the priest, in Israel the official inspector of leprosy from whom alone one can obtain a certificate of ‘in good health.’ None of them argue, ‘How can I do that? I’ve got leprosy! When will it go away?’ All just do it.

Scripture testifies, ‘and as they went they were cleansed.’ Never mind the appearance and odor of decaying flesh under these sack-clothes. Stop shaking your warning rattle. Set your face towards Jerusalem. Greet all who pass you as brothers. Trust that your prayer is answered.

We see this principle in action all around us, though we seldom notice. It is brought to our attention sometimes in a good film, like Ostrov (The Island). A woman brings her lame son to Fr Anatoly. He prays simply but fervently, then takes the boy’s crutches away and tells him, ‘Walk!’

The mother is frightened, but the boy does as he is told. His walk is halting at first. Fr Anatoly tells him that he will be fully healed in a little while, but first he must stay overnight at the monastery and receive the Holy Mysteries in the morning. The mother objects, and Fr Anatoly throws her out.

Sometimes prayer requires us to take harsh measures. As the woman is leaving with her son for the mainland, Fr Anatoly jumps into the freezing waters and sloshes to the boat, grabs the boy out of his mother’s arms, and returns to the monastery with him. The mother must believe.

The principle is found everywhere in the Bible, which is why we read it every day, to grow in synergy with God, which is what ‘knowing the Lord’ really means. No one can know God personally, only by hearsay, except the one who knows for sure that ‘God is for us’ and acts on it.

‘What do you mean, If I can?’ Jesus asked. ‘Anything is possible if a person believes’ (Mark 9:23). What we must get over, like the man who brought his demon-tormented son to Christ, is that we can live our earthly lives in faith, knowing that we have power that even angels do not possess.

Because humanity, not the bodiless powers, have been adopted into the family of the Holy Trinity, all of us, as sons and daughters of the Most High, not created to be servants, but kings and queens, priests offering all for all before the Presence, by faith, and by action, the right and left hands of love.

How happy the merciful!

‘How happy the merciful, for they shall have mercy shown them!’ If ever there were a truth that Jesus understated, it must be this! ‘How happy the merciful!’ Yes, the traditional translation is ‘how blessèd,’ and of course, that actually means more than just happy, except who’s to know, since practically all of us no longer know what ‘happy’ or ‘blessèd’ really means? Still, it is a remarkable, yes, even an awesome statement, another one of those words of Jesus that are so profoundly powerful and would be immensely liberating if we would only hear them. Instead, we think we hear, and because we’ve heard them so often, they may as well fall on deaf ears. Indeed, better to be deaf, better yet, never to have heard them at all until we do hear them, and accept them, for real, for the first time.

How wretched are all our attempts to obtain salvation by our own designs, ignoring the divine economy, and feeling smug when we think we’ve achieved it, either by confessing the right faith, or by doing good works, depending on whether we are ‘reformed’ or ‘catholic.’ Neither of these theoretically opposing methods—salvation by faith alone versus by works (or by faith and works, as the doctrine really states)—can bring us any closer to true salvation than listening closely to the words of Jesus and acting on them. It escapes me how we can be so blinded for so long, lulled to religious slumber, or deafened perhaps by the din of our chanting, or our gospel bands. ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say…’ begins my favorite English hymn, and yet how many years, how many tears, before I listened.

‘How happy the merciful.’ Yes, it’s as simple as that. We are not even close to understanding anything yet about what salvation means, or how to obtain it, outside of this primary lesson. For without mercy, salvation is strictly and ontologically impossible, for us, or for anyone. One might as well abandon every other discipline, especially any we have particular zeal for, if we neglect, by will or even by accident, being merciful.

And merciful to whom? Well, perhaps we can start by being merciful to the person sitting next to us, maybe to the one who accidentally occupied our theater seat when we left momentarily to use the restroom. Maybe we could be merciful to the timid old lady whose slow driving is causing us not to speed our way to work, because we’ve diddle-dawdled and are now late.

Mercy can take many forms, but all of them are presented to us, daily, as clear opportunities, clear enough for us to make a conscious decision, to show mercy, or to withhold it. Christ could not tell us, ‘Blessèd are the merciful, for mercy will be shown them,’ implying the opposite, that mercy will not be shown to those others, the ones who were unmerciful, unless He sent us occasions openly. The living God, unlike the mythic gods of pre-Christian peoples, does not play tricks on us, does not tantalize us. He does not create us for destruction, but for salvation. He knows that we sin, that we are sick, and He has given into our very hands the medicine of the cure, at least the first dose—mercy—and made all of us responsible not only for ourselves, but for each other.

‘How happy the merciful, for they shall have mercy shown them!’ What a great and loving God we have, who has given us into each other’s keeping, and sown in us the seeds of immortality which are watered first and most easily by mercy. To be merciful to others, yes, this is to follow Jesus Christ who tells us, ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:29-30).

Saturday, January 17, 2015

It is the Lord!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quid pro quo

The Church as it has existed at least from the times of the late Roman Empire under Constantine has manifested on earth both as
“a mystery with structure”
and a “structure with mystery.”
She seems to fluctuate between these two poles, which are inversions of each other.

A mystery with structure—that is, a mystery (the presence of God among us and all that it produces) with structure (visible activity, real estate, hierarchy, dogmatic decrees)—this is the pole that reflects the Lord’s teaching, “Set your hearts on God’s kingdom first and His righteousness, and all these other things will be added as well.” (Matthew 6:33, paraphrased)

A structure with mystery—that is, a structure (professionalism and legalism among us and all that it produces) with mystery (clergy privilege, laity subjection, sanctimonious activity and false religion)—this is the pole that reflects the Lord’s warning, “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.” (John 10:1 NIV, see also the rest of the passage, John 10:1-10)

Here is an excellent quotation from a Church father, one who knows what he is talking about, and this is what prompted my thoughts above.

A man who takes pride in natural abilities—
I mean cleverness, the ability to learn, skill in reading, good diction, quick grasp, and all such skills as we possess without having to work for them—this man, I say, will never receive blessings in heaven, since the man who is unfaithful in little is unfaithful and vainglorious in much.

And there are men who wear out their bodies to no purpose in the pursuit of total dispassion, heavenly treasures, miracle working, and prophetic ability, and the poor fools do not realize that humility, not hard work, is the mother of such things. The man who seeks a quid pro quo from God builds on uncertainty, whereas the man who considers himself a debtor will receive sudden and unexpected riches.

I think that what John of the Ladder (Klímakos) is talking about applies particularly to those who seek to serve Christ in the Church as ordained ministers. It goes without saying that the same observations apply to all of us, but in the case of the clergy, it has far more critical significance. His first paragraph reminds me of some Orthodox clergy, and his second paragraph reminds me of the faith healer type Pentecostals you see on television. The first group are so often carried away by the eloquence and seeming relevance of their own words, that they imagine themselves “lords of the whole world.” The second group reaches the same conclusion about themselves, based on the efficacy of their miracle-working powers.

Those who are called to serve the people of God as shepherds must have only one purpose, to follow their Lord and Master Jesus Christ, and to tend His flock as they see Him tending it. Or, as John of the Ladder so aptly put it in a biblical metaphor, “the man who considers himself a debtor will receive sudden and unexpected riches,” that is, he not only plants the seed of salvation in the hearts of the people, but he is thereby assured of his own salvation as well.

A man ought to be very solicitous as to his salvation, for if the whole world were full of men even up to the clouds, if that were possible, and among all these none was to be saved but only one, yet each should follow up his grace so that he might be that one, for to lose heaven is not to lose a shoestring. But woe to us! There is one who giveth and there is none who receiveth.

—Brother Giles of Assisi


They asked him, ‘What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘always give us this bread.’

Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.’

John 6:30-40

Whenever I turn to the Holy Bible, I am always refreshed. No matter what I am thinking about, or what I am doing, whether I am happy or sad, full of motivation or simply bored, whether I am feeling well or sick, whenever I turn to the Word of God, I am always refreshed: Thought yields to wonder, sadness dissolves and joy crowns mere happiness, boredom evaporates and motivation is purified, sickness and health are shown to be left and right hands of Divine providence. God is good. He speaks our language. Without leaving heaven, His presence fills the earth, renewing all who receive Him.

The written Word of God, the Holy and Divine Scriptures, partake of the Divine Nature of the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God, He who is also called the Holy One of Israel, who lives amidst our praises, who alone is the Savior of the human race. The Bible is manna. It falls freshly upon us every day and must be gathered freshly each morning. When it is only gathered occasionally and saved ‘for future use’ it only ‘breeds worms and stinks.’ Yes, the Bible gathered once and hoarded (or hidden) breeds worms and stinks, literally, becoming death for them who disobey the command.

What command?

When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat. This is what the LORD has commanded: Everyone is to gather as much as they need. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.’ The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, ‘No one is to keep any of it until morning.’ However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them.

Exodus 16:15-20

It was to fulfill the will of God that Jesus Christ came and pitched His tent among us, revealing the secret hidden from the world, that the manna that rained down on the people of Israel in the wilderness was still only a type and a prophecy of the Manna that was to come. Christ is Himself that Manna, that Bread of Heaven, as He taught the incredulous Jews. Though many doubted, yet some believed. Now that we know that the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, is not only the Son but also the Word of God, uniting in Himself the Divine and the human natures, it is easy for us to believe His words, ‘I am the bread of life.’ It wasn't so easy for His first hearers. And yet, knowing this, do we really believe?

Pick up and read. Go, gather the manna early and eat it before it spoils. He has rained Himself down on us from the beginning and continues to rain down on us, drenching our dry, crusty furrows with His truth. His mercy has been revealed in the Holy and Divine Scriptures till the end of time.

Pick up and feed. He is the Bread that comes down from heaven. He is the Manna that conforms to the taste of each one—not that our desires change Him, but that He changes our desires, purifying us as He is pure, uniting our wills to the will of His Father in heaven.

As His Word unfolds He brings light, and the simple understand. Pick up and read. Remember His promise, ‘The amount you measure out is the amount you will be given…’

Yes, the Word of God is Manna,
now and always, unto the ages of ages.