Sunday, August 30, 2015

Relevance, and authority

Scriptural use of language has nothing to do with relevance but is about authority and dominance.

When folks talk about scripture needing to be relevant to the masses, they have already admitted that the message has no authority and must use tricks to fool people into believing it contains truth.

[As to] the authorities wanting to arrest Jesus for his speech: It was not because He spoke messages that were relevant to them. It was because he spoke with a royal authority and imposing wisdom that they had not encountered before.

The words of the scriptures make the reader’s opinions irrelevant on the basis of their authority. This is a very hard pill for many faithful to swallow. We can understand every word in a sentence—or not—understand what a passage means—or not—and still have it affect our lives in ways that show us how powerless we really are.

Authority has no need for relevance. On the contrary, if a policeman tells you that you have broken a law and must pay a fine or go to jail, you don't turn around and tell the officer, ‘What?! That law isn't relevant to me.’

You search the legal code to understand it and change your life as a result, so you don't have to pay the fine again, which raises, to my mind, the real issue: If a person does not believe in the authority God has over their world, the scriptures will never be relevant to them, regardless of how contextualized they might be.

— Jacob Gorny

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Speaking God's language

The language—that is, the vocabulary—that I read in a lot of Christian blogs is very technical and sophisticated, such as ‘for a Church to reach it's culture with the gospel it must contextualize itself…’, etc. This way of talking, and the thinking that goes with it, seems alien to the plain words of scripture, of the gospels and the apostolic letters. Neither Jesus nor the apostles spoke like that. In fact, the way Jesus did speak made his enemies say things like, ‘No man has ever spoken like Him before! We just couldn't arrest Him!’ (John 7:45-53).
We do not try to be ‘relevant’ to the pervasive culture, anymore than a city set on a hill can hide itself, or a lamp covers itself with a bushel.

It's not the Church that has to reach the culture that surrounds us. It's the people of God, ‘the holy nation of priests and kings’ (1 Peter 2:9) that are here to serve their God—‘between Christ's first and second coming, there's nobody here but us!’—who simply study the Word, ingest it, digest it—‘you are what you eat’—immerse themselves in the Word totally, not just pouring it or sprinkling it on themselves—‘we are all little fishes in Christ our great Fish’ (Tertullian, On Baptism)—speak the Word—‘Word of God for my utterance’ (Patrick, Lorica)—practice the Word, share the Word as it is, nothing added, nothing taken away, live in the Word, witness to the Word and, ultimately, die in the Word. That Word is what sustains all, teaches all, speaks to us ‘as a mother speaks to her child, in baby talk’, but that's a dialect that we will never outgrow while we live on this earth.

The Word of God is always relevant, without any help from us, as long as we use a translation ‘understanded of the people’ (Article XXIV, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Book of Common Prayer).

Church can always be relevant too, that is, if it focuses on the salvation of the individual through Christ and lets worship and teaching be unwaveringly simple, and centered on that Word of God that in human form came to us as a Man, died for us, and was raised for us, and who as the God-Man has taken us with Him into the Father's throne room.

Our worship, our fellowship, our prayer, our practice, our love, our witness, everything about us, must be in the light of that Fact, that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwellt among us’ (John 1:14). What could ever be more relevant than that?

Without knowing it, we might drive the unsaved away by wearing stiff, formal clothes, singing loudly on street corners old-fashioned Christian hymns and handing out tracts to passers-by, while a pro-Marijuana rally is going on in the next block. This was one group's way of presenting the good news. I suspect, these folks were also not thinking of being ‘relevant’ to the culture around them; but on the other hand, probably not many unsaved are going to be reached this way. I don't decry this method, it's just not what I do.

Some folks I saw downtown one day singing the old hymns and all dressed up in their Christian ‘native garb,’ doing their traditional evangelism—handing out tracts—were probably not going to attract many people, because their Christian culture has already ‘petrified’ and has been pidgeonholed in the current American mindset as ‘religious fanatics.’

When we witness in public, we should do nothing to draw attention to ourselves, our personal or church culture, but be as personally unassuming as possible, so that the Word which we proclaim is all that is heard. That way, we do not prove to be a stumblingblock to the unsaved listener. (For example, don't wear special clothes or sloganwear when witnessing downtown.)

As an Orthodox Christian, I am well aware of the process called ‘contextualisation’, because my church, the Greek Orthodox, did exactly that—only it's called ‘incarnation of the Gospel’ among us (this is a scriptural way of speaking).

Kyrillos and Methodios created an alphabet for the Slavs and translated not only the scriptures but all our services into Slavonic. Later, the Russian Orthodox did the same thing as they expanded across northern Asia (Siberia) and Alaska encountering and evangelizing dozens of tribes of native peoples. And the Orthodox still do this today. But all this notwithstanding, that is not the point I am trying to make. (Other churches do similar things.)

In meeting a culture, we do not multiply analytical books, but simply present the Word of God in a language the culture will understand, and that is all. The Word of God will mold every new culture as He molds every new person who accepts Him.

My son Jacob wrote on the topic of scripture study, ‘We should not seek to incorporate the bible within our worldview and interpret it to meet us where we are - rather, we yield our own worldview to the authority of scripture and allow it to lead us and become the world that we live in. This is the only way to truly reap the full benefits of scriptural study. We live in God's world by taking on the vocabulary and culture of the scriptural universe and allowing it to clothe our thoughts and feelings.’

I agree with Jacob, that we choose to live in God's world by taking on the vocabulary and culture of the scriptural universe and allowing it to clothe our thoughts and feelings. Extending it one more degree, we allow it also to clothe our actions.

The way we speak about God, about salvation, about the Church, about everything, is expressed in scriptural vocabulary. It's not something we have to strive for; it just happens to us. By our immersion in the Word of God, we just learn to think and speak and feel and do as the Word of God directs.

Stages of Christianity


1.
Appearance of the Word of God in human form, the God-Man Jesus Christ; this event is now called the Incarnation.
2.
On the authority of the prophet John the baptizer, some of his disciples leave him and become disciples of Jesus.
3.
By his personal call, Jesus attracts more disciples to himself.
4.
Jesus preaches the Word to the people, some of whom become interested in him for various reasons, but his following remains very small, the group we know as the disciples.
5.
Jesus sends these disciples out from him, in twos, to preach the same message in the local area to the Jewish people.
6.
Knowledge of Jesus and his message grows throughout the region of Palestine and even a little outside of it; his audience, but not his disciples, increases in number.
7.
Still having a small number of disciples, and a slightly larger number of followers, Jesus Christ comes into sufficient conflict with the religious establishment, for them to take action against him; they bring him to the civil authorities and request his execution.
8.
Jesus Christ is judged in a series of irregular legal proceedings and is condemned to death; he dies, crucified, as a common criminal, abandoned by all but one disciple, his mother, and a few women followers.
9.
Some of his sympathizers among the local notables request and are granted possession of his corpse from the civil authorities; they temporarily place it in a newly excavated tomb.
10.
The civil authorities station guards at the tomb to prevent his followers from retrieving and hiding the corpse; this is done at the request of the religious authorities, who fear that the disciples will steal the corpse and pretend that Jesus is resurrected from the dead.
11.
Despite the guards, the corpse disappears within two or three days; at first, some women begin to testify that Jesus is alive and has spoken to them.
12.
For a period of forty days, Jesus appears alive, first to his disciples, later to his followers as well, teaching them the rest of his message, especially explaining the significance of his death; this event is now called the Resurrection.
13.
Jesus Christ, in the presence of at least his disciples, but probably also of some of his relatives and followers, disappears in an event now called the Ascension.
14.
Ten days after the disappearance of Jesus, a mixture of his original disciples and followers experience a prophetic anointing during a prayer vigil and begin to publicly preach the message of Jesus Christ.
15.
The distinction between disciple and follower disappears, as the group of believers in the message rapidly grows, combining latent followers with new hearers.
16.
The community of disciples becomes organized, and those who preach the message emerge as apostles; there is no break with the established religion, only a revision of its content, among the disciples.
17.
The established religion excludes the brotherhood of disciples, who assemble separately outside it; the apostles are succeeded by their personal disciples who emerge as elders and bishops.
18.
The disciple community with its elders and bishops is recognized by the state as an entity, which institutionalizes it; the distinction between disciples and believers appears, the former becoming ascetics and monastics.
19.
The institutionalized community of disciples and believers becomes the established religion, taking on many characteristics of the state, as the state erodes; non-conforming elements in the community are suppressed.
20.
The state revives, localizes and divides the community, and makes citizenship and membership in its own established religion compulsory; discipleship is contained in special structures and marginalized.
21.
Discipleship revives both within and outside the established religions; the state withdraws its support from them except as cultural constructs; divided communities of disciples and believers emerge.
22.
Discipleship to the God-Man Jesus Christ supersedes the established religions and institutional forms of Christianity; the distinction between disciples, followers and believers disappears, and Jesus reappears in the same way he disappeared in an event called the Parousia.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Living, or dying, for Christ

Since the beginnings of Christianity, its adherents have made enemies in the world by being unwilling to conform to the practices, and belief systems, of the society around them. The Roman authorities, ignorant of the true nature of Christian faith, and insisting that everyone (except the Jews) conform to an official cult (offering incense to Caesar as to a god), as a means of creating a sense of social cohesion in their utterly diverse empire, persecuted believers even to capital punishment for their refusal to cooperate. Even then, not every Christian was willing to give up all, even life, for Christ. There were martyrs, and there were apostates.

Then and now, the most common justification for martyrdom in the face of anti-Christian enemies has been the very word of Jesus, who says, ‘Every one, therefore, who shall confess me before men, I also will confess him before my Father who is in the heavens; and whoever shall deny me before men, I also will deny him before my Father who is in the heavens’ (Matthew 10:32-33). People tend to think in very simplistic ways when what Christ is saying is not simple, and when what He is saying is simple and direct, they tend to ‘muddy the waters’ by overthinking what He says, thereby excusing themselves from action, or explaining away His commands.

Confessing Christ before men, or denying Him, has more to do with how we live our lives than how we die. The words of Jesus are not spoken to provide a template for behavior in one specific situation to be applied to everyone. They are there to confirm for us a general principle that derives from the will of God, not to establish a law binding on all to disobey which is to disobey God and bring down divine punishment. In the gospels we have two examples of denying Christ with different endings. Judas denies Christ by leading His enemies to Him, and he hangs himself. Peter denies Christ after His arrest three times, repents, recovers, and lives.

During the ‘cold war’ era when atheistic communist governments tried to stamp out religion in predominantly Christian, even Orthodox, societies, there were many martyrs, many confessors who lost their property and civil rights and even their lives, by refusing to deny Christ in the manner required by the authorities. There were many more, however, who denied Christ, albeit passively, so as to keep what little they had, and live, even in very narrow and restricted conditions, so that when the time of oppression passed, they would be there to resurrect the Church, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. But did the latter really deny?

We are now faced with a menace that has emerged from the pit. It is not a new menace. It was always there, but it was chained, and now it has been let loose to ravage and despoil the earth and put its inhabitants to the sword, at least those who will not submit to it. I think we know who I am talking about. Since it began its terror, our lives in almost every country have been changed, our liberties curtailed for reasons of security, yet our governments in a show of exaggerated humanism and a false sense of fairness, open the door to this evil on one hand, and close it on the other. Not only Christians, but other faithful people as well, are put at risk.

For us Christians, if we find ourselves captured by this hellish horde that will kill us if we do not submit to their lying religion, we are instantly put on the spot to deny Christ and possibly be let live, or to confess Him and be joined to our holy ancestors. Our response, however, is no simpler than the words of Jesus, ‘Every one, therefore, who shall confess me before men…’ but we have been given the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate whom Christ sends us from the Father at all times, especially at extreme moments, and that wisdom, not any simplistic sentiment, must guide each of us on an ‘as they come’ basis. There is no ‘one template fits all.’

The recent martyrs of Libya—may they reign with their Lord forever—did the right thing, and they have taken the reward of their faith and their confession in Christ’s confession of their names before His heavenly Father. Yes, what else could they do? Even the one among them who was not a Christian but, seeing their faith, confessed ‘their God is my God,’ did what the wisdom of the Holy Spirit inspired. Without being baptized, without being instructed, he did what was right. Again, what else could he have done, or any of them? There are situations when we just know that there is no alternative, when confessing Christ means giving up our lives.

But in other situations, such as when terrorists break in on a crowd gathered in a shopping mall, or in a school, or in any confined area where they are not in control of the region, but only invaders, what then? How does confessing or denying Christ before men apply here? We have seen, here in America, when a deranged student has entered a school and held classmates hostage, how a young girl, when asked if she was a Christian answered that she was, was shot and killed. Did she die for her faith, for Christ? Of course, she did. Was it absolutely necessary? I think not, but at her age and following her understanding she did what she thought was right, and died.

That took courage, and yes, she is a martyr, and yes, God allowed it, but did He will it? There is no answer to a question like this, because the question cannot now be asked, but we can ask the question, whether faced with a similar situation, is there no other possible response? Are we denying the faith and Christ if we are forced to do something ceremonially despicable, such as trampling a crucifix or bible, or slashing an ikon, to save our lives? Or if we hide our Christianity (something we can and maybe must do if we live where satan is enthroned) by reciting a religious formula that denies our Nicene faith, so that we will be let go and allowed to live?

To be sure, the static view is to regard such acts as dissimulation and even apostasy, but though they may be the first, if they are the second they are only temporarily and provisionally so. Dissimulation (pretending to not be a Christian) is happening all around us every day, and even within ourselves. In Christian countries like America it happens so reliably that non-Christians can confidently claim that America is not a Christian land and never has been. Apostasy (falling away from the faith, actively denying Christ) is, I hope, less prevalent, but I know for certain that it is not constituted by words spoken or acts performed under threat of death.

Back to the example of Peter, who followed Christ after His arrest at a distance, wanting to keep close enough to see what was going on, but far away enough not to be captured with Him (in spite of his rash confession ‘I will die with you’), he denied Christ by spoken words three times, exactly as Jesus predicts, who also says, ‘after you recover, strengthen the others.’ It is evident from this that Christ knows all about people, all about Peter, all about each one of us. He knows who will go to their deaths for Him in what circumstances and why. He knows who will outwardly deny Him and for what reasons as well. He knows who really do deny or confess Him as well.

The Church, just like Christ, is ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever,’ but this neither implies a static, literalist conservatism (which is legalism no matter how it is disguised), nor does it mean that there can be no further developments in faith and practice in the Church’s encounter with the world in every age and place. Just because we may believe or live the faith in a different way than our holy and God-bearing ancestors does not mean that we have changed anything about the faith or about Christ. Our response to persecution, for example, can match that of the ancients, or not. The Holy Spirit, not any protocol, guides us and provides for us what to say and do.

The Church in Roman times was faced with the problem of what to do with those who had apostatized, believers who offered incense to Caesar, or who bought forged certificates saying that they had, or clergy who had delivered to the authorities sacred scriptures or other holy things. The problem even split the Church for awhile into factions of those who were for pardoning them and those who were against it. The faction for pardoning them won out, but the ‘apostates’ were given very stiff terms to be readmitted to the Church. Was the Church right in doing this? How can we judge them by the standards of the Church today, or how can we judge the contemporary Church by the standards of earlier times?

It seems impossible, and impious, to judge the decrees of the earlier Church; some would say, blasphemous, as well. I don’t think so, but neither do I think we can judge them. Neither do I think we must slavishly copy them either, even though we usually do. Neither do I think we must hold the modern Church to every standard of the Church in prior ages. Actually, we don’t, not in actual practice, though we don’t like to admit it. We like to think that the Church’s unchanging nature means that our faith and practice are absolutely identical to that of the fourth century, itself exactly the same as that of the first generation, both comfortable myths.

Part of the maturity of Christianity is to literally accept as true what Jesus tells us in the gospel, ‘I have yet many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth’ (John 16:12-13). The wonderful thing about John’s gospel is that it reveals how in just one lifetime—that of the beloved disciple, who was also the guardian and adopted son of the Theotokos—the message delivered in the narrative of the synoptic gospels has ripened and matured in the mind of the Church to the extent that the words of Jesus begin to be understood in their universal aspect, dimensionally enhanced by the Holy Spirit.

The words ‘I have yet many things to tell you’ have been repeatedly used by every heretic and false prophet almost from the day they were made public, and yet the Church has never been deceived, at least not for long. We know almost instinctively (I say ‘almost instinctively’ because it is not by instinct, but by the Spirit) when it is the Lord speaking in our time and place beyond the pages of the Book, because the ‘eternal Gospel’ is not dead letter, not containable even in the Book. ‘There are also many other things which Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written. Amen’ (John 21:25).

By writing ‘also many other things which Jesus did’ the evangelist confirms the very words of Christ he records earlier in his gospel, ‘whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father’ (John 14:12). It is sayings like these that reveal how much the Lord has bestowed upon us, how much freedom to be used with wisdom He has granted us, making us the bearers not only of His uncreated words but of God Himself, proving for ever that ‘He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world’ (1 John 4:4). By this, not by any other standard, do we confess Him or deny, by this do we live for Him, or die.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Christ fulfills all


More and more I say again and again to myself and to others, ‘Just follow Jesus. Do what you see Him doing. He is still doing it, even in today's world, not as a historical figure that you can read about and study, but as living people, men and women called to be saints today, alive not with their own life but with the life of Christ who personally lives in them today, living lives of grace, of peace, of healing, of forgiveness, of reconciliation, yes, following Jesus.

These words by a recent Church Father come from his writing called, The Agony of the Church, and continue the theme that I presented in the post Inclusive. Christ is the New Testament that completes the Old Testaments, not of the Jews only, but of all nations and cultures, and Holy Church, following her Master closely, deals with the peoples as He does, not as Caesar does, loving them, not lording over them, yes, following Jesus.

By His birth [Christ] included and bound together the lowest and the highest, the natural and the supernatural: stable, manger, straw, sheep and shepherds on the one hand; stars, angels, magi and Davidic royal origin on the other.

By His life He included the austerity of the Indian monks, of John the Baptist and the Nazarenes on the one hand; and on the other the Confucian moderate feasting, in the houses of friends, at the marriage feast and on other solemn occasions.

His life-drama was interwoven into the lives of all classes of people: men, women and children, Judaists and heathen, King Herod and the proconsul Pilate, priests and soldiers, merchants and beggars, learned sophists and ignorant fools, the sick and the healthy, the righteous and the sinful, Jews and Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and all others who could be met in Palestine, the very market of races and creeds.

He was by no means a party man like the Pharisees and the doctors of law. He called both the Pharisees and their enemies to follow Him. He went to the temple to pray, but He also prayed alone in the desert. He kept the Sabbath and He broke the Sabbath by healing the sick and doing good on this sacred day. He came not to destroy the Law, but He brought something which was higher than the Law and even included the Law itself, i.e., love and mercy.

He rebuked people who used to pray and say, ‘Lord, Lord!’ And yet He prayed very often Himself. He rebuked those who were fasting, and yet He used to fast Himself. What He really looked for was neither prayer nor fasting, but the spirit in which one prayed or fasted.

He commanded the people to give to Caesar things which were Caesar’s, and to God that which was God’s. He did not criticise this or that form of government, nor did He accentuate Monarchism, Republicanism, or Socialism as one form preferable to another. Under His scheme all forms of government were included as equally good or evil according to what place they reserved for God, what gifts they duly gave to God, and by what spirit they were inspired.

He followed the customs of His nation, and did not break them or evade them purposely. He took food according to the Law, and washed hands according to the Law, and went to the Holy City and took part in worship in the temple (though He was ‘greater than the temple’), according to the Law. It seems that He excluded no form of worship or social life, though He despised the unclean and petty spirit with which the hypocrites filled these forms. And when it came to a dispute He, the Messenger of a new spirit, naturally tried to save rather the pure spirit even without a form than a form filled with an impure spirit. Therefore He felt bound to say, ‘Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man,’ or ‘to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man,’ or ‘thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet,’ etc.

Even so, too, He embraced all nationalities and races. Nothing was for Him unclean that God had created, nothing but unclean spirits. When the Roman centurion asked help from Him, He gave it. And when the people beyond the Israelitish boundaries, from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, cried after Him, He did not listen to the exclusivistic warnings of His disciples, but He distributed even there His divine mercy. He was mindful even of the people of Nineveh. And when He sent His disciples, He sent them to ‘all nations.’

Finally, He included the natural and the supernatural. He talked with spirits. He saw Satan as lightning fall from heaven. He stood amongst Peter, John and James on one side, and Moses and Elias on the other. All the people saw lilies in the field and sparrows upon the roof, but He saw more, He saw how His Father clothed the lilies and how He fed the sparrows. He united the natural and the supernatural in His teaching.

‘Love those who love thee’ was a natural teaching, but He added, ‘and those who hate and persecute thee,’ which was supernatural.

‘Give to them who give to thee’ was a natural teaching, but He added, ‘and to them who do not give to thee,’ which was supernatural.

‘Bless those who bless thee,’ but He added, ‘and those who curse thee,’ which was supernatural.

And He united the natural and supernatural in His death. He suffered and died in agony. He rose from the dead, descended to Hell and ascended to Heaven. For Him there was as little boundary between heaven and earth, between nature and supernature, as between Israel and Canaan, or as between man and man, or form and form.

His wisdom was inclusive from the beginning to the end. What did He ever exclude—save unclean spirits? His disciples were as exclusive as anybody could be, exclusive when judging and acting according to natural wisdom. But when they looked at Him, they were reconciled. He was the Holy Wisdom, in which everyone could find a mansion for himself, every disciple, every nation, every form of worship, everything—but the unclean spirit.

Nikolaj Velimirović, Bishop of Ohrid and Žiča

Inclusive

Judaism was destined for the people of Israel only. The Christian Church was destined for the people of Israel too, but not for them only. She included Greeks as well.

The Greek polytheism of Olympus was destined for the Hellenic race only. The Christian Church was destined for the Hellenic race too, but not for it only. She included Indians as well.

Buddha’s wisdom was offered to the monks and vegetarians. Monks and vegetarians the Christian Church included in her lap, but also married and social people too.

Pythagoras founded a religious society of intellectual aristocrats. The Christian Church from the beginning included intellectual aristocrats side by side with the ignorant and unlettered.

The Persian prophet, Zoroaster, recruited soldiers of the god of light among the best men to fight against the god of darkness. His religious institution was like a military barracks. The Christian Church included both the best and the worst, the righteous and the sinners, the healthy and the sick. It was a barracks and a hospital at the same time. It was an institution both for spiritual fighting and spiritual healing.

The Chinese sage, Confucius, preached a wonderful ethical pragmatism, and the profound thinker, Lao Tse, preached an all-embracing spiritualism. Christian wisdom included both of them, opening Heaven for the first and showing the dramatic importance of the physical world for the second.

Islam—yes, Islam—had in some sense a Christian ambition: to win the whole world. The difference was: Islam wished world-conquest; the Church, the world’s salvation. Islam intended to subdue all men and bring them before God as His servants: The Church intended to educate all men, to purify and elevate them, and to bring them before God as His children.

And all others: star-worshippers, and fire, and wood, and water, and stone, and animal-worshippers had a touching sense of the immediate divine presence in nature. The Church came not to extinguish this sense but to explain and to subordinate it; to put God in the place of demons and hope instead of fear.

The Church came not to destroy, but to purify, to aid and to assimilate. The destination of the Church was neither national nor racial, but cosmic. No exclusive power was ever destined to be a world-power.

The ultimate failure of Islam to become a world-power lies in its exclusiveness. It was with religion as with politics. Every exclusive policy is foredoomed to failure: the German as well as the Turkish and the Napoleonic.

The policy of the Church was designed by her Divine Founder: “He that is not against us is for us.” Well, there is no human race on earth wholly against Christ and wholly unprepared to receive Him. The wisdom of the Christian missionaries therefore is to see first in what ways Providence has prepared a soil for Christian seed; to see which of the Christian elements a race, or a religion, already possesses, and how to utilise these elements and weld them into Christianity. All that, in order to make Christianity grow organically, instead of pushing it mechanically.

In conclusion let me repeat again: the wisdom of the Church has been inclusive.

Inclusive was the wisdom of her Founder, inclusive the wisdom of her organisation and of her destination. Exclusiveness was the very sickness and weakness of the Church. That is why we in the East in the time of sickness of the Church looked neither towards Peter, nor Paul, nor John, but towards the Holy Wisdom, the all-healing and all-illuminating. For Aghia Sophia in Constantinople, the temple dedicated to Christ the Eternal, includes in itself the sanctuaries of Peter, Paul and John; moreover, it is supported even by some pillars of Diana’s temple from Ephesus and has many other things, in style or material, which belonged to the Paganism of old. Indeed, Aghia Sophia has room and heart even for Islam. The Mohamedans have been praising it as the best of their sanctuaries!

Look to the Holy Wisdom! Look beyond Peter, and Paul, and John—through them and still beyond them! Every Church has her prophet, her apostle, her angel. Look now over them all to the very top of the pyramid, where all the lines meet!

Either Christianity is one, or there is no Christianity.
Either the Church is universal, or there is no Church.

Nikolaj Velimirović, Bishop of Ohrid and Žiča

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ambassadors


The fathers say, ‘Love all men, but be familiar with very few.’

The work of Christ, the work of His love for all men, that He desires to do in us and through us, is facilitated when we pay little or no attention to denominational details as we confront the world of both other Christians (many of whom are not really Christians yet) and non-Christians. Actually, it is not up to us to divide sheep from goats confessionally or morally.

When encountering other Christians, we treat them in the same loving way as Christ has treated us, welcoming them without argument (in case their faith is weak or their doctrinal understanding incomplete or erroneous), and making it known to them that if they are followers of Jesus, then they belong to the Church, and that is Orthodoxy, not denominationally (since it is no denomination), but existentially.

If a man is called to follow Jesus, and he answers that call, regardless of his understanding of it, then he is ipso facto a member of the Church, and the Spirit in us bears witness to that fact, and we must accept it. The Church in its protocols and structures will do all it can to separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, but that is not what the disciples do.

We are simply ambassadors, telling and demonstrating to others that the Church is love, mercy and forgiveness existentially, that it is safety, that it is welcome into the Kingdom of God, so that sensing no tollgates or border crossing officials, they can enter the court of the Gentiles where the Lord Himself can begin ministering to their inner man, bringing them gradually into the mind of Christ, being able to use us whom He has already redeemed and is fashioning into images of Himself, to transform them, adding them to our number.

This He does in spite of the Church's external forms and protocols, not because of them. The real value of the Church's constructs is demonstrated only after the genuine conversion to Christ has occurred, and the new disciple really joins us in that school of righteousness that is not an external rule forced on us from the outside, but the content of our thankfulness to the God whom we now know has really saved us.

We no longer pretend to be sinners so as to pretend to be saved. We finally know the truth, and that sets us free: free to serve the living God not according to a written law, but according to a spiritual law that is now written in our hearts and is expressed every time we do what we see Him doing.

Not by us, Yahweh, not by us, by You alone is glory deserved,
by Your love and Your faithfulness.

Psalm 115 Jerusalem Bible

It has to be Him

‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me.’ This is a mighty word of Jesus, and it has become a stumbling-block for both the world and the Church. The missionaries go forth to the world spreading the gospel message with varying success and failure. Success is sometimes achieved by enticements or the display of power. The Orthodox to this day report with pride that the conversion of the Slavs came about because the emissaries of the barbarian prince were awed by the splendor of the Divine Liturgy in the great church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. This is used as a kind of historical bait, as well as trophy, by modern Orthodox Christians. Why then don’t today’s barbarians come flocking? Maybe there’s more to the message of the gospel than mystic splendor.

‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me.’ History tells a sad tale of the spread of Christianity, in large part because those who spread the gospel used bible texts as bastions and towers, even against the truth. What truth? There can’t be any truth outside of the gospel, so there isn’t. ‘If anyone wants to follow me, he must renounce himself, take up his cross, and follow me.’ There can’t be anything good among those we want to convert. They must renounce it all. Give it all up. No works done before regeneration, nothing they had before we brought them the gospel, can they keep. It must all be trashed. That’s their cross. Now, after they’ve killed everything in themselves that comes from their foul ancestors, they can follow us—which means, of course, follow Christ.

‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me.’ The Lord is here saying, in a religiously ironic way, that the message is, in effect, not a set body of knowledge, an ‘information virus’ as some have called doctrinal Christianity, but somehow a personal encounter. Though there is a body of knowledge, even saving knowledge, it can’t be handed over, transmitted, until there is a receiver. That receiver is produced not by tinkering with men’s minds, but by re-imaging their hearts, and that can only be done by a personal encounter. What kind of encounter? Well, the only encounter that matters, a personal rendezvous with Jesus Christ, who is who He says He is: Lord, Savior, even God. If there is a virus His ambassadors carry, it is no mere information. It has to be Him.

‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me.’ Why do they reject, and who or what is it that they are rejecting? Human beings are rational animals, reasoning souls. In the Akathistos Hymn, St Romanos calls the saved Christ’s ‘logical flock.’ How did they get that way? Isn’t it because humanity is, though somehow fallen, the image of God on earth? Isn’t it because they are, in some mysterious way, God-bearers without knowing it? Isn’t Christ telling us, when He speaks of rejection, that the message we are to bring, the good news, is something really more than mere words, that it is the Word Himself, not something that can be rejected, but Someone? And who, then, can reject that Someone, who is love itself in the form of a man? Who rejects love? Is it they, or we?

‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me.’ No, brethren, there is no room for rejection when what we bring to the world is Christ, not as an imperial proclamation, but as a marriage proposal from the King of Glory, whose Kingdom is built not on men’s backs, mortised with their sorrows, tenoned with their fears, and roofed with false authority. The messengers must first themselves be receivers before others can become what they are. Why do great souls reject the gospel? ‘I will become a Christian when I see one.’ Are words such as these an attack on the Church and its work? No, brethren, but they are a judgment on us who claim to be what we are called to be, saints, that is, receivers of the message, ambassadors of God, even Christ-bearers. Is He really with us?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Into the adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harmless

I am a Christian, and there is no reason why I should make anyone, Christian or non-Christian, feel uncomfortable by my presence. This is not to say that it never happens. On the contrary, it happens quite often. But if someone feels uncomfortable by my presence, it should not be because I will to make them feel uncomfortable. It’s because seeing me makes them think of something or Someone else, and that makes them feel uncomfortable.

It hasn’t always been this way. We’re all on the way to Calvary, not just so we can lay down our burdens at the foot of the Cross, but so that we can be hoisted up, humiliated, rejected and finally crucified with Christ. But at the beginning we feel that tremendous, even overwhelming, gladness that our sins have been forgiven, that we want to share that experience with others, even if we have to cram it down their throats by any means, especially by making them feel uncomfortable.

‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,’ says Jesus (John 14:6), and ‘I am the Light of the world’ (John 8:12). He does not say the first three of us, but of the fourth He does, ‘You are the light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14). His beloved disciple John, in his old age, finally beginning to understand what He means, tells us, ‘he who loves his brother lives in the light’ (1 John 2:10), and ‘he who hates his brother lives in darkness’ (v. 11).

There is something innocuous about followers of Jesus, whether they call themselves Christians or not.
They are harmless.

I am a Christian, and there is no reason why I should make anyone, Christian or non-Christian, feel uncomfortable by my presence. And why should I want to? The words of Jesus found written in the holy gospels can indeed make people, myself included, feel uncomfortable sometimes. Yet we never find His words bullying or aggressive. He never speaks a word to harm anyone. Yes, He warns, He instructs, He calls to repentance, He invites us to turn, away from the outer darkness, to face the inner light.

This is why I can walk anywhere without fear, knowing that no one can harm me, when I harm no one, nor wish anyone ill. Not only those of Christian faiths different from mine, but even those whose faiths are pre-Christian, or post-Christian, I can call ‘brother,’ because Christ, ‘the way and the truth and the life’ and, yes, ‘the Light of the world,’ waits in the souls of all, guiding, guarding, growing stronger, brighter, when I regard them as Christ regards me, worthy, deserving of respect, and love.

No mere sentiment, not an ideal or focus to follow, no. None is to be followed, and faithfully, but Jesus Christ, the God-man who transforms our ‘natural’ man into ‘supernatural’ without forcing us, who calls us into divine sonship and shares Himself with us so intimately, that we no longer can say who or what we are, any more than we can know who or what He is, only that He is all, and we are one. ‘How shall I say where I end, or where you begin?’ Having this comfort, why make others feel uncomfortable?

Friday, August 21, 2015

Because They do

Pre-election America brings out the best and the worst about us and shows it to the world. Pre-presidential election America, that is. No one really cares much about the other elections, but the year leading up to the next presidential election is full of entertainment for the masses, aggravation for the intelligent, and hope for the believers. The believers? Yes, that’s people like myself, who still believe in the promise of America, in spite of it all. Call us naïve, but we are the eternal émigrés, people constantly on the move, west, always west, always seeking the paradise in the west. We can’t help ourselves.

For me, it runs in the family. My paternal grandfather, Casimir, left his native Poland—it was from the Prussian province of Posen—and traveled west across Brandenburg, stopping awhile in Hanover, and then taking ship at the free city of Hamburg, for the land of the farthest west, America. That was in 1902, when he was 22 years old. Oddly, that was my age when I left my birth place in Illinois and immigrated to Canada, destination Edmonton, in the west. I didn’t stay there long, where I first landed. Neither did grandpa. He went from Florida to Illinois before he settled down. Me, I didn’t stop till I reached Oregon.

People are all creatures of belief, even when they are deniers. They may deny that they believe in God, or in the goodness of humanity, or in politics, history, or art, but their actions always give them away. The worst of us believe in the worst things, and even when we say there’s no such thing as a real right or wrong, we still find ourselves condemning, or at least distancing ourselves from, people whom we think believe, and do, bad things. The goodness and badness are both relative. Hitler and the Nazis believed in their cause, racial purity, and thought themselves good. The horror of their actions didn’t bother them.

The American political spectrum ranges from persons who look like they are capable of Hitleresque, or at least Napoleonic, excesses, all the way to persons who speak and act almost as if politics didn’t, or shouldn’t, exist at all. It is the latter group that I tend to identify with. Face it, government, at least all good government, boils down to people living together in peace and safety with as little interference by the collective authority as possible. The primitive communists had this right. In the end, government itself should disappear. Why shouldn’t it? Civilized behavior overtakes the world, fear is eliminated.

Unfortunately, it’s obvious we’re not there yet, nowhere in the world, not even in Switzerland. Not bringing ‘religion’ into the mix because it’s proven to be incapable of helping us in the long run, it’s still true that Christ is not finished with humanity, hasn’t given up on us. No, not yet, not from His glorious throne in the heavens, where we have banished Him. Yes, Christ isn’t finished with us. He still has a lot to say. He’s sent Someone into the world that will finish the work He became a man to do. The gospels, stripped of religion, are still the most persuasive and effective cure for mankind ever written. Just read them.

But don’t stop there. Don’t stop to smell the roses, or the incense, in the pursuit of the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness. Give in to what you say you want—life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, especially the last, because it is, without a doubt, identical to the gospel pursuit of the Kingdom—don’t just say you want it and then go back to sleep and dream while others do everything in their power to keep it from you. Our political system may separate church and state, but on an entirely different level the two cannot be separate if we are who we say we are, if we live the gospel, not just talk about it.

Christ is still the most relevant and the most powerful person in human history, especially when we don’t just stand around worshiping Him and pleading, ‘Lord, have mercy,’ especially when we don’t leave His words at the altar and pulpit but take them with us. They are the keys that open every door, and open doors that no one can shut. Christ Himself calls them ‘the keys of the Kingdom,’ gives them personally and permanently to us, again, not for religion, but for transformation, for salvation of the whole human race, starting with us, right now, where we live. His words make every citizen king.

Not only America, but the entire world, is to become what the idea of America is only the shadow of. This is not a theocratic police state. Leave it to fundamentalist religion to scare us into fearing a sadistic god of hell-fire and damnation. But the God-man Jesus Christ has hulled the kernel of freedom from its religious shell by His mighty words, just as He has liberated the dead from hell by His glorious resurrection. Yet it is still up to us to hear His words and do them, for then the Kingdom of God cannot but follow, just as the dead in Hades must trust Him to lead them out, or else forever remain bound. Yes, trust, obey.

This year, it seems, we are very close to having hit bottom in a free fall that has been anything but free. The presidential election a year from this November can be just another replay of the same, bogus political soap-opera that has captured the American Dream and boxed it up for resale to the highest bidder, leaving us exitless, passengers on a sinking ship. Is that too many metaphors in one sentence? Yes, I’m afraid this has been a very poor piece of writing, and probably confusing too. Is my ‘message’ religious or political? I mean, am I advocating being a better Christian, or just voting as one? Well, yes, and no.

Yes, be a better Christian, by all means, ‘seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness’—yes, His, not ours. How can you vote as a Christian if you are not following Christ, hearing His words, and putting them into practice? No, don’t vote as a Christian if that means reasserting Christian power politics on a nation that must certainly by now be sick of ‘great awakening’ pride. Beyond yes and no, beyond even the next election, we are finally at a place where we can see the failure of human politics and religion to put anything right. Only Truth, only Christ who is truth in Person, as always is calling.

To respond to that Truth, to not compromise with what our conscience knows is right, but to hold it inviolable, and to think, speak, and act on it, no matter what others say or do, that is as always ‘the winning ticket.’ Now, take that to the primaries, and to the polls come that far November. Meanwhile, live and work as if the world depended on you, and as if God Himself commanded, because They do.

The witness

God is one, and God is sovereign. No one can dispute that. On that everyone who even thinks about God can agree. Those who know God as well as think about Him can add even more details. God is forgiving. God is merciful. Those who follow God as well as know Him can add yet more. God is among us. God has pitched His tent among us. God is love.

What kind of witnesses are we? Do we witness for the God we think about? Or about the God we know? Or about the God we follow? What? Am I being presumptuous in assuming that all of us witness? Some of us don’t think it’s proper to witness, to ‘get in other people’s faces about religion’ because that’s a private matter? Well, I’m afraid I have to disagree on two counts: All of us do witness, and religion is not a private matter.

What do I mean by saying ‘all of us do witness’?

You can’t hide what’s inside you, as hard as you try, whether what you have inside is clean or dirty, wise or foolish, faithful or careless, whether you are full or empty. Hence, if you don’t believe in God, it shows, and if you do believe, it also shows.

But what is that belief?
An intellectual assent to mere ideas?
A fussy following of traditions?
A braggadocious and cynical otherworldliness?
Or is it, hopefully, based on what the scriptures refer to as faith, that is, trust in the living God?

If your belief is that, it cannot be like any of the other types of ‘belief’ I just mentioned.

We witness all the time whether we speak or keep silence. It’s evident in the flow of our daily life and activity, the way we interact with others, whether they are Christians or not, Jews or not, Muslims or not, Hindus or not, Buddhists or not. Do we treat all of them with the same respect, whether they are of our fold or not?

Why did I include these other groups, even though I am a Christian? Do I think all paths are the same?

No, there may be many paths, but there is only one Way, and that is Jesus. Out of respect for those who seek the God that is the One, the Living, who revealed Himself to the prophets of Israel and finally and fully only in Jesus the Christ. Out of trust in the words of my Master that ‘he who seeks shall find,’ and hoping that they who seek are doing just that, and not merely play acting.

So, we all witness, whether we intend to or not. As for religion not being a private matter, I recant. I was wrong. Religion is a private matter, as private as our fantasies. Religion is what we make God out to be when we do not seek Him with our whole heart. Religion is that net we make in which we hope in vain to capture the big Fish, for He cannot be captured, though He can capture us. Religion is being satisfied with approaching God through a veil, so we don’t have to see His face or hear His voice.

Yes, religion is a private matter.

But as for Jesus, He came to His own, and His own received Him not.

Why? Because they were out fishing for God with their nets, half-knowing He could not be caught. They were satisfied to let one man approach the Holy One by passing through the veil, so they did not have to. They would rather say to themselves, ‘Love the Lord with all your heart…’ because they knew it was safe to do so, because they knew He was somewhere ‘up there,’ because they didn’t really believe in the prophet, who called Him, ‘God among us,’ Immanu-El.

I was just thinking what it will look like someday when a young man in love with God, the One, the Living, Him who is among us, is ready to go out and, following Jesus, gather His lambs from among the people who walk in darkness of this world's night. His witness will come out of a heart that does not just think about God, does not just know Him, but actually follows Him step by step. He will be like the Pied Piper who, after luring the rats of Hamelin to their deaths in the river, then led the children of the unrepentant and stingy townspeople through the Gateway into the Mountain, to Paradise.

We know that Mountain. It is called Golgotha, and we know where that Gateway leads.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Holy real estate

It seems strange to me, that a religious faith that originated in the traditions of a nomadic people, Abraham and his descendants, should be so preoccupied by property. What always struck me, as a child reading my bible stories, was that the chosen people seemed to be on a perpetual camping trip. I found that attractive, because it was the exact opposite of my life. I lived in a house, in a neighborhood. I had to walk on paved sidewalks and cross blacktopped city streets. My life was thoroughly predictable, and boring. I wished I could have lived in bible times and wandered all through the wilderness with the children of Israel, after they were released from bondage in Egypt. I was beginning to understand, even at an early age, that settled property means business, and also trouble.

I was fascinated, and still am, with the story of Jacob and his twelve sons and single daughter, traipsing around with their flocks looking for the promised land. That was before Egypt. They came near a town, I think it was called Shechem, and they camped outside its walls, offering to pay the people in town for whatever local resources they used. What struck me with that story was how the townspeople wanted what they, the nomads, had so badly, that they tried their hardest to make them feel at home with them, hoping they’d settle down, and even intermarry with them. Not a chance of that, said Jacob, unless the men were circumcised like they were. They wanted it so bad, they did it.

At the age I first read the story, I didn’t exactly know what circumcision was, other than it had something to do with my boy’s wangle. I wasn’t even sure if I was circumcised or not, and I was too embarrassed to ask about it. Whatever it was, it hurt to have it done to you. That was the part where the story took a very awful turn for the worst. Somehow I missed the significance of what I now know was the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, by the son of the town king, but I didn’t miss the fact that the city boys let themselves be circumcised and were really sore. Nor did I miss the attack that Jacob’s sons made on the sleeping city, and the ensuing slaughter. It rather bothered me.

Even as young as I was, and maybe because of it, I was bothered because, here was something really fine, a carefree life, roaming the country side with few possessions, just surrounded by people who loved you, no school, no work other than what was fun because you wanted to do it, take care of your animals. Then, just as things were looking good, something really bad has to spoil it. The settled life. The life that my parents lived, that they were preparing me to live. They warded me away from the local gypsies who lived short-term in vacant store fronts, hanging colorful cloths in the windows and putting out their little signs advertizing palm-reading and cards. They said, ‘Don’t go there.’

Back to what puzzles and amazes me, and always has, at least from the time I was a ‘grown up’ Christian. Yes, the children’s version of Christianity didn’t give me very many answers. It always seemed, I’d have to find out things I really wanted to know, all by myself. But this uncanny anomaly, that Christians, of all people, should be so attached to real estate, to church buildings and the like. They put so much effort into building them, outdoing even the pyramid-building pharaohs, and then have to maintain them, which means, running the Church as a business. ‘You need X amount of pledging members to support this amount of real property, pay the bills, and keep a full-time minister or priest.’

This is not going to be a rant about Church materialism. I know to pick my battles wisely. Besides, now that we’ve built all those beautiful temples, the only shame is, that Christians don’t use them much anymore. But it is going to be a rant about how Christians, Jews, Muslims, yes, Hindus and Buddhists too, just about everyone who says they believe in a God or a great Beyond, or whatever, yet are so adamant and possessive about ‘holy’ real estate, that they are prepared to kill for them, everything from the local religious homicide to full scale warfare. Worst of all, of course, is that they say they’re doing it for God, and that He wants them to do it. Kill for earthly property.

It doesn’t help, I suppose, that many of these religions trace back their claims to promises recorded in their scriptures that God ‘gave’ them specific real estate. The most famous claim, of course, and the one which colors every other, is the Jews’ right to the land of Canaan, modern Palestine. It also doesn’t help that, completely on their own initiative, without God wiping out their enemies by miraculous divine war, secular Jews have moved in on that historic land, turning their backs on the diaspora which was already accepted and interpreted as a good thing by their tradition, and displaced the inhabitants whose ancestors lived there for probably even longer than the Israelites of ancient times.

A red-headed incendiary Jewish ‘rabbi’ and promotional agent for the rebuilding and reinstitution of ancient, sacrificial Temple worship in Jerusalem, says things such as these,

‘The Temple Mount, known in the Bible as Mount Moriah, Mount Zion, Salem and Jerusalem, is the holiest spot in the world for all mankind. Today, only Muslims are permitted to pray there. No religion is entitled to claim exclusive access to connecting to God from the Temple Mount.

‘Jews have known the holiness of this site from time immemorial. Historically, Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was commanded by God to offer his son, Isaac, on this mountain. Jacob’s biblically famous dream happened on the Temple Mount, causing him to declare, This is none other than the abode of God and that is the gateway to heaven.

‘King David purchased the site, declaring it capital of his kingdom and built an altar there. The son of King David, King Solomon, built the First Temple on the Mount around 957 BCE, which was later destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.

‘The Second Temple, built by Herod the Great, was inaugurated around 19 BCE. Knowing the religious significance of the site, Herod employed a thousand priests as masons and carpenters to carry out the holy work. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.

‘Jewish tradition maintains that in the End of Days, during the Messianic Era, a third and final Temple will be built at the same location as the previous Temples.’

Very little of this perfectly squares with either secular history or even the ‘tradition’ that this ‘rabbi’ speaks of. ‘The Temple Mount… is the holiest spot in the world for all mankind,’ is complete nonsense, as is the rest of his rehearsed diatribe, yet he continues to tempt both God and man with his world-annihilating schemes. Of course, being a Jew—if that is really what he is, God knows—he doesn’t accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, and so cannot be expected to understand what we Christians do, that God does not live in temples made with hands, but instead, He tabernacles among His faithful people. This is not a novel understanding that we Christians have. It comes from the days when Israel sojourned nomadically in the wilderness, and God’s presence was the Tent of Meeting, and the wooden storage box full of His ‘things’ His seat. No such thing, then, as ‘holy’ real estate, just ‘when the Cloud moves, we move.’

What a far cry this concept is from what we see in the world of religion today. It has to be one of the best guarded secrets, hidden from the temple-mongerers among the Jews, the big money builder-evangelists of Christian multiplexes and worship stadiums. The more rational, mainline religions are satisfied with these locally-manmade versions of ‘holy’ real estate, and they only go to battle over them through the courts of their various lands. But we have a very dangerous minority who want their claims honored so bad that they will lie, rob, maim, kill, and even bring on ‘Armageddon’ and the end of civilization to get what they want. No wonder atheists and agnostics have a field day lampooning these malignant militants. The best thing that could happen to the most sought-after ‘holy’ real estate, is that they are all destroyed in a natural disaster. Without their respective ‘meccas’ these marauders would have nowhere to turn.

All of this reminds me once again of a saying of one of my favorite saints, Brother Giles of Assisi, ‘This world is this kind of field: he who has a larger part of it has the worst part’ (Sayings of Brother Giles, Chapter 8, On Contempt of the World), and now it’s time again to leave this world behind.

Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together. I’ve got some real estate here in my bag…

Just say Yes

The only thing I know that I have permanently—and I do not speak out of conceit or imagination—is what I have day and night, wherever I may be… It is first, faith; second, faith; third, faith. That's it!
There's nothing else I can say to you. It animates and guides my life.

Since I have faith, if someone were to come and tell me, "Will you go with me to Lebanon?" I would answer,
"Yes!"
"How can you say 'yes' just like that?" they may ask.

"Yes, I say 'yes' because I believe that if it is not for my own good, God will arrange things so that the very same persons who invited me will say 'no'. For instance, there may be some delays with formalities which will prevent our departure, and so on. I have seen that occur in my life, regularly, these last fifty years—not just for one or two years, as I am now ninety-one years old! I wish you all to reach that age!"

I read in the Gospel again and again something extraordinary.

Jesus comes and says to the Apostles, "Leave your fishing nets now, and follow Me!" If they had answered, "Who are you? Why should we lose the day's work? Why should we lose our profit? Where will you take us? What will you do with us?" If they had answered so, what would they be? They would have remained in darkness. They said 'yes' to a Stranger Who came and told them "Come, leave everything, and come!" Why? Because they had faith in God and were expecting the One, Him Who would tell them "Come!" And this is how it began. Whereas if they had said, 'No', what would have happened?

Mother Gavrilía Papayanni

To see God's miracles

When someone leads a simple life, humbly looks upon himself and feels the need of God's providence, then he puts aside all his concerns and worries and has faith in Him. When God sees that his soul totally depends on Him and not on itself, He will mercifully protect it. Thus, this soul will intensively experience the sense of God's providence and feel contented.

God wants our souls to be simple, without many thoughts and too much knowledge, like an infant that expects everything from its parents. That is why the Lord said, "If you do not become like children you will not be able to enter in the Kingdom of God." We must humbly pray to God and admit our weakness, and this way we will be able to free ourselves from our concerns and worries. Just as our shadow closely follows our body, God's mercy will follow our humility and faith.

When we believe in God and have trust in His fatherly providence and concern, then we do not think of ourselves. Instead, we know that God is aware of all our needs and looks after our problems, from the simplest to the most serious one. The only thing we must want is to allow God's love and providence to function in our lives, when He wishes to and in the way He thinks is best for us. When we have this kind of faith and inner disposition, we are able to see God's miracles—God Himself—who is always close to us under all circumstances.
Elder Païsios of the Holy Mountain

How can God help us?

Constantly, each day, each hour, God is sending us people, circumstances, tasks, which should mark the beginning of our renewal; yet we pay them no attention, and thus continually we resist God's will for us. Indeed, how can God help us? Only by sending us in our daily life certain people, and certain coincidences of circumstance. If we accepted every hour of our life as the hour of God's will for us, as the decisive, most important, unique hour of our life -- what sources of joy, love, strength, as yet hidden from us, would spring from the depths of our soul! Let us then be serious in our attitude towards each person we meet in our life, towards every opportunity of performing a good deed; be sure that you will then fulfill God's will for you in these very circumstances, on that very day, in that very hour.
Alexander Elchaninov
The Diary of a Russian Priest

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

For better or worse

‘And don’t criticize what you can’t understand,’ a famous quote from one of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs, The Times They Are A-Changin’, is usually quoted completely out of context. The line occurs in this stanza,

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

Whoa, Nellie! That’s a heavy lyric, but no more heavy than the rest of the song. I’ve been singing it all my adult life, almost from the day I heard it, to this very day. I ‘agree’ with pretty much everything it says, and most of what it stands for. But it’s the spirit of the song that resonates most with me, as do most of Dylan’s other ‘protest’ songs. Essentially, he is a spirit struggling against enormous odds in a sinful world, and though a self-acknowledged sinner himself, that doesn’t change the fact that evolution is going on, and we’re all hanging on the best we can, for dear life.

Regarding the stanza quoted, I was the son once, then the father of four sons. I was ‘lucky’ enough to have parents who knew when to keep their mouths shut, and when to speak, and as a father I tried to imitate them. The wisdom that comes to us as we age if we don’t resist it still tells me this song is on the right track, but it has reinterpreted many parts of it along the way, and I shouldn’t wonder if it keeps it up till the end of time. Like the Bible which inspired many of his songs, Dylan’s prophetic lyrics grow as we grow. As for criticism, I like to stay away from it when I can, but sometimes it’s too compelling.

There is a certain British ‘court fool’ who is a well-known spokesman for enlightened atheism, among other things, and does he ever have a mouth on him! When I listen in on his six-minute rants, it’s usually his criticisms of Islam and what effect it’s having on the West that I’m after. He dares to say such outrageous things that it is a wonder that he hasn’t been assassinated by them. I suppose they’re leaving him alone because he is such a visible fool, obviously insane (from their point of view), and attacking their invincible, holy religion by exposing the truth about it, not in it, and killing him would be to ‘fight fire with fire.’ If they killed him, it would be as much as if to let him have the last word, ‘I told you so.’

Well, yesterday, and for the first time, I listened to a few of his rants against Christianity. I knew they were there, but I simply wasn’t interested. After all, what can one atheist say, even cleverly, that hasn’t been said before, so boringly? I anticipated, though, by the measure of his wit, that whatever he would say would probably be unexpectedly novel. I was both right and wrong. Some of the things he said were unexpectedly novel for an atheist. He says he accepts Jesus, but not what Christianity (which he repeatedly, lumping it together with Islam, calls fascist) believes about him. Of course he can’t, because as an atheist, Jesus cannot be God for him. I can respect that. Most of the non-Christian world, and even much of the unchurched Christian world, holds the same opinion. The facts about Christ will never change that, because unless you really are seeking the truth (and will stop at nothing to find it) you will reject even what is in plain sight, right in front of you, if it doesn’t match up to your iron-clad prejudices. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Jews.

His assault on the doctrine of the Trinity came off as boyishly ignorant, making me think immediately of the line from Dylan’s song with which I started this rant of my own. Where his criticisms (actually his attacks) on the Islamic movement (I can’t classify it as a religion, because it’s a totalitarian experience) come across as calculatedly and incautiously valid, revealing a learned and logical mind, practically all the snubs and insults he threw at the Church were predictably pedestrian, revealing a not-very-serious or cerebral investigatory technique. It almost seems as if for him, Christianity is just not worth tearing apart and trampling, since it’s making a good job of doing that to itself already. A former Roman Catholic, our court fool’s rants against Christianity are really nothing more than a porous resentment of his failed childhood faith, unstudious, and catering to the hordes of other disappointed people from that church.

In short (and I’m sorry to have made ‘long’ of it), listening to his rants, I was unshaken, unshocked, and remain unshackled from my own churchly resentments. His accusations that the Church exists solely to control people and milk them for time and assets fell on (my) deaf ears. He’s talking about the element in the Church that I call ‘the Nicolaitans.’ I don’t agree with most of what he says about them, for example, that they ‘made up’ the ‘illogical’ doctrine of the Trinity. I do, however, agree with him on many of his criticisms of the way the Church in general substitutes mere belief for the actual following of (or discipleship to) Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer said it better, and is also more reliable, since he didn’t excuse himself from that responsibility (to follow Christ) as our court fool has.

‘And don’t criticize what you can’t understand,’ finally, applies to me as well as to the other fool I’ve been writing about. I admit not that I can’t understand him, just that I don’t. To say ‘cannot’ implies that something is impossible. I’m not sure that even Dylan meant exactly what his song seems to say at this point. In context, I think that parents of teenagers could understand them if they wanted to, not that understanding them is intrinsically impossible. I’d also say the same about this critic when he rants against Christianity. He’s had a taste of it. It didn’t please him. Maybe something about it was inconvenient. But it wasn’t, and still isn’t, intrinsically impossible for him to understand what (authentic, not popular) Christianity believes. He could, if he would, given time and an open mind. Oddly, the very closed-mindedness he blames Christianity for seems inexcusably imprinted on him as well.

Criticism is something I’ve written about before. It isn’t ever going to go away, not in me, not in you, certainly not in the court fool I’ve been celebrating—it’s his daily bread. If we don’t criticize what we can’t understand, perhaps at least we can criticize what we do understand. Perhaps, we should. This is what ‘free speech’ is all about. It’s one of the inalienable human rights given to us by our Creator, you know, the one the fool says doesn’t exist, and he’s thankful for it, I’m sure, though to whom, I really can’t say. And it is free speech that will, in the end, tear down every false thing in the universe, at least in the human one. And so, though I don’t always agree with him, the court fool is worth hearing, for better or for worse.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Make disciples

‘Make disciples,’ says Jesus. It is the second of the three commands the Lord gives us before His ascension, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19-20).

The Lord is very direct. He is easy to understand, when we want to understand Him. ‘Go’ needs no explanation. ‘Therefore’ implies that we know who it is we have put our trust in, and why. That needs no explanation either. It just is His way of letting us know that He knows everything about us, and that He has told us everything about Himself that we need to know.

‘And make disciples of all nations,’ packs a lot of meaning in its few words. Christ knows that we will want to excuse ourselves if we find the plain meaning of His words too much of a challenge. Before we have a chance to do that, He follows up with an explanation, but only after He utters the third command, ‘baptizing them,’ a very concrete action that should be obvious to anyone who has been with Him. Though Jesus never baptized anyone, His disciples did, because He had commanded it.

But ‘make disciples,’ what do we make of that? What should we make of it? The baptizing is something we do while we’re making disciples, but what does it take, to actually ‘make disciples’? Again, Jesus is easy to understand, when we want to understand Him, but when we don’t, well, He just calls someone else who does, and He tells them that making disciples means ‘teaching them to observe all things’ that He commands us. He always expects us to ‘just do it’ when He commands. He doesn’t wait. In the gospels we don’t see Him going back and giving anyone ‘a second chance,’ but I don’t think it’s out of character for Him to do so. Remember, He’s the same Lord who tells us to forgive not just seven, but seventy times seven times, and He’s no hypocrite.

‘Teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you’ seems intimidating at first, if you want to be intimidated. But stop and take stock. What did He command, really? What did He tell us to do? What did He call ‘the first and greatest commandment’ and what ‘the second which is like it’? And did His sayings fall on deaf ears, was He planting good seed in bad, stony soil, when He told us who are the ‘blessèd’? Don’t we want to be the good soil, the humus that nurtures the seed—that is, His words—so that they produce a hundred-fold in us? ‘How blessed are the merciful! for they shall have mercy shown them! How blessed are the peacemakers! God shall call them His sons!’

‘Make disciples,’ says Jesus, and, yes, this is a command. He always gives us things to do that push us beyond our limits, proving to us that they are only imaginary lines. If we want to obey His commands, He makes it possible. If we do not want to obey, we make it impossible. The Lord is very direct. He is easy to understand, when we want to understand Him. He even tells us, ‘Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light’ (Matthew 11:29-30). ‘Rest for your souls’ may seem a contradiction to what He describes as taking His yoke upon us. We think, ‘It’s bad enough we have to deny ourselves, and take up our cross, to follow Him. But now we’ve got to be yoked to a burden as well? And He calls the yoke easy and the burden light? He can’t be serious! He must mean something else…’

Since I have been rubbing it in, let me apply one more salve to soothe our seething flesh. He says, ‘Make disciples’ and tells us who they are, ‘all nations.’ Yes, that includes everyone. Like I have been saying till I was hoarse, ‘the Church is a pan-human reality.’ Nobody, absolutely no one, is to be excluded, considered untouchable, unredeemable, garbage. ‘All nations’ means people whom we don’t like, even people we hate, not just the ones we love, because ‘even sinners and tax collectors love those who love them.’ A horrid saying that we keep at arm’s length, even though Jesus says it, as we busy ourselves with anything that might make Him happy, but which doesn’t.

He knows we have heard Him clearly. He knows He has called each of us ‘to come out from among them’ by name. Out from among whom? No, not from the pigs. We are the pigs He is calling to come out from the mire. He doesn’t flinch from washing us, thoroughly, and He expects us to follow His example. No one starts out clean, but when He’s done with us, and with them, we are as clean as He is, we shine as a thousand suns, whiter, brighter even than a fuller could make a soiled garment.

‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you.’ 
Matthew 28:19-20

We have called these words ‘the Great Commission’ yet we neglect committing it. But they are far greater than we think. They are, as Jesus says, ‘the words of Him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What He opens no one can shut, and what He shuts no one can open’ (Revelation 3:7), and ‘the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life’ (John 6:63).

This is the preparation of the good news, of the gospel, and it can only begin when we go and ‘make disciples.’