Sunday, November 29, 2015

The return of Holy Wisdom

Often the sentiment is expressed, that Justinian's great edifice, the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople—Istanbul—should be returned to its original purpose. It was not erected to be a museum, nor a mosque—though it has been the inspiration to mosque-builders over the centuries. It was built to be a temple of the Lord, the Holy Triad, Father, Son and Spirit. Miracles used to occur within these ancient walls.

I can understand why many hope for the restoration of the great church to Christian use. We recall time-hallowed traditions like the story of the priests disappearing into the walls of the edifice when the Turks broke in to take it during their conquest of Byzantium, as well as the legend that they will reemerge when the church is restored. I've heard this story, and once upon a time I too was charmed by it.

Though casting a warm glow, quite honestly, the story is nonsense. This is not how God works. If priests were slaughtered during the taking of the church, they will emerge from their graves with all the rest of the blessed dead at the end of the world. Perhaps on that Day the great church will be restored—except we won't need it then, because scripture says, 'I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple' (Revelation 21:22).

I don't believe in the priority of Christian 'real estate.' I know it's great to have big, beautiful church buildings, 'built to the glory of God,' as emperor Justinian intended Hagia Sophia to be, but such things are not what is important in Christianity. In fact, vast real estate holdings should be an embarrassment to the Church, unless we are in the business of property management.

The rationale for wanting the great church back is understandable. It is an historic landmark, and many momentous events happened there, even holy, even miraculous events. But this whole world has been host to great events and miraculous happenings, and yet it too will one day disappear and be forgotten. 'The world of the past is gone' (Revelation 21:4).

And if Hagia Sophia were given back to the Orthodox patriarchate of Constantinople, what then? What will they do with it? Will it be filled with hundreds and even thousands of people in joyous and lengthy worship? Where would they come from?
Almost all the Greek Orthodox are gone from the City.

The great church is what it is only when it is the main temple of the Orthodox Christian Empire, the godly jewel set in the crown of Constantinople, the City of New Rome. As it is, Istanbul is a large, sprawling and dirty city, ruinous at worst, secular and unspiritual at best. And this is where the Ecumenical Patriarch should reside? In my humble opinion, not.

Following Jesus, let him either submit to the cross and martyrdom in a final appeal to the Turkish people to accept their Savior—for they would certainly kill him—or let him be realistic, and follow Jesus where He is walking today. That might make him patriarch of no city at all, except the City of God, which exists everywhere, anywhere there are faithful people of God. Like Moses, journeying through the wilderness with his pilgrim people, the Ecumenical Patriarch will have demonstrated what 'ecumenical' signifies.

I am not a romantic when it comes to Christian heritage. I have seen and experienced too much to believe that the Church can be entrusted with riches and power. The psalmist says—and you must know this is one of my favorite verses—'man in his prosperity forfeits intelligence. He is one with the cattle doomed to slaughter' (Psalm 49:20). It is the suffering Church that has the hope of following Jesus, and the only Church among whom real miracles can be expected.

Not the showy and ludicrous miracles of priests disappearing into church walls, or statues weeping tears of saltwater or blood, or ikons or bodies of saints gushing forth fragrant myrrh. Yes, such things do, in fact, happen, but to what purpose? That the great church of Hagia Sophia will one day be handed over by the Turks to his all-holiness Bartholomaios or one of his successors would be just such a miracle. Perhaps it will be the bride price of Turkey being allowed to join the European Union.

In the end, will it really bring the joy and the blessing people expect? And will those vanished priests come tumbling out of the walls fully vested and ready to serve the holy mysteries?
If they did, they might be in for a surprise.

I hope I haven't upset you by writing down these contrary thoughts, but I am very tender right now, and sensitive to the intrusion of fantasy into my world, whether it is romantic, religious, or whatever. I actually am and can be a romantic person, but for me romance has more to do with a merciful appreciation of all things beautiful trying to exist in a world made ugly by prevailing sin.

As usual, I am going to keep harping on the idea that we must 'do what we see Jesus doing in the scriptures,' down to His very thinking where it is apparent, but at least what is clear from His words and his actions. When we try to do this, we begin to notice gradually how much of our Christian and religious ideology seems to have nothing in common at all with Him.

That, by itself, is a very scary thought—or it would be, if we didn't already know how merciful God is. You should know me well enough to know that I am not here saying the Church is wrong about anything, nor will I ever be found opposing her 'to her face.' It isn't that the Church is wrong. It's just that often the Church stops too soon. But like myself, with whom I am infinitely patient, the Church deserves our patience and our hope, that sooner or later, she will emerge fully awake and ready to present herself to her Lord.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

On the other side of tomorrow

Οπου εαν η το πτωμα, εκει συναχθήσονται οι αετοί.
Matthew 24:28

Ópu eán í to ptóma, ekí synachthísondai í aetí.
Where the carcase is, there gather the birds of prey.

Birds of prey, vultures, eagles—many the translations, but the implication is, a creature with wings and a sharp beak to tear the flesh, whether alive or dead. Aetós—the same word is applied to the angelic being in eagle shape seen in Revelation (4:7) that is the emblem of St John the Evangelist. The obscurity of the passage in Matthew has produced a barrage of interpretations. I don’t know what it means, but I feel, whenever I hear it, that it has something to do with the way the world tends to close in on anything or anyone that it wants to destroy.

Thinking about the day on the other side of tomorrow, always brings this verse to mind. Tomorrow is an American holiday which was always my favorite as I was growing up, and later, as I was raising a family of my own—Thanksgiving Day—because it used to be the day when families reunited, when discord frequently melted away in the face of charity, and in the warm glow of bright candles gleaming in the early darkness of the coming northern winter, we all felt safe, satisfied, and at home in the world.

Some families I have visited had traditions like, going round the table and saying what each was thankful for. I think this is a good custom, but we didn’t have it. Instead, we just had a solemn blessing and prayer of thanksgiving at the beginning of the feast, a psalm was read or a hymn sung, and then, forgetting ourselves, we just passed the foods around the table. We all knew what we had to be thankful for, and we felt our thankfulness deeply, in ourselves and in being with each other, and in His presence.

That’s tomorrow—Thanksgiving Day—and the day after has come to be called Black Friday, because on that day, every retail merchant has terrific sales, sales to get their books, which are often ‘in the red’ (operating at a deficit), back to ‘in the black’ (showing a profit, not just ‘breaking even’). I don’t know how long this day after ‘Turkey Day’—the first holiday’s other name, in honor of the millions of that big bird traditionally consumed—has been called Black Friday. My family never shopped much that day.

As for me, I can’t stand crowds. I mean, crowds gathered for spectacles of consumer mania, though I also have come to avoid crowds gathered for other events, from monastery pilgrimages to political rallies. Spectator sports in person, going to the stadium, I also shy away from, but for a different reason—the traffic jams that accompany getting there and coming away. The only crowd I try not to avoid is the congregation gathered for worship and fellowship at my local parish church.

Back to that mysterious verse, this morning I reflected on how whenever something true and good appears in the world, there immediately begins to close in on it an armada of antigens. This, if nothing else, should be ample proof that the world we live in has something very, very wrong with it. Being always opposed to its own good, this seems to be the chief characteristic of the human world. We are given much, an incredible wealth, and rather than use it for betterment, we turn it against ourselves.

So Christmas has become so utterly commercialized, that only in the solemnity of church services do we find any solace at all. The decorations for the feast filled our local department stores even before the Halloween seasonals were taken down and put away for another year. I almost bought a beautiful Christmas wreath, till I remembered, it would be dried out and flimsy before Christmas ever arrived. Thanksgiving seasonals almost get crowded out, because there’s not much to sell, except turkeys.

Not much to sell, until the day on the other side of tomorrow—Black Friday. Then, the whole world will be selling itself at half off, extending credit beyond all capacity of paying within reasonable time so as to grab back those sale prices. People who couldn’t find the time or energy to stand, or even sit, in an hour long church service on Thanksgiving or any Sunday morning will be found standing, sitting, or even camping out for literally hours before the doors of some in-demand merchant—or, maybe not. Why?

Because now the stores are not satisfied by getting their populace up at the crack of dawn or in pre-dawn darkness the day after Thanksgiving, to stand in line in the cold, waiting for their fantasies to be fed. I’ve heard that some stores are opening their doors and honoring those Black Friday special prices at five or six o’clock the evening of Thanksgiving Day. I guess a new commercial holiday is about to be hatched—Black Friday Eve—and so, either we feast early or abandon all hopes of entering paradise.

Well, not paradise, exactly. In fact, not paradise at all, unless we’re talking about those birds of prey again. To me, Thanksgiving, the feasting and fellowship with friends and family that continues well into the night, is an autumn ikon of paradise, that state where we have allowed ourselves, for once, to ‘lay aside all earthly cares’ so that we may receive, not only ‘the King of all invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts,’ but the angelic hosts visibly upborne by the King of all—we, ourselves, our friends, our families.

These precious moments are God’s offering to us. This God of ours is the same God who, in the Old Testament, commands Israel to take a tithe of all they produced in the year, and go to Jerusalem and have a feast with it in His presence. This is a far cry from the tithe which we ‘owe’ to God, commanded by some in the Church. We can easily write Him a check and be done with it. No, the tithe that God commands is that which He wants us to enjoy, with Him, so that He can give us Himself in each other.

I am not going to gripe about the rampant materialism that has spoiled Christmas and soon may spoil Thanksgiving for some (if it hasn’t already). For me, scripture has to be fulfilled wherever I look, and that only peels more unwanted, dead skin off my bones—it’s all part of the process of living in the world but not being of it—and whether they know it or not, it is the same for everyone. The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness can’t overcome it—the darkness is there, so we can find the way, and take it.

The dawn is cold and bright, the day before the feast. The frosted grass and leaves, the ice-glassed puddles on unpaved streets, soon will melt, coming to life, as the earth awakes as it always does, to greet the sun. Golden is the light on trees, those few whose leaves have not yet fallen. The real world is waking, with all its sounds and singing. We remember, these misty November days of lengthening shadows, all our beloved family and friends, our ancestors, who soon will sit with us at table.

As long as the earth endures, as long as we keep our hearts pure, loving mercy and peace, desiring the right, pursuing not pleasures that swiftly pass but that Paradise who comes and dwells in our midst, invisibly as Himself, visibly as each other, we will offer thanks and praises to the Most-High, because with us He has made a bargain, the best bargain that could ever be made, which He delivered to us on another Friday, blacker than any, yet brighter than anything we could have ever wanted.

Lasting to eternity, Your Word,
Yahweh, unchanging in the heavens:
Your faithfulness lasts from age to age;
You founded the earth to endure.
Creation is maintained by Your rulings,
since all things are Your servants.
Had Your Law not been my delight
I should have perished in my suffering.
I shall never forget Your precepts;
by these You have kept me alive.
I am Yours, save me…
from Psalm 119 (Day 25)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

No waiting

As mankind comes to the threshold of the most amazing scientific accomplishments, his cruelty and self-destructive behavior escalates as well. We cannot be trusted, in our natural state, with our own 'perfections', which are not perfections at all but only more liabilities.

No matter where I look, there is no hope, no love, no wisdom, no accomplishment, no perfection outside of Christ, only death, death, death. They say we are escapists to have faith in the only-loving God, and that salvation is a mercenary incentive, that if God were loving and good, He would accept us all as we are, perfect and imperfect.
Do they really know what they are saying?

Only human perfection could be that incredibly stupid, not to know that heaven, or hell, is in our pockets, depending on which we have put there.

This is one of those moments for me where with Isaiah I want to cry out, 'Oh that You would tear the heavens open and come down…'
but I must confess that I cannot.

Isaiah could cry out because the Christ had yet to appear.
As for me, He is standing outside my door daily, knocking to be let in.

Always, and already, here. No waiting.
No one in the line ahead of me, only the old man.

Why can't he just get tired of waiting and leave the line.
Then, I would be next.

And the One at the wicket would not put up a sign,
'Next window please.'


I know that I’m a sinner and that I deserve to die for my sins, but what I find is that I have been given life, and life in abundance.

Every day I wake anew and realize that though I have been tried and convicted and am living on Death Row, I have been given yet another reprieve from my sentence, another day in which to serve that part of it, that must be served on earth.

But I am a very bad, a very unworthy servant. I spend my days in idle fantasy, conspiring to sin and to sin boldly whenever I have the chance, whenever the warden is looking the other way, like a pig loving to wallow in its filth. Yet when the Master calls, I am immediately straightened, and I run to Him to do His bidding. 

If only He would call me every moment! or do I just pretend not to hear so that I can pursue my nature. Yes, when He calls I run to do His bidding, but in between those calls, I sink back into the darkness in which I was conceived and into which I was born.

Only death, it seems, will cleanse this criminal of the guilt of his crimes. That’s why he begs the governor not to write any further reprieves, though he knows it’s not the governor who writes them, but the King, the Master Himself.

O glorious God whose face is terrifying but whose back is mercy, You who come speaking Your Name to us while hiding us in the cleft of the Rock to shield our weakness from annihilation as You pass by! Why did You create us, knowing that we would instantly fall from Your obedience, drift away from Your love? The mystery of Your nature dwarfs the mystery of our own. How could a sinless God love us who are nothing but sin in the flesh? How could He that is pure Spirit desire us who are but spittle and clay? Yet You do love us, You do desire us, and for this we revere You.

Yes, Lord, Holy One who has descended lower than our fall, we revere You while we run away. Catch us, Lord, don’t let us escape, burn our scoundrel selves by Your divine Fire that purifies without destroying us who cannot in any world deserve such mercy. Yours is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory of utter humility, of unimaginable self-emptying. Join us with You in that Kingdom, share with us who hate You by our deeds but love You by our sorrows the Power, that the Glory that was Yours before the world ever was, O Christ, fell the forests of our sinful flesh, that we might finally cry out to You, Amen.

Amen, and again we cry, Amen.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, sinners.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Godless universe

‘…Open our eyes, Lord, to see the world as You see it, at every moment, in every place hearts crying out for mercy…’

My own prayer, memorized, came to mind as I stopped my car at a red light and watched a young woman with a cane make her way to the curb by infinitesimally short steps. My eyes hung on the edge of their lids watching the spectacle as my mind raced ahead, carrying her above pavement and traffic on mental wings to her destination. She never even came close. Who knows how long it took her to get as far as she was when I saw her? The green light forced me to go, leaving behind the memory of a young woman still two feet from the curb. How many changes of the light—green, red, green, red—would pass before she reached the curb and stepped down on the street to cross? When she finally arrived, then what? Would traffic simply flow around her as she crossed the street? It would take her ages.

‘…You fill our world at every moment with creatures just like us, falling into need and sin, or arising out of it following the call of life…’

The prayer went on of itself, starting again at the beginning, as I thought back to the wheel-chaired man who always parks at the same spot on the path through the woods between the train platform and the mall. He greets everyone—yes, he greeted me—with a paper cup held aloft in his right hand, ‘Would you like to make a donation today?’ As I passed, ‘No, not today,’ to which he replied—to me, as to the girl a few steps behind me who likewise did not give alms—‘Well, have a merry Christmas!’ I think to myself, ‘What’s wrong with me? Isn’t this the Nativity Fast? Aren’t we supposed to be almsgiving and not just praying and being devout? What, is a dollar too much to pull out of my wallet? I give bigger tips to my barber. Don’t you know, that man, he too can be Christ?’ Too late now to show mercy.

‘…mercy has no size limit, large or small, visible or hidden. It is an arrow that never fails to hit its mark…’

And the people tightly packed into that train. I remembered looking around me. All the beautiful young people, men and women, of all backgrounds, all walks of life, some lively, others sedate. And all the beautiful old people, and everyone in between the two extremes. Even me, hanging on for dear life to the overhead bar as the train took off at a brisk pace. Looking around me, all these faces hiding the people that no one sees, so many blankly looking out. How many of these souls know who they are, why they are here, where they come from, and where they are going? Do I myself know? Sometimes I think I do, at least I hope I know. A blessed Hand reaches down and takes mine and leads me from place to place. A blessed Voice speaks to me by day and night to encourage me. These are not illusions.

‘…we are not alone, and … to show mercy can be as humble as yielding to another’s infirmity, to overlook our brother’s ignorance, to forgive one who injures or insults us…’

A thin, middle-aged man with short gray beard and hair poking out from under a shabby hood slowly makes his way through the crowded train, also with a paper cup, ‘Spare change! Do you have any spare change?’ he asks as he looks each and everyone directly in the face. Nodding ‘no’ to him set me up to more boldly refuse the man in the wheel-chair. I meant to say ‘beggar’ just as I meant to say ‘cripple’ when thinking of the young woman, but I know better. No, not because it’s politically incorrect, but because it’s simply not true. If I’m going to be true about myself, I have to be true about the other man or woman too. There are no beggars, no cripples, in the world God made, only men and women, even if what we have made of that world makes us forget that there is a God.

‘…to stand confidently before Your seat of mercy is to be merciful wherever we are…’

Looking around me at the faces on the train, I thought to myself, ‘Probably none of these people even think that God exists.’ To them this world is a Godless universe. Some of them probably wish it weren’t so, but they haven’t seen any evidence of God in the world. ‘What, no evidence?’ still talking to myself as I finish the drive home. Now my mind is hoping to divert my attention from my sin of refusing to help the poor by drawing me into an interesting discussion. ‘The poor?’ it taunts, noticing that I’m on to it. ‘Those are not poor people! They’re just lazy, or anti-social! No one has to ask for handouts in America. We have a social safety net. They just don’t want to cooperate.’ But it’s too late to equivocate. I know the poor black man in the wheel-chair. ‘What is wrong with me?’ my heart, seeking mercy, cries out.

And I know for sure one thing. That Jesus has every reason to die on the cross for my sake, for all of our sakes. He has every reason to pray from that cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ I may think I know what I’m doing, but I still don’t want to forfeit my place in the forgiveness He asks from His Father. He also has every reason to be born in poverty and homelessness. God the undivided, unearthly Triad, God the living, God the eternal, God the only lover of mankind—God aches to put on human flesh. He does not do so once and for ever in the man Jesus of Nazareth. That is only the Beginning. No wonder people think the universe Godless. They are longing to see God in the flesh as much as God aches to put it on.

What are we waiting for?
Show them. We too can be Christ.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Το ευαγγέλιον αιώνιον

Και ειδον αλλον αγγελον πετόμενον εν μεσουρανήματι, εχοντα ευαγγέλιον αιώνιον ευαγγελίσαι επι τους καθημένους επι της γης και επι παν εθνος και φυλην και γλωσσαν και λαόν,
λέγων εν φωνη μεγάλη, Φοβήθητε τον Κύριον και δότε αυτω δόξαν, οτι ηλθεν η ωρα της κρίσεως αυτου, και προσκυνήσατε τω ποιήσαντι τον ουρανον και την γην και την θάλασσαν και πηγας υδάτων.

וארא מלאך אחר מעופף במרום הרקיע אשר היה לו בשורת עולם לבשר את ישבי הארץ ואת כל גוי ומשפחה ולשון ועם׃

ויאמר בקול גדול יראו את האלהים והבו לו כבוד כי באה עת משפטו והשתחוו לעשה שמים וארץ את הים ומעינות המים׃

Va’ére mal’ákh ’achér me‘ôphéph bimrôm ha-raqí‘a ’asher hayáh-lô besôrat ‘ôlám l’vassér ’et-yosh’véy ha-’áretz v’et-kol-gôy ûmishpacháh v’lashôn va’ám:

Vayyomer b’qôl gadôl yer’û ’et-’Elohîm v’havû-lô kavód kî va’áh ‘ét mishpatô v’hishtachavû la‘oseh shamàyim va’áretz ’et-hayyám ûma‘yenôt hammáyim:

Then I saw another angel, flying high overhead, sent to announce the Eternal Gospel to all who live on the earth, every nation, race, language and tribe. He was calling, “Fear God and praise Him, because the time has come for Him to sit in judgment; worship the Maker of heaven and earth and sea and every water spring.”
Revelation 14:6-7

The Good News, the Gospel, the Evangélion, there is only one, but because it is the Word that contains all that is, was and is to come, the seen as well as the unseen, the expressible in human language and the inexpressible, we find it described in the Holy Scriptures in various ways, we see its contents never fully but pieces of it here and there. Why? Because the Good News is the life of Christ, the Gospel is our lives in Him, the Evangélion is the summation of all things, all being in Him Who Is. Sounds mystical? Well, it is the Mystery, the Mystírion, the meeting of God and man, of God as Man, and of man in God, but as for it being mystical, no, it is not, at least not in the way that people think.

There is only one Good News (cf. Galatians 1:7), and though it reaches us in various times and places (cf. Hebrews 1:1-4), expressed in parts, all of these parts form a single whole (cf. Ephesians 4:16), which clothe the soul gradually, dressing us up in what becomes our wedding garment (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:3), eventually clothing us in the Bridegroom Himself (cf. Galatians 3:27), as the Bride is enfolded by Him and folds into Him. Again, it is the Mystery. ‘My Beloved is mine, and I am His. He pastures His flock among the lilies’ (Song of Songs 2:16).

The first words of the Good News are spoken by an angel standing on the earth (cf. Luke 1:26-38) before the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David (cf. Revelation 5:5) is sown in the fruitful field of the Virgin Daughter of Israel, and they are spoken to her alone. The last words of the Good News are spoken by an angel ‘flying high overhead’ before the Day of Judgment begins for the whole world, and they are spoken to everyone who lives on earth, ‘every nation, race, language and tribe’ (Revelation 14:6).

Between the words ‘Rejoice, so highly favored!’ and ‘Fear God and praise Him’ the door to heaven has been flung open, the gates of paradise have been unlocked, ‘the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the Good News is proclaimed to the poor’ (Luke 7:22). This is the Day of Redemption, the Day of the Good News, the acceptable Day of the Lord. Why? Because between the first and last words of the Eternal Gospel, we have been granted this time to enter into the Living Word.

Brethren, let us enter into the Living Word and, casting aside all worldly cares, receive and be received by the King of All.

In the light of His face

During this season of pre-Christmas Lent, besides the fasting, alms-giving, and prayer that are expected of us, we can also benefit from meditation on our life in Christ with the help of a spiritual movie. One of the best in recent times is The Island, a Russian film about a community in the far north, where live the monks with Fr Anatoly, Christ’s lamb, of whom the world is not worthy.

This film, though it is purely fiction as to fact, yet it is utterly true as to act: it depicts vividly and authentically what we know as Christian Orthodoxy, a way of life, an orientation of the heart, an irrevocable friendship with the Father, through the mercies of Christ, and in indefectible fellowship with the saints. This is no religion. This is the salvation of the whole man: it is health of spirit, soul and body in this world, and eternal life in the world to come—a life which begins here in the form of a grain of wheat which must be buried so that it can rise again and produce thirty-, sixty-, and a hundred-fold.

The glory of God is the gift of His mercy, our sanctification pure gift of His grace, and the Holy and Orthodox faith of the apostles, martyrs and witnesses of Christ the Word of God and only-begotten Son of the Most High, the Holy One of Israel, El Elohim Yahweh (Psalm 50:1, Hebrew)—this is the treasure hidden in the field of this world, for the sake of which a man will sell all he has, so he can purchase that field (Matthew 13:44). ‘Happy the man who never follows the advice of the wicked, or loiters on the way that sinners take, or sits about with scoffers, but finds his pleasure in the Law of Yahweh, and murmurs His Law day and night’ (Psalm 1, Jerusalem Bible).

I can’t explain this to anyone. I can’t describe it. I can only walk in it, following Jesus who is the only Holy One, in company with all those who follow the Lamb wherever He goes, who are purchased from among men and offered as first-fruits to God (Revelation 14:4).

I don’t argue this, or try to convince. Only ideas can be handled this way, but this is not an idea, not something men think, something they make up, not even a work of art their hands have made. Not salvation, not eternal life, not unity within the Holy Triad through becoming adoptive sons of God, none of this is of works, only of grace, and only of our response to God’s mercy and good will towards us—that is, our faith.

Like Fr Anatoly praying for the healing of a crippled boy, all things are possible if we only believe (Mark 9:23), that is, if like him we trust God for salvation, really trust Him. The boy’s mother came with him to what she thought was a staretz, a holy man, so that she could say she tried everything, even had a saint pray for a miracle, and so if her boy wasn’t healed, she could blame it on God. She did her part, brought the boy, and Fr Anatoly did his part, he prayed. She then wanted to leave immediately, but he wouldn’t let her.

He asked her, ‘Do you think I am just playing a game with you?’ He insisted that they must stay overnight so the abbot of the monastery could give the boy the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood, to seal and to complete the healing. Orthodoxy is reality, or it is religion, it is nothing. Reality demands obedience, for only the obedient believe.

Brethren, forgive this ramble, but I am overcome not by watching this film, which is only a kind of ikon, but by the reality behind it. That reality is the mystery of Christ among us.

We have only one life and only one chance to come fully into that mystery, and not for ourselves, not to be happy, not to feel justified or righteous, not to indulge in the intellectual luxury of thinking we have the correct faith or belong to the true Church, not to partake of mystical experiences, or emotional charges, not to be able to claim the promises, or to testify that we are saved, not to be prosperous in this world or to be able to boast of being an ‘overcomer,’ no, not even so we can know we are going to heaven.

Everything we are and that we have is wholly in the hands of our loving Savior and God, Jesus Christ, and to follow Him in this world with complete abandonment to His will and His love, trusting, yes, trusting absolutely, that only He knows us, knows all, provides for all, carries all, cares for all, denies none, deserts no one, but welcomes us into the presence of His Father, prepares us for the mansion He has built us, desires us as His beloved, invites us to dine with Him at the wedding feast, and all for a price that has already been paid, for we have been purchased from among men.

We have only one life, so let’s live it in the light of His face, for only there is mercy, and like Fr Anatoly give ourselves without defense into the hands that molded us, those hands that were pierced for us.

Friday, November 20, 2015

In God we trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Past, present, and future

The fourth yearly fast, the Nativity or Christmas Lent, unknown to the world, is upon us. Like the other forty day fast, Great and Holy Lent, which precedes the other great feast, Pascha, this fast can be a challenge, but in different ways. In the November-December Lent, there is a greater focus on almsgiving, a lesser on dietary fasting.

The Salvation Army and other ‘charities’ make almsgiving as easy and safe as ever can be. Those bell-ringing ‘santas’ at the entrances and exits of large stores help our consciences to command us part with a dollar or two into those little red buckets, off-setting our sometimes exaggerated holiday largesse to our own friends and families.

Our diet during this fast is less strenuous—fish with scales, not just seafood and shellfish, is ‘permitted’ most days, Wednesdays and Fridays excepted. And there are unavoidable social functions—Thanksgiving, and the world’s fore-Yule office parties—at which we must break our fast to avoid either being pharisaical or offending our hosts.

As for increasing our prayers, well, this year we have been afforded ample opportunity for intercession right from the start, with the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and other places, not to mention the ongoing assaults on everyday humanity happening all over the world, even in our own neighborhoods. The Church tries to keep up with extra services, too.

The Nativity Lent is also a time when the Church tries to help our meditations and good intentions by supplying us with opportunities for spiritual renewal in various retreats. I’ve attended one or two retreats in my adult Christian life—yes, that’s all!—not because I oppose such formal constructs for Christian growth, but because I’ve found something better.

Better in the sense that you don’t have to leave your home, you aren’t subject to anyone’s schedule or rate of progress than your own, and the rewards are not ‘catch as catch can’ as often happens in group events but, as it were, guaranteed. What? Guaranteed rewards? Yes, and by ‘rewards’ I mean, whatever it is you think you are going into benefit from in a retreat.

And what is this ‘something better’? If you think I am coming at you with anything new and exciting, you may as well turn the page. New, no, exciting, yes, but only if are one of those who find the word of God fathomless and inexhaustible. My ‘something better’ is, reading and praying the Psalms, consistently, every day, especially in the morning, but really, at any time.

The thirty day cycle works best for me. The biblical book of Psalms is divided into thirty groups in exactly the order you find them. Psalms ‘appointed for Day 1’ will be Psalms 1 through 8. Psalms for Day 2 are Psalms 9 through 14, and so on. To read, and especially to pray, the Psalms every day in this fashion is actually more than a retreat; it can change your life, permanently.

Everything that is written in every other book of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is found either directly or alluded to in the Psalms, making the Psalms a sort of thumbnail of the whole Book, not a thumbnail that’s just a tiny picture hinting at the whole, but more like an icon that opens in all its immeasurable vastness the truth of God and man when you ‘click it.’

Today is Day 18, so the Psalms to be read and prayed are Psalms 90 through 94. From having this practice on and off in my forty years of adult Christian life, I already know at least what two of the Psalms will be about, and when I open the Book and begin, the Psalms I read begin praying in me, almost by themselves, bringing to mind past, present, and future things.

That’s a whole lot to meditate on, to intercede and to offer thanksgiving for, and even to act upon. Without relying on anyone’s intellect and experience but your own, the Psalms bring to your attention the will of God for you, personally, helping you to focus on what He wants you to do and to be, not on what others tell you, you should do and be. How can this be true?

Well, there is a Holy Spirit, you know. He is not an ‘it’ or just a name that gets intoned in doxologies at the end of formal prayers. He’s a real person, yet not one that we normally ‘talk to’ when we pray but, astonishingly, He is the one who talks to God the Father ‘in us’ and on our behalf, even ‘as us.’ He’s so closely invested in us that we don’t realize He’s there most of the time.

This is nothing that we don’t already know from the teaching of Christ and the apostles, the teaching that Holy Church has received from them, which is why we are baptised and chrismated, not for ceremony’s sake, but to make us a race of kings and priests, anointed even as King David was, who composed many of the Psalms. Indeed, only kings and priests can approach God.

Lest I am misunderstood, remember, ‘kings and priests’ means ‘male and female’ just as holy and divine scripture tells us, ‘God created man in the image of Himself, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them’ (Genesis 1:27). The Bible is unfolding our full humanity by stages, just as the Psalms will unfold your full humanity to you when you offer them.

This is the ‘retreat’ I am going on this Christmas Lent, at least as much as I can, and as there is nothing to stop me but my own laziness or preoccupation with the cares of this world, I hope to make my pilgrimage to the Nativity of Christ along this simple road—

‘Let us wake in the morning filled with Your love and sing and be happy all our days… May the sweetness of the Lord be on us! Make all we do succeed’ (Psalm 90:14, 17) Let us bless the Lord! Thanks be to God! Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Psalms for Day 18: 90, 91, 92, 93, 94

Sunday, November 15, 2015


Nothing so erases the flow of time and brings me back quickly and fully to myself, the man I started out as, the seventeen year old with eyes aglow with wonder, and heart beating faster as the world of new freedom and of love opened itself before my path, nothing so brings me back, as the sweet songs of the young Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who now, like yours truly, are also clothed with many years. When I hear them sing, I can’t help but join in, and I forget I am sixty-four, or maybe, because I want to sing these songs in the presence of my young friends, show them that there’s nothing to fear in ‘getting old,’ that in fact, there is no such thing as age, really. Who and what we are remains forever the same, and forever young. That is, unless we kill it.

I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song.
I’m twenty-two now, but I won’t be for long.
Time hurries on,
and the leaves that are green turn to brown.

I remember distinctly, singing that song at the ripe old age of twenty-one, the year I waved good-bye to my teary-eyed Mom standing in the front porch of her house in Joliet, Illinois, and drove my heavily-loaded Pinto to what I would later call ‘the Great White North,’ to Canada. I was still singing that song a year later, when I got married, wondering when I would be a grownup. Would it be now, now that I had known a woman for the first time? Was I a man yet? Or was I still just a boy?

Once my heart was filled with the love of a girl.
I held her close, but she faded in the night
like a poem I meant to write,
and the leaves that are green turn to brown.

Like the song, my life went through many turns, ups and downs, but I still never quite got past being twenty-two, and I was still singing. Not just this song, but most of the others of the melodious duo, ‘I am a Rock,’ and ‘Sounds of Silence,’ and ‘I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail’ (aka ‘El Condor Pasa’). I am still singing them today, and when I do they re-vest me in my boyhood dreams like a suit of old, comfortable clothes, and the man that looks out of these eyes and whose voice sings these songs engraved on his heart, remains the same.

No worry then, about getting old. I swear by heaven and earth, I, no, we don’t change. We’ll be the same at sixty-four, as I am now, as we were at seventeen, and will still be at seventy, eighty, ninety, and still counting. Not for nothing did Christ Jesus the Child Leader tell us that only those will enter the Kingdom of His Father who enter as children. Nor did the prophet-psalmist-king and lover David chant in vain, that those who trust, who ‘trust in the Lord are as Mount Zion’ (Psalm 125), and ‘who murmur His law day and night’ are like trees yielding their fruit in season, their leaves never fading (Psalm 1).

Ah, and that brings us back to the song, ‘and the leaves that are green turn to brown.’ I sing it now and am again what I was, and always will be, and I laugh at the fear that I could ever grow old, and I shyly smile at the boys who wrote that song, who also didn’t know what the years ahead would hold. We think when we are young we will live forever, and we can become careless. And in the pursuit of pleasure we sometimes trade our glory for shame, our youth for old age. We convince ourselves that we can be measured in years, as our coffins are measured in inches.

But no, the Truth has come to dash our delusions, if only we welcome Him in ourselves, who is forever with us, in us, even as us, being carried as always in tender arms, till that last day when we are delivered, yes, when He delivers us, and yet we will sing then as ever,

Yahweh, my heart has no lofty ambitions,
my eyes do not look too high.
I am not concerned with great affairs
or marvels beyond my scope.
Enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet
like a child in its mother's arms,
as content as a child that has been weaned.

Israel, rely on Yahweh,
now and for always!
Psalm 131
Jerusalem Bible

A man-loving God

Ο Μόνος Φιλάνθρωπος, o Mónos Philánthropos, the only lover of mankind, the only loving God. However you translate His name, it comes out the same, giving the lie to all who rely on His fierce anger to incinerate the unbeliever and the unrepentant. Aside from the ample hints throughout the scriptures that there will be a reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, we have no details, except what our imaginations supply, clouds and songs of praise and light for the one, fiery lake and demons and darkness for the other. Our imaginations supply us with these images of eternal blessedness and eternal damnation whether we are Christians or not, whether we believe in the Bible or not: these images are the common domain of all humanity. That's what makes them suspect. We cannot, or we should not, second guess God, especially those of us who believe a God who becomes Man and tells us, 'If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.'

I am no universal salvationist, but stay close as I can to the words of holy and divine scripture, yet I do not live in a religious world where God is roasting the unrepentant forever on the points of pitch forks. I don't know what punishments await the wicked or what joys are in store for the righteous, except what He reveals to me about myself here and now, nor who the wicked or the righteous be: I hope I will be numbered among the righteous, though I cannot see how that can possibly be, except only if the righteousness of Christ is covering me. Yet, I still believe in God who is Ο Μόνος Φιλάνθρωπος, o Mónos Philánthropos, the only lover of mankind, the only loving God. If it weren't plain enough in scripture, we have the testimony of the Church, which from the very beginnings has believed in this man-befriending God. How can anyone come away from reading the gospels or the epistles of the New Covenant without coming to this startling conclusion: God is love? Hear what an early father, a desert father, says,

The Lord, indeed, is the Lover of mankind so full of tender compassion whenever we turn completely toward Him and are freed from all things contrary. Even though we, in our supreme ignorance, childishness, and tendency toward evil, turn away from true life and place many impediments along our own path because we really do not like to repent, nevertheless, He has great mercy on us. He patiently waits for us until we will be converted and return to Him and be enlightened in our inner selves that our faces may not be ashamed in the Day of Judgment.

If that seems difficult and troublesome to us because practicing virtue is hard, but, more so, because of the insidious suggesting of the adversary, still He is very full of compassion, long-suffering and patient as He waits for our conversion. And when we do sin, He is ready to lift us up for He desires our repentance. And when we fall, He is not ashamed to take us back, as the Prophet says, “When men fall, do they not rise again? Or if one turns away, does he not return?” (Jeremiah 8:4) We only have to have a sincere heart and live in vigilance and be converted immediately after seeking His help and He Himself is most ready to save us. For He looks for our ardent will, as best we can, to turn toward Him. When we show good faith and promptness glowing from our desiring, then He works in us a true conversion.
Abba Makarios, 4th century

The fulfillment of its purpose

Memorials at the scene of the Siege of Paris, 13 November 2015
Although it can be attractive at a time like this to point out the theological insufficiencies of one religion compared to another, the truth is, that believers do what they want to do irrespective of their religion's official theology.

Judaism does not believe in an incarnate God, yet does not (in recent times) launch terrorist attacks against others. Hinduism believes in a pantheon of incarnated deities (avatars), many of which are depicted as violent and as inciting humans to violence, yet it does not produce terrorist attacks.

Islam has a long history of violence against itself and against others. There is no dispute about this, except in the minds of some Muslims who are unable to view the history of their religion objectively. Christianity is, however, right behind Islam, in having a violent history.

As I’ve pointed out many times, when Christians act violently they are acting against their scriptures, and when Muslims act violently, they are acting in obedience to their scriptures. It is still possible, nonetheless, for a non-aggressive form of Islam to exist.

Fundamentalist literalism in league with people whose objective is violence and control of others produces the kind of terrorism and aggression that we have seen in the history of religions, and which makes some wish that religion had never existed.

Scriptures record encounters of human beings with the Divine Nature, whether it is called God or gods. They are written entirely from the human side. In other words, God is speaking through them both ‘in us’ and ‘as us.’

When we make-believe that a scripture text has fallen ‘as is’ from God’s metaphorical lips to our ears, we are heading for deep waters, waters deeper than we can handle, waters in which to drown, not to swim in, waters that often turn to blood, followed by even worse plagues.

Religious communities can grow up, and they do, unless they are stunted by human control. This is where science can provide balance in religion, rather than being its unnecessary antidote.

God doesn’t oppose science. It’s the study of His facts in the same way that theology is the study of His acts. Religion is, or can be, and should be, a synthesis of both, as befitting human nature, which is both physical and metaphysical.

The world has room for religion when religion functions as it should, as civilizer of mankind in large and small matters. Moderate religion is not, as its gainsayers maintain, a betrayal or desertion of tradition and religion, but rather the fulfillment of its purpose.

‘This law that I enjoin on you today is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach. It is not in heaven, so that you need to wonder, “Who will go up to heaven for us and bring it down to us, so that we may hear it and keep it?”… No, the Word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance.’ (Deuteronomy 30:11-12, 14 Jerusalem Bible)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The art of things unsaid

One of the pieces of family history that my dad handed over to me was a wonderful black and white photo of my favorite ‘aunt and uncle,’ as we say, that is, Uncle Hank and Aunt Irene (we reverse the order when calling them by name). That's the young couple in the photograph above. On the back of the photograph is neatly handwritten ‘April 16, 1950’ and my guess is, it was taken on the back porch of the second or third floor of a flat in Chicago.

What strikes me instantly and… deeply is the look on my aunt's face, her beautiful face, a look that cannot be put into words, yet I can read it, full of things unsaid. My uncle looks off to his right with his characteristic ‘you can't pull a fast one on me’ face, or maybe it was just the look of ‘no matter what you say or do, I'm here.’ A look of somewhat light-hearted but matter-of-fact faithfulness. But it's Aunt Irene's look that holds me, I can't get away from it. She really loved Hank, and he really loved her. Till death do us part.
(Click the image to enlarge the photograph for a closer look.)

Uncle Hank was 38 and Aunt Irene was half a year from her 39th birthday. They had been married 15 years less one month. They were dairy farmers, running their southern Wisconsin farm at Slades Corners near Genoa City single-handed most of the time. That meant they almost never got away. We had to go and see them. Their farm was where I spent some of my boyhood summers. Aunt Irene was never able to bear children. Uncle Hank never let his disappointment ‘mount as far as his throat’ as the Desert Fathers say. He simply loved his wife and never let anything get in the way of that, not even their childlessness. And what wonderful parents they would have made. Yet, that's not what the Lord wanted for them.

As they had no children, my dad became the inheritor of their few memorabilia, and now he has turned them over to me. I still use Uncle Hank's bulky cast aluminum electric drill—with two handles to hold onto for dear life—probably from the first generation of power tools. But other than a few small artefacts, and some photos, I have little else… except for their official documents, birth, baptism and marriage certificates. It is their marriage certificate in its dusty grey slipcover that I found most interesting when I first inherited it after Aunt Irene reposed (Uncle Hank had pre-deceased her by ten years or so).

Behind the certificate in its tassled cover was another document, titled “How to Perpetuate The Honeymoon.” The credits under the title read, ‘From Home and Health, by permission of W. H. DuPuy, A. M., D. D.’ In that document are given twelve pieces of good advice for keeping a good marriage. Perhaps in another post I will list them all, but the tenth bit of advice caught my attention and I remembered it, and when I first saw the photograph that I've posted above, I thought of it.This is the advice…

Do not allow yourself ever to come to an open rupture.
Things unsaid need less repentance.

The first sentence is boldfaced as the header for what follows, in this case only one more sentence (some of the others have a short paragraph). What follows is the instruction for achieving what the header advises. In only five words, it describes a truth of unlimited application. Another version of the same but less pointed might be an even shorter saying, ‘Silence is golden.’ All of these, of course, come from the Bible, but in 1935, official documents were already trying to avoid bringing that up. Christianity was on its way to being put in the archives. The modern age was about to begin.

Things unsaid need less repentance. I want to keep thinking about this some more. The longer I live, the more value I see in leaving things unsaid.

Not to keep people guessing, not as leverage in a situation, but simply because some things cannot be explained or reported using language. This is where other forms of communication come in, like my aunt's look.

And not everything unsaid that can be passed to others by non-verbal means is meant for everyone in the first place, but like that white stone Jesus promises in the book of Revelation (2:17), it's only readable by the one to whom it is given.

I just wanted to remember my aunt and uncle today, two unsung saints that I was blessed to know, and to hold high their love and faithfulness to each other and to those whom the Lord sent them. Eternal be your memory, beloved Hank and Irene, for you are worthy of blessedness and life in the world to come.

Αιωνία η μνήμη.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The wrath of God

I don't know why more Unitarian Universalists and freethinkers don't become Orthodox Christians (in fact I have never known any of them to), unless it's because deep down they can't stand the thought of a God who is One yet not a monad, because in that mysterious Church of the East the wrath of God is so abundantly appeased by poetical words of divine Love going in both directions—God to man, man back to God—that the average Christian there feels too at home with the God of heaven to even consider that ‘the wrath of God’ could be anything but a metaphor for our own peevishness, which God's grace will most assuredly evaporate! ‘Well,’ says Yiayia, ‘if snow’s white, it’s white; if it’s black, it’s black, and even God can’t change that!’ which is her way of saying that the strangest things are sometimes true (d’après Joice NanKivell, Again Christophilos, p.5).

Stranger still than that we should overlook God’s wrath as revealed in the letters of the holy apostles, we (perhaps maybe better said, I) daily read and pray the divine Psalms where nearly every one of them repeats and reinforces the notion that God loves virtue and the virtuous, in the Tehillim, the ‘tzaddiqim,’ but detests, even hates, sin and the wicked, the ‘resha‘im’: as Psalm 1 has it, ‘Yahweh takes care of the way the virtuous go, but the way of the wicked is doomed.’ In the Hebrew the last few words have such a sound of finality, ‘v’dérekh resha‘ím tovéd.’ Yes, ‘tovéd’, doomed, the word is loaded with every bit as much threat in Hebrew as in English, even the sound of it as it is pronounced is an audible ikon of ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matthew 25:41).

It’s a good thing to keep in mind the wrath of God, even if we don’t understand exactly what it means, because what it does mean in the rough and tumble, aside from all intellectual or poetic skirting of the issue, is that there can be no play acting, no fooling God, even if we can fool others and ourselves: Love can heal all men of all dis-eases, even of death, but only if our hatred we are willing to lay down.

Lay down, lay down, lay it all down
Let your white birds smile up
At the ones who stand and frown

We were so close, there was no room
We bled inside each other’s wounds
We all had caught the same disease
And we all sang the songs of peace

So raise the candles high, ’cause if you don't
We could stay black against the night
Oh, raise them higher again, and if you do
We could stay dry against the rain

Some came to sing, some came to pray
Some came to keep the dark away…

—Melanie Safka, Candles in the Rain, sung at Woodstock

I love this song, have loved it since I first heard it, but now forty-four years later I wonder how we could have been so naïve, how we could have missed its real meaning, how Melanie Safka its author could have not known what it really meant while she composed it, sang it, how we could have been so blind to our own self-centered and childish rebelliousness. How self-righteous we were! How confident, but of all the wrong things! All the wrong things except one. Our need for love, to receive it, yes, but also to give it. And how ignorant we were, and how ungrateful, unaware that the very muddy soil on which we camped ourselves in huddled tents was the very stuff of which we were made, and that rain, that which made us pliable enough to be fashioned into images to be brought to Life only by the inbreathing of the God who wanted us into being.

The wrath of God, the flip side of His love? Or does holy and divine Scripture speak to us as does a mother to her little child, using baby talk? Through the words of our mother is the will of our heavenly Father intimated to us in a way that will warn but not crush us, warm but not burn us? The holy, unearthly, divine Triad, who alone is the One God, yet who chose not to be alone eternally, but unsplit and undivided from before all ages is, was, and will be Three, opening narrow a cleft in the Rock into which He places us so that we can see, Him passing by and showing us only His back, so that we can follow, hearing His name called out to us, our new names receive.

Yes, the wrath of God, what is left to us when we do not look upon Him whom we have pierced by our sins, our sin, our willful disobedience, when we do not mourn over Him as over an Only son, what is left to us when we have pushed away the Other, so that we can be alone with ourselves. If the wrath of God is a metaphor for anything, it is a metaphor for ourselves, it is we, it is I, when I choose to be everything that I was not created to be, when I want and work for at all costs that which never could have existed in this or any world. Yes, the wrath of God: ‘Is it I, Lord, is it I?’


Factory hands at Sterling Furniture on NW Nicolai at 29th Street,
Portland, Oregon, circa 1980 (I am fourth from left, sitting on lumber)
Thinking about my first spiritual father today. He wasn’t an Orthodox Christian, nor was I at the time. I was a recently ‘born again’ visitor at the Episcopal Church. I hadn’t even joined that church yet when I first met him, the man whom I modeled my young life on. But I knew he was a Christian man, tried and true, and as I got to know him, I wanted to be like him too. I’ve written a little bit about him here and there, and sad to say, I’ve forgotten most of the incidents in our life together, working side by side in an old-fashioned traditional furniture factory, but I can see him clearly in my mind’s eye, as clearly as if he were standing before me. It’s good I have a photographic memory, because he never allowed himself to be photographed, but he looked a lot like Sam Massabini in the film Chariots of Fire.

Sam Massabini, in the film
Chariots of Fire
Short (about 5’6” tall or so) and of stocky build, and strong, he wore slate-colored, long sleeved work shirts every day, and never unbuttoned his collar, even in the hottest weather. When it was cold, he wore a hand-knitted, lime-green vest over the shirt. Wood chips and curls got caught in it. His head was always covered by a workman’s cap with a front brim. He never took it off, except when he snatched it off his head in a burst of emotion, threw it on the floor, and stomped on it, while telling me about something foolish that he saw or heard. Never a malicious word passed his lips, nor judgmental, but he could see through people like he had x-ray eyes, and he’d sometimes warn me to keep clear of this or that one. Always a dad, and a mentor, without knowing it, that's what he was.

That’s me, age 29, at the band saw. (I still have that cap!)
I’d never met a grown man who could be as candid and matter-of-fact as he was. You could, I could, ask him practically anything, and I often did. Whenever he told you his answer, you were always certain that it was the gospel truth. The man simply didn’t lie, but to protect someone, he often covered their offenses, to keep them out of trouble. He didn’t just ‘not talk.’ He also made reparation for them, fixed up whatever it was they ruined, and they never even knew. Of course, as the plant foreman he never put them on that job again, but tried to match their work to their skills and attention span.

1930's rural camp revival
Growing up during the Great Depression on a farmstead in the borderlands of North Dakota and Minnesota, he told me a lot of stories of miracles that happened at the Pentecostal tent revivals. He told me stories of ‘great escapes,’ like the time one of his eleven brothers evaded a seductress at a barn dance. The girl had a crush on him, and maybe more than a crush. She let him know her folks were away and that she’d like to have him stay over at her place for the night. He obliged her, but had something else up his sleeve.

When the young couple arrived at the cabin, he sat down on the edge of the bed in the corner of the room and motioned her to come hither. Gladly she ran, thinking to have her way with him, and threw herself across his lap. What a surprise! He spanked her seriously once or twice and then threw her off and stood up, ‘Let that be a lesson to you and don’t try it with me again, or I’ll tell your pa!’ A true story that sounds like it came right from the pen of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Tug boat on Lake Superior, 1940's
The second world war came, and my mentor, who was working on a tug boat on Lake Superior by then, was inducted into the army. It was being stationed in the Pacific Northwest that brought him back here after the war. He had fallen in love with a Portland lass, and they were married. She couldn’t have found a better man. Reared in a Holiness environment, he had never acquired the common habits of Great Plains farmers, smoking and chew, or strong drink. ‘I never drank alcohol, except when I had to, during the war, when we received communion from the Episcopalian chaplain.’ He also made it no secret that he had entered into marriage as a virgin, though he didn’t put it that way. A virgin, to him, was a woman, the woman, that is, Mother Mary. As for him, ‘I never knew any woman but my wife.’ That impressed me.

Another photo of me and some of my buddies at the furniture factory.
Singing as he worked—he worked as a sawyer even though he was the plant foreman, and we worked at saws opposite each other, back to back—he sang Christian hymns in Norwegian with great gusto, sometimes stopping to turn around and translate them for me. He also sang hymns in English while ripping wood. One of his favorites—and mine—was ‘What a friend we have in Jesus.’ He had a winning sense of humor too. I still remember how often he’d sing ‘Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?’ and then, turning around with a twinkle in his eye, he’d look at me and respond, ‘Are you kidding?’ and then resume the hymn, melodiously.

Swearing was also something that never mounted farther than his throat, even if anger (or indignation) sometimes did. From him I also learned how not to swear. The closest he came to swearing was his use of the phrase ‘what in the Sam Hill…’ which is an old country Christian way to avoid saying, ‘What the he**…’ Perhaps because the spirit of my mentor is so dear to me, I have used the expression ever since, even though more than thirty-some years have gone by.

Philippa and Martina, in the film Babettes gæstebud
Why am I remembering my mentor? Do I miss him? Well, I never miss anyone very much anymore, especially those who have gone to be with Lord. Why not? Don't I care about them? Of course I do. But as I draw closer to the end of my own life I sense them, my departed grandparents and parents, godparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and yes, beloved friends, all drawing nearer to me. Sometimes I can almost see them. In the Danish film Babettes gæstebud, Philippa says, ‘The stars have moved closer,’ and her sister Martina replies, ‘Perhaps they move closer every night.’

Yes, perhaps they do.

Αιωνια η μνημη, memory eternal

Save us, Yahweh! There are no devout men left,
fidelity has vanished from mankind.
All they do is lie to one another,
flattering lips, talk from a double heart.
May Yahweh slice off every flattering lip,
each tongue so glib with boasts,
those who say, ‘In our tongues lies our strength,
our lips have the advantage, who can master us?’
‘For the plundered poor, for the needy who groan,
now will I act,’ says Yahweh.
‘I will grant them the safety they sigh for.’
Psalm 12 (Day 2)

The words, ‘each tongue so glib with boasts,’ came immediately to mind when reading, this august morning, a series of praises of people who support the state of Israel, that were attached below a photograph of a handsome young soldier captioned ‘The more I serve my country the more I fall in love with it’. Why ‘august’ morning? Because today is the commemoration of World War I’s armistice day, now called ‘Veterans Day’ in these United States, and ‘Remembrance Day’ in Canada. For me, this is a day of pause. I prefer ‘Remembrance Day’ even though I am an American, much as I also prefer other Canadian traditions over those of my native country. There really are no ‘countries,’ only people.

‘Remembrance’ holds more meaning for me, not that I wish to dishonor or discredit ‘Veterans.’ Though I am not a veteran of any declared war, as my Dad and Granddad were, I am a veteran, and vehemently, of the war against humanity, that is waged daily by the enemy of mankind, the war eulogized (I can’t say that ‘eulogized’ is the right word) by my poet, Walt Whitman, in his Leaves of Grass, a fitting meditation for this day.

As I ponder'd in silence,
Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,
A Phantom arose before me with distrustful aspect,
Terrible in beauty, age, and power,
The genius of poets of old lands,
As to me directing like flame its eyes,
With finger pointing to many immortal songs,
And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said,
Know'st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring bards?
And that is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers.
Be it so, then I answer'd,
I too haughty Shade also sing war, and a longer and greater one than any,
Waged in my book with varying fortune, with flight, advance and retreat, victory deferr'd and wavering,
(Yet methinks certain, or as good as certain, at the last,) the field the world,
For life and death, for the Body and for the eternal Soul,
Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battles,
I above all promote brave soldiers.

Whitman, like me, was not a veteran of any declared war, though he labored voluntarily for several years during the Civil War, without payment of any kind, in the field hospitals set up in the nation’s capital, as a nurse and general companion-to-the-dying, and so had the right to write what and as he did. The experience certainly changed his life, rerouted it, and his book his self-declared spiritual and physical autobiography, became his testimony, as powerful as if he had started a humanitarian movement, but he didn’t. He left it to us to volunteer, day by day, in the same spirit, which is his and Christ’s.

Meditative, morning thoughts returning, in spite of the unexpected sunshine perforating this rainy autumn week, to the grandiose and proud verbiage below that photograph, and the subsequent praises it produced, I am struck by the pervasive fantasy the human race falls into when it has decided that one of its favored causes is also God’s. I am speaking here, of course, of the state of Israel, a state set up and maintained mostly by Europeans and Americans of Jewish extraction in a land historically occupied by other peoples, originally Palestinians, of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faith. Most of those original peoples have by now been banished from their homeland to make room for Jewish immigrants from all over the world. This is the result of an ethno-political philosophy known as Zionism.

Back to the ‘pervasive fantasy’ relevant to this cause, to Zionism, though started by secular European Jews as a solution to the perennial persecution of the Jews in nearly every country, and given an incredible boost by the Holocaust of World War II, this cause is in large part supported by American evangelical Christians. Most of the praises I read below the photograph of the young Israeli soldier were penned by this sort of Christian. Raised in their sects to believe that Israel is still God’s favorite nation and deserving of anything and everything that God gives them, whether taken by their military might or not, they can’t help but find their own ‘faith’ bolstered by identifying with Israel’s victories over its enemies. No better example of faith by proxy can be found. Unvictorious in their own lives, the victories of others become their victories, as the machinery of mistaken theology crushes real people, mercilessly.

People forget what is inconvenient, and call it forgiveness. One does not have to be an anti-Semite (though one will certainly be called one) to point out that the Jews of the time of Christ rejected Him as Messiah, even if they were not the ones who actually put Him to death. In this case, their rejection of Him was an even worse sin than His crucifixion and death because He had to die in order to redeem humanity and reopen to us the gates of Paradise. Had they accepted Him, we cannot say how the redemption and the reopening of Paradise would have taken place. But they did not accept Him, and for this rejection they were, indeed, and at His words, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’ forgiven. Yes, they were forgiven, along with the rest of us, but forgiveness does not necessarily wipe out consequences, neither theirs nor ours.

The rejection of Jesus Christ by the Jews of His time had consequences for them. Their glorious Temple was laid waste, never to be rebuilt. As a nation, though they were already scattered by previous national disasters into all corners of the known world, their possession of the land of Canaan, modern Palestine, was ended, and they were exiled, as a people of faith, until the return of Christ. This was common knowledge and universal belief among Christians throughout history, and in their own version, accepted by believing Jews as well. In the prayer books of my own Jewish ancestors I find prayers ‘to end our exile’ in abundance. They knew they were exiled, they just didn’t know why, or refused to accept why. Their ancestors rejected the Messiah when He came, and following tradition, they perpetuate that rejection, and thereby continue their exile. That is, until the supporters of Zionism brushed God and Christ aside, and took matters into their own hands.

Yes, forgiveness is real. God really does forgive us when we do what we know is wrong. It seems He even forgives us before we ask to be forgiven, as Christ does on the Cross. People fail to appreciate this. Yes there is forgiveness, but there are consequences.

When we speak of forgiveness as the Lord does in His model prayer, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,’ that is one kind of forgiveness, the forgiveness of a debt. We know how that works. I owe you a thousand dollars, but I cannot pay it, and you forgive the debt, receiving nothing. An example of this in modern terms is bankruptcy. Other kinds of forgiveness do not work that way. In fact, except for debts, and maybe not even excepting them, with every form of forgiveness, there are consequences.

If a man and a woman who are not married engage in sex, and the woman becomes pregnant, there will be a baby. Whether or not their fornication is looked at as a sin or merely a mistake, there are consequences. Either she will have a baby, or commit something unthinkable, but in both cases, life must change, the terms under which they live, change. This is just one, obvious example. Others are innumerable.

So the Jews, both past and present, are forgiven for rejecting Jesus as Messiah, and for whatever reasons, yet there are consequences. Ejection from the promised land, and worldwide exile.

According to the apostle Paul, who did not know that either of these consequences were to take place—they were both in the future when he wrote his epistles—when the Jews finally come to their senses and accept Jesus Christ, that will mean a resurrection of the dead. We are not told any more than what he writes, ‘Since their rejection meant the reconciliation of the world, do you know what their admission will mean? Nothing less than a resurrection from the dead!’ (Romans 11:15).

We don’t know if he meant, literally, the resurrection of the dead, an event that means the Day of the Lord—Judgment Day—has arrived, but it seems that he takes it as a certainty that the Jews will at some point accept Christ. Well, as individuals this has been going on for centuries, but Israel as a people still exists, based on only one fact: their rejection of Jesus Christ. And that rejection has consequences: ejection and diaspora.

Remembrance, to once again become members of one another. Our Christian faith is centered on this one thing, ‘Do this in remembrance of Me,’ by which we become members of one another, and even more, members of Him.

Remembrance, uniting us here and now to our ancestors, all of them, all of them veterans of that ‘war, and a longer and greater one than any,’ showing us the reality that ‘we are who we were,’ and that beyond the veils of time and place, there is really only one humanity, one human family, even one human Soul, just as there is only one Spirit—God.

Remembering, let us also forget, not what injustices, what cruelties and crimes are taking place on our earth right now—for we are alive, and must work to end these, being forgiven by Christ—let us also forget everything that divides us, all that conquers us and prevents us from reaching the goal.

And what is this goal? The end of our exile. The end of our ejection from the true Promised Land which has been opened by Christ, not just to the Jews, but to everyone.

Αιωνια η μνημη, aionía í mními. Memory eternal, to those who love us and, to those who hate us. Christ has forgiven us all. Αιωνια η μνημη.