Saturday, September 30, 2006

All for one and one for all

“All for one and one for all” is best known as the motto of the characters in the book The Three Musketeers, by the nineteenth-century French author Alexandre Dumas. All the members of a group support each of the individual members, and the individual members pledge to support the group. At the end of a very long day, as two friends and I sat together in a coffeehouse, just before we broke up our session, those words came to mind, “All for one and one for all.” I blurted them out, because somehow they indicated for me what we had just experienced—a session—sitting together in the presence of the Lord and worshipping “in Spirit and in Truth” by letting ourselves communicate and share what the Lord is doing with us. In a coffeehouse? Yes.

There, in a coffeehouse, we met together, and our invisible Lord was in our midst, teaching us His precious and all-powerful Word through our discourses with each other, helping us to understand that our lives, which we three had given to Him, really are now in His mighty and yet tender hands. There, a few hours of chrónos time were plucked out of this plummeting age and, transformed into kairós time, were laid up for us in the “city not made with hands.”
One of us, a man I know in Christ, spoke at one point with such calm passion and Christ-like simplicity and order, about the lives we have been given back by Jesus, lives of willingness to suffer for His name, all I could say, over and over, after each pause in his voice, was "Ameen" but softly, so as not to interrupt him. He spoke like the “good angel” I know him to be. Almost never have I heard such a discourse from a priest, and certainly never from anyone, except in the writings of the Fathers, expressed with such God-imploring humility.

Kept coming to my mind the remembrance of the new martyrs of Russia who, though young in years like my brother, were wise like the ancient Fathers. They struggled against an atheistic Christ-hating state, refusing to take the “mark of the beast” in any form. They suffered for the Truth, and the wonder-working faith that was the fruit of their endurance, fed each other as they were, one by one, led as Christ's innocent lambs to the slaughter. Two of the young men pictured met this fate, one came through it alive. Yet their three-fold unity mirrored the three-fold radiance of the all-holy God, the Almighty, the Deathless, the unearthly Triad, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

What is my purpose in writing this? I need to memorialize those moments which I shared with my brother and sister in Christ. I cannot evade testifying that there is Truth on earth, even now. Defying the barking dogs in their mangers who do not go into the Kingdom of Heaven themselves yet prevent those who want to from going in, Jesus walking among us still casts the money-changers from His Father's house, crying out, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, for to such as them belongs the Kingdom of God!”

When I was not much older than you, adelphós mou kai adelphí mou, while persecution still raged in Russia, there was a book, Russia's Catacomb Saints, by I. M. Andreyev, that had this symbol in the frontispiece, saying “This book is dedicated to the Christian Martyrs, today in Russia, tomorrow in America.” I pondered then what form this martyrdom would take. Now, thirty years later, the words are coming true, and the form of our martyrdom is gradually appearing, and I am alive to see that this will be your cross, and I want to share it with you. What is different and perhaps even more cruel than an atheistic Christ-hating state is what we have to face now, in America… I cannot even say it, but you know what it is, because you have already seen in your young lives what the divine, God-breathed scriptures was telling us of, when Jesus said, “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or Me. I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you.” (John 16:2-4 NIV)

The time is now very close. “O gar kairós engýs” (Revelation 1:3). That is why we are reading the Apokálypsis more and more, even in Greek, to understand its message intimately and spiritually—not like the expounders of end times theoretica—but as men and women of faith, “who follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Revelation 14:4). How can we know that the time is very close? We can see what is happening to the churches. Though we do not abandon our institutional churches, we cannot let ourselves be trapped in them. The time is now very close. We do the work we see our Father doing and, following Jesus, in company with Him, we know and accept His great commission, to go forth with Him to seek that which was lost. And where Jesus is, there is the Holy Spirit, there is the Church. “With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us…” (Hebrews 12:1 JB).

“It is all clear to me now, either Christianity is fire,
or there is no such thing.
I just want to wander through the world, calling,
‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.’
And to accept it if people revile me and say all manner of evil against me.”

Monday, September 25, 2006

Love gives birth to prayer

Myself, I have little to say right now, but to pass on to others the words of the saints I am privileged to know. I cannot stay away from Sergei Fudel, and once again I turn to him by reading his short book Light in the Darkness. Like another friend of mine who is still here with me, Sergei is "one in a million," a man in whose eyes I see the light of Jesus. Just to be near him is a healing, because he never leaves Jesus' side. Here's what Sergei says about prayer…

Prayer is born of love.
Is it not the same as to say, "Prayer is born of tears?" I realized this quite recently when I heard a young girl answer a question addressed to her. "How can I learn to pray?" The question did not puzzle her, and she said unhesitatingly, "Go and learn to weep and you'll learn to pray." She completed the words of the Fathers.

Bishop Theophan the Recluse used to say that praying only with words written by another is like trying to talk in a foreign language using only textbook dialogues. Like many other Church Fathers, he said that we must look for our own words in order to pray. I suppose that this is truly possible for us only in moments of desperate need, real anguish, either for ourselves or for others. In such moments we do not "recite" prayers, we simply cry out to God, "Lord, please come to him and comfort him!" The audacity of prayer is born only in the audacity of love. Saint Macarius [Abba Makarios] said, "Love gives birth to prayer."

"Love gives birth to prayer," therein lies the mystery and the meaning of prayer. We can recite endless litanies, we can endlessly finger our prayer beads, but unless we have love, unless we have learned to grieve for others, we have not even begun to pray. We can thus go through all our life without having begun to pray.

Unless we are truly sympathetic to human suffering, we are merely carrying out a "prayer rule," not really praying.

"Pray constantly!" is a direct admonition of the Apostle.
There is a logic, a spiritual kind of logic, to constant prayer.
Constant prayer serves to establish in us an absolutely sincere humility. I cannot not pray constantly, because I constantly need divine help. Why should I be proud of constantly calling for help?
We do not feel pride because we breathe without interruption, we do not even notice it! We should not evaluate the process, we must just pray. Our prayer must acquire the unwitting simplicity of constant breathing.

Yearning to pray is what a simple heart needs more than anything else.

I sleep, but my heart is awake.
I hear my Beloved knocking.
"Open to me, my sister, my love,
my dove, my perfect one,
for my head is covered with dew,
my locks with the drops of night."

—The Song of Songs 5:2 Jerusalem Bible

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Catch Them Alive

Then Jesus said to Simon, "Don't be afraid; from now on you will catch men." So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. Luke 5:10-11 NIV

…from now on you will catch men.
In the Greek original, this is:
απο του νυν ανθρωπους εση ζωγρων
Apó tou nín anthrópous ési zogrón.

This was the theme of Fr. Jerry's sermon this morning, with emphasis on the call to everyone within hearing, that we are all called by Jesus, just as the fishermen disciples were, all called by Jesus to be fishers of men. There aren't "two churches", the church of the catchers of the fish, and the church of those who watch the catch from shore.

Even though the disciples had already accepted the call of Jesus, they still had lives to live, they had to support their families and continue their trade, fishing for a living. That represents the first stage of the call—they followed Jesus, but then they still had lives to live, responsibilities in the world. Jesus came to the lakeside and saw them, His disciples, washing their nets and putting them away for the day (since the best fishing was at night, near the shore, on the Sea of Galilee). They had toiled all night but caught nothing.

Jesus had come to find them there, and because there were already crowds following Him around to hear the Word of God, He stepped into Peter's boat, and had Peter put out a little from the shore, so He could teach without being mobbed. After teaching awhile, the Master (for that is what Peter calls Him, proving he already was following the call) told him to put the boat out to deeper water and pay out the nets for a catch.

What? Pay out the nets in deep water, in the daytime? Peter knew better. He was a "professional." He tells Jesus that this is not "conventional wisdom," but still he said, "but if You say so, I will pay out the nets." (Luke 5:5 JB) And that is what Peter did.

What happened? Peter, the fisherman, got the "blessing" of probably the biggest catch of fish he had ever had in his life! He even had to call his companions in the other boat to come help, pull the catch in… and it nearly sank both boats!

Peter's reaction? He fell at the knees of Jesus, saying "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5:8) When faced with the wonder-working power of God, the abundance even in the material world that is the Lord's to give as He chooses, mere mortal man comes face to face with his utter sinfulness, and begs the Lord to depart from such a creature as himself.

Jesus Christ's response? "Do not be afraid…" (Luke 5:10) The Lord is now calling Peter, and us, to the next stage of discipleship.
He wants us. He has to tell us up front, "Don't be afraid!" And why is this? Because now it really is the unknown that we're heading for, Jesus really is going to take us where no man has gone before. No man, except Him, and with Him, us.

These are some of the points Fr. Jerry brought out in this Gospel, and I hope I'm reporting them correctly and sharing them with you clearly. As with any good sermon, though, there's always a rhíma, a "living word" that stays with you. What stayed with me, and even grew a little in me, was the passage I started with, the part I wrote in red, which Fr. Jerry also emphasized by referring to the Greek of the Bible, and which I've made the title of this post, "catch them alive."

Zogréo, "to catch alive" as in the sense of catching an animal for the zoo, as Fr. Jerry put it. What caught my attention was this irony—that when the disciples caught fish, they took an animal which was alive (in the water) and killed it (took it out of the water) so they could eat it. That's what a fisherman does. No judgment intended. We have to eat to live, and God has given us everything. But what the Lord said in making His disciples "fishers of men" gave them the job of "taking alive" the men whom He would be sending them. As fishers of men, we take an animal which was spiritually dead (out of the water) and in catching it make it alive (in the water and Spirit) so it can feed on God. This is another example of the Great Reversal (as C. S. Lewis calls it), the rolling backwards of death itself, the resurrection unto Life eternal.

Have I lost you by my wordy explanation? Sorry, if I have. Just go back to the top and read the Bible passage again. The Lord has commissioned us to "catch them alive."

That's really all I wanted to say, anyway.
And that's really all I want to do.
Glory to God!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Man is a Theological Rock

Here are a couple of passages from two books that I keep near me, alongside my Bible. The first is from the book "Hymn of Entry" by Archimandrite Vasileios.

What unites the saints is the freedom of the Spirit. They are free from their wills, from themselves. This is the proof and assurance of the genuineness of their truth. It is not the man speaking, but the Spirit of God. Thus a trinitarian balance reigns within them and flows round about them because in them is no "individual" initiative, no arbitrary dealings, no partial view, but a universal manifestation. The Lord's judgment is just because He seeks not His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him (cf. John 5:30). The Comforter consoles the people of God and leads it "into all truth" because He does not speak of Himself. What is important is not that we should achieve the project we have set ourselves to achieve, but that the Holy Spirit should do with us and within us what He wishes, when He wishes, regardless of whether this seems, or is, disastrous for our projects and our good resolutions.

This release from his own will and total captivity to the freedom of the Comforter means that man's theological testimony can be heard, like a message of resurrection, from the whole of his behavior and his being. It makes the course of his life into a script which can be clearly read, theologically mature and universally saving. Theology is a creation, a superabundance of life, a gift, an overflowing, an involuntary movement. It emanates from the whole body of the life of those who are spiritually liberated, like the sound that comes from all the vibrating metal of a bell.

"And I should like to be silent (if only I could!), but the terrible wonder moves my heart and opens my sullied mouth, and against my will makes me speak and write," says St. Symeon the New Theologian; not to mention once again the great Apostle, who confesses: "Necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16). He was incapable of not preaching, of not creating theology, of not manifesting in word and deed the wonders of God which he was tasting and which were being revealed in him. Theology wells up; and man is a theological rock. When struck with the rod of the new Moses, he can send streams gushing forth, soaking his desolate land and making meadows where there was no water.

The second is from the book "Light in the Darkness" by Sergei Fudel.

When the circle draws to its close, there will remain on earth, unconquered, the "two or three" holy ones, the Church of Christ; and the light of their holiness will be too strong for human history. This will be the end of history. These unconquerable "two or three" will show that the Kingdom of Heaven and the Will of God are fulfilled in them "on earth as in heaven" and that all of humanity could have been such as they.

We usually know (that is, when we're in our right mind, we know) that the easy way is to follow the call of Jesus and make His Word our home, to seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and His righteousness, and we cannot understand why this isn't clear to everyone, why our fellow Christians turn to the consolations of mere religion or the self-bestowed righteousness of their works. We know that "all humanity could be" as the unconquered, unconquerable ones that Sergei writes about. And I hope there are going to be more than "two or three", no, I know that there are more than this. Where my hope lies is in the thought that I also may be one of them.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


I’ve been taken for a fool so many times before.
I’ve been taken for a ride by so many people.
I’ve fallen in love too much to tally the score.
I’ve been wearing out the scars of so many battles.
O God, where is all this leading to?
Will I ever come at the sight of you?
Will this cross I’m wearing so close, next to my skin
so close, so close, you know the state I’m in,
will this cross I’m standing under save me in the end?
Will your body finally be the door to let me in?
‘Cause I’m tired today, last night I watched with you,
‘cause I’ve got no fire today, it went out when you left me
sitting there for hours, alone, in the rain,
waiting, praying, to see your face again,
waiting for something, for someone, too good to be true,
waiting, waiting, waiting for you.

The season for glad songs has passed, has passed away.
I’ve been singing down a dark well and searching so hard.
At the bottom I might see my own face some sunny day,
but it’s you I wanted to see smiling back at me, O Lord.
Please tell me, where is all this leading to?
Why can’t I stop singing these songs to you?
Will I ever find a moment just to catch my breath?
This fool, this fool will sing himself to death.
Will the burden of this loneliness cancel all my debt
or will my body always be the victim of your wrath?
‘Cause I’m tired today, last night I watched with you,
‘cause I’ve got no fire today, it went out when you left me
sitting there for hours, alone, in the rain,
waiting, praying, to see your face again,
waiting for something, for someone, too good to be true,
waiting, waiting, waiting for you.


Friday, September 15, 2006

A Word on Fasting

A young Christian brother wrote me, asking for a word on fasting, which he is trying for the first time. My response consists of the very basics, not about Orthodox Christian fasting guidelines, but gleaned from my own prayer life and the experiences of the abbas, the Desert Fathers, and others. I want to share this with others who are growing up in Christ outside the Orthodox kinonía (fellowship).

Fasting is something that you do when you want to unleash your power of prayer.

Take this for an example… Have you ever had a friend or family member in such trouble or danger that it just drove all thoughts for food or entertainment or sex right out of you? I mean, all you could do was strain for them in prayer and sympathy, stretching yourself out in supplication. Perhaps it was even yourself that was in serious trouble, and you could do nothing but watch and pray, stretching your soul out to the Lord… the very thought of eating or any bodily or sensual enjoyment just left you? Well, this is true fasting. We fast because we cannot do anything else. Our prayer drives out the demands and even the needs of the body. Then, our bodies, emotions and minds being unconcerned for gratification, the power of prayer grows even stronger.

Another kind of fasting is more deliberate. You eat little (but usually not nothing), and try to calm your body down so you can maintain a state of quiet, for your spirit to gain a place of prayer. Unfortunately, this is very difficult to do, because our social interaction defeats some of its goals. I mean, you cannot admit to fasting, yet you sometimes are feeling weak and even sick.

A good kind of fasting to practice, for beginners, is to content yourself with bread (in a fixed amount, plain bread) and water (in amounts as needed). Another way to fast is to not eat in the day time, but to arise before dawn for a beginning prayer, then eat something nourishing (but vegetarian, like a bowl of cheerios with soy milk), and go without eating until after sunset, then pray and study the Bible, and afterwards take some green tea and a bowl of rice with some veggies. These are just suggestions.

The thing to avoid is anything that will endanger your health. Push the body gently into a state of alertness caused by hunger, but not into a state of acute discomfort. Stop fasting if you become sick, if you begin to praise yourself for your asceticism, if you begin to judge others, or if you are called upon to offer or partake of hospitality. Fasting means, no food gleaned from pain, therefore no animal products (except dairy, for some people), and never eating to fullness (always eat 2/3 to 1/2 of the quantity of food that you want to eat).

I wonder, does any of this help? Fasting is to make us hollow for God, so He can play us like a flute, so we can feel His breath within us, and sing for joy to the glory of His name. Fasting is to make our lives 100% prayer. I hope whatever it is you are seeking, you will succeed.

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18 NIV)

Monday, September 11, 2006

Books, Books and More Books!

I visit the blog of a local (non-Orthodox) young adults pastor occasionally, and today I noticed he had a wish list. When I opened it, I found it contained a listing of 44 books that presumably he would like to have. Now, I don't know when he'd find time to read them all if he got them—that would be little less than a book a week. Looking at the list, I was surprised both by some of the titles and the topics. I wondered also why a Christian pastor would want to read some of these books. One of them is a book on building a successful company; my boss has a copy on his desk! Some others also had titles that just left me incredulous. In the list there might be one or two that I thought could be helpful reading. The rest seemed like a lot of seminarians publishing the papers that got them their degrees, so somebody had better read them.

As in the days leading up to the Reformation, the Church seems to be pickling its clergy in the brine of bibliocracy, both when they're still in the cooker (seminary) and then when they get out. The Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, whatever you call the Book (you know which one I'm talking about), just seems like it isn't good enough… Books, books and more books! But where's the Book?

Perusing this long list of titles and contemplating the state of mind of the young pastor who unashamedly proclaims them on his wish list, I felt a twinge of sorrow—it seems like our shepherds have now gone back to farming, trying to get a bigger, better yield.

Abel is slain, and Cain offers vegetables to God while crying, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Businessman have to keep up with the latest trends, they have to stay in the fast lane or lose their position, and who knows? maybe they'd never get back in. But for ministers of the Gospel to abandon that God-breathed, all-sufficient living scripture, to join in the paper chase! As holy prophet Jeremiah wrote, "They have bartered their glory for shame." And as Martin Luther wrote in his Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, "Whoever is not ceaselessly busy with the Word of God must become corrupt."

Here's the list of books I referred to above. I admit I'm ignorant of the contents of all of them, and I don't want to be acquainted with any of them. I know this makes me a hopeless cop-out in today's "Christian" world. I don't condemn these books or their authors; perhaps many are great saints and their writings venerable.
Who knows?
I confess, I am just an ignorant Orthodox village muzhik.

After looking over the list of books, pray for Romanós the sinner, and an ignorant one at that!

"All I want to know is Christ and the power of His resurrection…" (Philippians 3:10 Jerusalem Bible).

1. The Last Word and the Word after That: A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity (Brian D. McLaren)
2. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Sidney Greidanus)
3. The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World (Jim Wallis, et al.)
4. On Beauty and Being Just (Elaine Scarry)
5. Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens (Neil Cole)
6. The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church (Shane Hipps, Brian McLaren)
7. Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional (Lois Y. Barrett)
8. Heaven Is Not My Home: Learning to Live in God's Creation (Paul A. Marshall, Lela Hamner Gilbert)
9. For All God's Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (N. T. Wright)
10. Kingdom of God Is a Party (Tony Campolo)
11. Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Ruth Haley Barton)
12. Reflecting the Glory: Meditations for Living Christ's Life in the World (N. T. Wright)
13. The Rising: Living the Mysteries of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost (Wendy M. Wright)
14. Eastertide: Prayers for Lent Through Easter from The Divine Hours (Phyllis Tickle)
15. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Philip Jenkins)
16. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year (Robert E. Webber)
17. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (David Jacobus Bosch)
18. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Lesslie Newbigin)
19. The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Darrell L. Guder)
20. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Darrell L. Guder, Lois Barrett)
21. To Own a Dragon: Reflections On Growing Up Without A Father (Donald Miller, John MacMurray)
22. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Eugene H. Peterson)
23. Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (Thomas Cahill)
24. The Bible As It Was (James L. Kugel)
25. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts: Revised and Updated (John Dominic Crossan, Jonathan L. Reed)
26. Engaging God's World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Cornelius Plantinga)
27. Creating Community: Five Keys to Building a Small Group Culture (Andy Stanley, Bill Willits)
28. Return of the Prodigal Son (Henri Nouwen)
29. Paul: In Fresh Perspective (N. T. Wright)
30. Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (N. T. Wright)
31. Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road (Donald Miller)
32. Connecting (Larry Crabb)
33. Reaching for the Invisible God (Philip Yancey)
34. Not the Way It's Supposed to Be : A Breviary of Sin (Cornelius Plantinga)
35. Now, Discover Your Strengths (Marcus Buckingham, Donald O. Clifton)
36. First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently (Marcus Buckingham, Curt Coffman)
37. The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership (Steven B. Sample)
38. Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (Brian D. McLaren, Tony Campolo)
39. Where Do We Go from Here?: A Guidebook for the Cell Group Church (Ralph W. Neighbor)
40. Prepare Your Church for the Future (Carl F. George)
41. The Next Generation Leader: Five Essentials for Those Who Will Shape the Future (Andy Stanley)
42. Sacred Pathways (Gary L. Thomas)
43. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't (Jim Collins)

44. Can We Do That: Innovative Practices That Will Change the Way You Do Church (Andy Stanley, Ed Young)

Friday, September 8, 2006

Truly Merciful and Loving

If we as followers of Christ are willing to lay down our lives for each other, what is it to us to lay down mere material things in order to share in the sufferings of our brothers?
It's easy to share in someone's joy, to party with him, to enjoy his company and stay with him when he seems to have everything, every blessing.
And what of the opposite?
Is it easy to share in someone's pain, sadness or loss?
Well, yes, it is, it has to be.

Help me, Lord!
I want to live my life as John of Kronstadt lived his.
I want that kind of life in me, the life that Father John and others have received from their Father, their only Father.
Listen to what John of Kronstadt says…

He truly gives charity who gives from his heart, and with a loving heart. He is truly merciful who converses with everyone heartily, and not only with the intellect and lips, but who renders sincere, hearty respect to everyone; in a word, he who embraces all and carries all in his heart by love, despising everything material that may become a hindrance to love between himself and his neighbor; such a one is truly merciful and loving.

— Fr. John of Kronstadt