Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What does the priesthood mean?

It means to be an enduring witness to human suffering and to take it upon your own shoulders. To be the one who warms the leper at his own breast, the one who gives life to the miserable through the breath from his own mouth. To be a strong comfort to every unfortunate one, even when you yourself are overwhelmed with weakness. To be a ray of shining light to unhappy hearts when your own eyes long ago ceased to see any light. To carry mountains of others’ sufferings on your shoulders, while your own being screams out with the weight of its own suffering. Your flesh will rebel and say, ‘This heroism is absurd, impossible! Where is such a man, where is the priest you describe so that I may put my own suffering on his shoulders?’ Yes, nevertheless, he does exist! From time to time there awakens within us the priest of Christ who, like the Good Samaritan, will kneel down by the side of the man fallen among thieves and, putting him upon his own donkey, will bring him to the Church of Christ for healing. And he will forget himself and comfort you, O man of suffering."

— Father George Calciu (†November 21, 2006)

I was going to add my comment to this quote from presbyter George Calciu, who fell asleep in the Lord only yesterday (may his memory be eternal), but what can I add?

The priesthood he describes is the spiritual priesthood that every man or woman in Christ has received at their baptism and confession of faith in Jesus.
This is the royal priesthood that holy apostle Peter writes about in 1 Peter 2:9.
Now, we know what we're in for.

Let us take God at His Word,
so He can take us at ours.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bless my enemies, O Lord

By St. Nikolai of Ochrid

I am going through a place right now where there are those who are waiting in ambush for my soul, my life. This prayer I want to keep close to me, as I pass through there. Though the way is a suffering way, the destination is joy.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.
Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.
Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world.

Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an un-hunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.
They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.
Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf. Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.
WheneverI have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand. Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep. Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.
Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me: so that my fleeing to You may have no return; so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs; so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul; so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger; so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven; ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.
Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.
One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.
It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies.
A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand.
But a son blesses them, for he understands.
For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.
Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

To endure the Cross…

…is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. … the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life.

It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause of conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity… We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I have been commenting on Kenny Ching's blog, where he has posted considerations of Ted Haggard's recent publicity. I am feeling frustrated about a lot of things right now, and this is one of them, how Christians regard what happened, and how they think it reflects on them. Who cares how it reflects on them or the Church? The Church can't hide the fact that it's a hospital full of very sick people, and even some of the doctors are sick! Actually, even the doctors are just interns, working under the One Physician of our souls.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has it right. I don't know if the quote I quickly grabbed off the internet is especially pertinent, but I don't care. Dietrich and the other church fathers have it right. And why? Because they have made the Word of God their home, their first priority. That's why they're so beautiful and why their words ring so true.

This is what I make of the Ted Haggard story.

After reading Kenny's post, I went away and read the statement that Ted Haggard wrote to be read from the pulpit of his church. The statement was all very honest and correct. The remedy for his problem is being handled appropriately within the structure of the evangelical community. I am especially happy that Pastor Barnett will be one of his spiritual fathers in helping him through his repentance and restoration. (I know this is Orthodox talk, but that's what we call it.) I don't know Ted Haggard's ministry. In fact, before this happened, I don't know that I ever really heard of him before. I don't consider any of his sins anything worse than any of mine, they're just more visible. The loser here is satan because, having led him along to this point, he has now lost him, as God's angel vanguard has intervened. May God guard us all who sin secretly and give us the opportunity to repent. This is an affliction that has attacked the church since the beginning. It's proof of God's incredible love, though, that He always is faithful to save us, even when we're too weak to ask for help.

(Responding to Jeff's points about Haggard's hypocrisy) …yes, it seems that brother Haggard is a hypocrite, not a man prone to momentary lapses into any particular sin. I don't know whether the sin of hypocrisy, though, is any more blameworthy or damning than the homosexual acts or the possible drug use. From what little I've read (only Haggard's statement to his congregation), I gather that he has been fighting homosexual temptations all his life. Nevertheless, trusting in the God who "saves us and bears our burdens," he stepped out in faith (some would say in stupidity) and got married, raised a family, and followed a call to ministry. He did this, no doubt, because he knew that the homosexual temptations were exactly that (not that he was born that way), and he trusted in the Lord to either deliver him from that "thorn in the flesh," or at least give him the strength to resist. You only live once, and as a young man struggling with issues of sexuality as a Christian, you come to a place where you have to decide whom to believe, against all odds. Will it be God as revealed in His written Word, or will it be the multiple and chaotic theorists that write books about what they know nothing about? Haggard chose to believe God's Word. In doing that, he has risked not only his life, the life of his woman, and their children's lives as well. Maybe, it would've been better to have believed God's Word, and just stayed celibate, or tried to. It would've been harder, though, and he'd likely have lost in the end and yielded wholeheartedly to the temptation, and abandoned all faith. Of course, you can never say what would've happened. All you can say is, what did happen. How many men, attacked all their lives by this temptation, live among us? How many have endured it, fought the good fight, and maybe lapsed or tried what they gave up out of obedience to God, and then, repentant, went back to it no more? How many men, Christians even, have tried to follow Christ and God, ignorantly mis-led by false teachers who have explained away the danger of yielding to homosexual sin, telling them it's alright? And are they actually sure they are doing nothing wrong? Is God's Word conditioned by culture after all? We will have to wait for Moshiach to tell us the answer to that, when He comes (again). I don't know brother Haggard, but I love him, and I feel for him, a brother who has momentarily fallen in battle. That fall may cost him everything, but his soul, his life, will be saved, if he repents and returns to God. No amount of human comfort, even yielding to homosexual sin (if that is in fact comforting!), can make up for the life God has created us to enjoy, to start living it here, and continue living it in the life of the Age to come. I am sure the man caught in this crisis knows the truth of what I've been trying to say, and I hope God will be merciful to him—no, I KNOW He will, because He is the Only Lover of mankind, He wants us. And He is faithful.

Then, another commentatrix responded to me, in particular writing, "The problem with hypocrisy, though, is the way it affects other people (both Christian and non-Christian). … It causes your Christian brothers and sisters to doubt, and it gives the world one more reason to point at Christians and call us frauds."

That got me going, and I responded.

Yes, hypocrisy can have bad effects on a wider range of people, but I hardly think that the world is turned off to Christianity because of the periodic public lapse of a Christian leader. The world treats Christianity as so much rubbish in large part because that's what Christians, by and large, do. When the institutionalised churches aren't making pronouncements far left or far right of the Good News, getting people polarised, worked up, or disgusted, the run of the mill inhabitant of the local sheep pen is racing after the almighty dollar, stuffing his belly with Costco and super-sized big gulps, getting glued to the tube, passing laughing gas, or going on Bible cruises with TV personalities. Uh oh, is my hypocrisy showing? I go witnessing while my own spiritual house is a shambles. Do I stop and try to fix it, or do I keep riding the wave that God is sending me? Either way, I'm the bad guy to somebody. No, bottom line, I don't think anything but good will come of Ted Haggard's fall, because anything and everything that gives us or the world cause to ask "Who's there?" when we hear the knock, is weighted in God's favor. Everyone deep down wants the Good and wants to follow the Good. Somewhere and pretty early on the sin of the world starts turning us sour on the Good, sour grapes, yeah, you can't have them, you're not good enough, and some of us fall for it, some more, some less. That's why Jesus had to come, to die for us, yes and Amen, but also to show us the way of the Cross. Thanks be to God, He has allowed us the privilege of taking up our crosses, and following Jesus.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Born again? When?

I had a feeling there was something special about this date, something I should remember… Yes, it started coming clear tonight. November 6th was the day when I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ and the biblical Orthodox faith back in 1975, at the ripe old age of 24!

After being brought up in church until I was 8 years old, when my parents stopped going because we moved too far from our original church and we just couldn't get grafted into the one in our new neighborhood (although there were other excuses), I was left to fend for myself for the rest of my childhood. Dad seemed indifferent, but now that we've talked as adults, I know that he was just too real to waste his time on meaningless ceremonies. In later life he became a Baptist and is a deacon in that church. Mom was a "house Catholic," that is, she wanted to be a good Christian, but the church was too corrupt and hocus-pocus for her, too. She had a passionately religious mindset, but also realistic, no worthless devotions or rosary type stuff… she just stayed up all night worrying, plucking her eyebrows so she could paint them back in with eyebrow pencil, and praying that all of us kids would somehow make it through childhood without getting into drugs or getting killed. It was Mom who made me and my younger brother promise we'd "never do dope."

So, I never did dope, but… worse things, really. After imitating my Mom as a fervently ignorant house Catholic elitist, in college I lapsed into the New Age religions. I was especially drawn to Hinduism because of a fascination with the god Krishna. As a young teenager, I had picked up and read a novel my folks had left lying around, some book club thing, that was about a teenage girl growing up in India, and there was a chapter entitled, "Krishna the Joyous." It captivated my imagination, and launched me into the great unknown. Krishna was joyous, but Christ was the "man of sorrows." Come now, people, who would you have turned to as a confused adolescent wrestling with the hormones?

College years found me orbiting the fringes of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, scorning the hopelessly dull and unimaginative male members (all with one-track minds…Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!), and dating and being patronized by cute but dumb Christian girls (but girls are supposed to be dumb, right? so who cares, they were cute!). Forgive me for this last sentence. I was a dolt. But here's a testimony for those girls, and maybe even for some of the guys… somehow I knew they were right, even when I was making fun of them. But I also knew that it was Who stood behind them that mattered, not they themselves or whatever churches or doctrines they believed in. At that time, I had a rock-solid belief in the divinity of Jesus that I took in, I guess, with the baby formula (Mom didn't breast feed). I just didn't quite understand why Krishna, and Buddha, and Swami Satchidananda, and… yeah, even me… couldn't also be God somehow. I was beginning to read the bible again, now that I knew there were other versions besides the KJV. And I found verses like, "Is it not written in your Law: I said, you are gods." (John 10:34 JB) "So," I thought, "maybe there are other ways to understand the bible than what's taught in church!" (I had yet to discover the Church fathers, particularly the Desert Fathers.)

Moving right along, after emigrating to Canada in 1972 to join a New Age commune that flopped after only about 6 months, I found myself married to a gal that had been born again and was trying to be a Christian. I wouldn't let her go to church (that is, I wouldn't go with her, and she wouldn't go alone), because "Christians are just so dumb!" That's what I thought until we moved back to the States, to Corvallis, Oregon.

While living in Oregon, I could see firsthand what the fruits of the neo-pagan mindset are… "depravity, rottenness, greed and malice, addiction to envy, murder, wrangling, treachery and spite… (the rest of the list is in Romans 1:29-31). Not that the people out here were all "irrational and given over to monstrous behavior," but that a kind of deathly hedonism, decadence and hypocritical irreverence prevailed among the very people I was trying to fit in with, the New Age folks. Some were almost harmless "flower children," but others were on the fringes of lunacy, dabbling in witchcraft and magic. Ugh! Seeing all this around me forced me to take a stand, either to continue down the path of hopeless wandering, like "a shooting star bound for an eternity of black darkness" (Jude 1:13 JB), or to repent, like Job, and say, "I am the man who obscured Your designs with my empty-headed words… I have been holding forth on matters I cannot understand… I knew You then only by hearsay; but now, having seen You with my own eyes, I retract all I have said, and in dust and ashes I repent." (Job 42:3-6 JB)

I chose the second option. Out of His love for me, He opened the door to His Kingdom, and I walked through it, on November 6th, 1975.

I was at work. I was a sawyer at the Veal & Son Furniture factory in Albany, Oregon. It was about 10 o'clock in the morning. I just heard His voice, and I knew it was Him. He questioned me. I hurriedly shooed my assistant off on an errand… go empty the wood box into the boiler (that would take him at least 15 minutes). He questioned me, like He questioned Job, "Who is this obscuring My designs with his empty-headed words? Brace yourself like a fighter; now it is My turn to ask questions and yours to inform Me." (Job 38:2-3 JB) …No, of course I didn't hear these exact words, but what He said to me was like them, and when I later read these words in the book of Job, I bracketed them as rhímata, "living words."

After His questioning, the Lord brought me to the point where I could surrender myself to Him, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Yes, there were physical and emotional "events" occurring in me as this took place. Yes, I first felt my body to be on fire, as I struggled against the Truth that spoke Himself to me. Then, when I couldn't stand it any longer, I surrendered "all that I am and all that I have" into His hands, and I felt ice cold water falling on me, as if I were standing under a cold waterfall. I honestly even felt wet. Then, I realised, I was crying. After He washed me in His precious Blood, He left me without departing, and gave me the one gift that I have never lost, though it's hard to describe… to see Him everywhere I look. I just have to get quiet, and He's there, more certain and real to me than I am to myself.

So, was this being born again? Did it happen to me when I was baptised without my knowing as an infant? Did it happen when I heard His voice in the wood shop? I cannot pretend to know the when or the why of this being born "from above" as Jesus describes it to Nicodemus, in the dead of the night. But Someone from beyond the world's end called me, when I was heedless of Him, and opened a door for me to walk through. "Will your body finally be the door to let me in?" I once wrote in a song. Nai, Kyrie! Yes, Lord! Even while I sometimes cry out for love of You whom I can always see by faith yet not always touch, I know that You care for me. I only ask the question again, not to doubt Your promise, but so that I can hear Your voice again, saying to me, "Do not be afraid, for I am with you." (Isaiah 41:10 JB)

From the Sheep Pens

This is a continuation of the discussion on faith, grabbed from my comments on Kenny Ching's blog, which I first posted as "No Matter What It Takes."

Sorry, brothers, and I'm sorry for myself too, but I cannot let go the idea that Jesus is trying to get through to us with sayings like the one quoted.

"I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. If you love me, you will obey what I command."

When I first saw the film The Matrix, I knew it was a modern metaphor for the (true) Christian life. (I'm talking only about the first Matrix film.) I know it was grabbed up by Buddhist and Kabbalistic Jewish speculators as being metaphors of their chosen disciplines, and I don't mind that. But as an Orthodox, I saw the film and scene by scene could relate it not only to Orthodox Christian teaching and practice, but also to my own experience of the same things. In history, there are instances of people of such great faith, rare but there, usually non-sensational. I don't know how, but I know this is what God in Christ has intended for us since the beginning. How little faith we have!

And so, brothers, I reiterate, I am always on the lookout for anyone and anything that can open the door to this kind of faith for me. I believe it's possible. Now, I'm asking the Lord to lead me out of my unbelief, no matter what it takes.

I am prepared to move out into the totally at risk zone, and in fact, that's the only place where I think this faith can become a reality. But who is it that can find the door to that place? And what will it look like, what will I look like if I find it, from the outside? What does the place of the skull really look like from the sheep pens? Can that only be known by those who are willing to pay the ultimate price, and hang with Jesus on the Cross?

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Lazarus & the Rich Man

I spent a few minutes looking for a fitting icon or image to illustrate the topic of the Sunday of Lazarus & the Rich Man, but I couldn't find any, so this graphic from "Holy Ghost Zapped Comix" from my early Jesus Freak days will have to do. (Yes, I was, and still am, a Jesus Freak.) Today is another rainy late fall day in Portland. This is what happened at the Orthodox temple this morning…

This morning, Fr. Nick Triantafillou, the president of the Greek Orthodox seminary in Boston, was visiting Holy Trinity to give a seminar on Christian education or something, and to promote the Agia Sophia Academy, the Orthodox day school in Portland. Strangely enough, our scripture for this morning was the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31), and the epistle was the famous "man is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ" passage (Galatians 2:16-20). What could have been a better combination? The Word of God warns us NOT to emulate the nameless "rich man" by ignoring the poor yet, while helping the poor man at OUR door, NOT to think that even our works of mercy can purchase our salvation! Very evangelical, yes! I thought, very appropriate, as I was planning to join Brock downtown to do whatever the Lord put before us.
Anyway, Fr. Nick started his sermon, bypassing (it seemed) the scriptures, and began to "preach" an entertaining sermon, or so I thought. After listening for a few seconds, I unzipped my Bible, lay it open on my knees at Isaiah 42, stuck my thumb into my right ear (the left is about 50% deaf), slipped my glasses up onto the ridge in my forehead and, crouching over the Word, began quietly whispering the verses of the prophet, pushing Fr. Nick's loud preaching into the mindless periphery of my consciousness. This is what I do when (it appears that) the Word of God is not being preached at sermon time. I always keep an ear out, though, for a change in the prevailing winds, in case the Holy Spirit starts to move—He can fill even windbags with His anointed God-breathed messages, if they only let Him!
Well, after a bit, Fr. Nick's friendly, down-to-earth style began to get filled up with more worthy content, and he even got to the point where, over and above praising the Ladies' Philóptochos Society (Greek women's charity orgs) for their philanthropic work, he began pushing the gospel message in our direction. Even though I didn't take my eyes off the text of Isaiah (I read up through 44:8), at the point where my reading changed direction, Fr. Nick's preaching did too, and that's exactly when I reconnected. He put it quite simply, that we should go out and minister to the "Lazaruses" of our city, the homeless, etc., and that it was the people's job to do this, not just the clergy. Well, of course, I couldn't agree more. Though I'm not able to recount Fr. Nick's words beyond that, it was good to hear him say the things he did. It made me want to touch him, and let him know that I want to do these things, and that I have, by God's permission, in the recent past. After his sermon was over, I left the temple, went out to my van and got a couple of copies of "The Freeing of Mickey Landry" into an envelope, wrote a short note on it, and returned to the service. Maybe later I would have a chance to give it to him.
After the service, Fr. Nick disappeared. I tried calling Brock, but there was no answer, so I stayed at church, hoping Brock would return my call (to Jacob's cell phone), and let me know where he was, downtown, so I could join him. This didn't happen. Instead, the Lord opened up an opportunity to "help Lazarus" right there in the temple!
At the coffee fellowship after the services were over, I visited with some of the brothers, while Anastasía went to talk to the women. I saw her sitting at a table with an older woman and some children. Meanwhile, I found Fr. Nick again, talked with him a little, and gave him the booklets. I hoped he would read them and, God willing, share them with others.
As I was getting ready to leave, Anastasía said she had to help load food into someone's car with Fr. Jerry. She then also disappeared, and I found myself (instead of Anastasía) loading grocery items from the narthex into a lady's car—the lady Anastasía had been talking to. Fr. Jerry and I gave this lady everything we had collected for Oregon Food Bank over the past couple of weeks. She and her grandchildren were kicked out of her home, I don't know why, but are living one day at a time in a motel. She is a member of the Greek community, and was a person of some means a few years back, at least I think so. (I don't know her personally.) So, the Lord keeps sending them to us… and in ways, at times, in places we would never expect them. We just do what Jesus tells us, if we are able and willing, one day at a time.
"The life I now live in this body I live in faith: faith in the Son of God who love me and sacrificed Himself for my sake." (Galatians 2:20b, Jerusalem Bible)

Thursday, November 2, 2006

No Matter What It Takes

This is the project of the rest of my life… If Jesus meant it when He said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," and if He was serious when He said, "I am with you always, even unto the end of the Age," then why would He send us up a blind alley by saying, "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. If you love me, you will obey what I command."

I am always on the lookout for anyone and anything that can open the door to this kind of faith for me. I believe it's possible. Now, I'm asking the Lord to lead me out of my unbelief, no matter what it takes.