Friday, December 29, 2006

A blessing for Riya

Our good friend Radhakrishn and his wife had a new baby daughter, Riya, their first-born, on October 2, 2006. This Sunday, they will have a special feast to welcome her, and Radha asked me to give Riya a blessing. To the best of my ability I may have the opportunity to speak a blessing over her by telephone this Sunday morning. But in case this is not possible, I have written a blessing that is what I would speak over her, if I could.

Riya, Riya, rejoice in the Lord,
In the living God, the First, the Last,
Who was, Who is, Who is to come!

The Almighty protect you,
The Maker of heaven and earth provide for you
All things seen and unseen!

The Lord, the Son of God, call you,
The Light of light show Himself to you,
The Slain before all worlds save you!

Be a blessing to your father, mother and brothers,
Be the good earth, receiving the seed of faith,
Be a fruitful vine, bearing good fruit for others!

Walk in the Way that does not stray,
Go through the Gate that does not close,
Stand on the Rock that does not move!

Light for your eyes,
Good News for your ears,
Beauty in your smile,
A song on your lips,
Healing in your hands,
Safety in your steps,
Life, long and full,
Friends sent only by the Lord,
And a thankful heart
Be the adornment of God’s child, Riya!

The Lord God bless you out of Zion,
He who made the heavens and the earth!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The world was turned up side down

As the disciples told the story of Jesus, the world was turned up side down, because these were people who were actually living as though it were true - loving and serving one another, giving up their goods to help the needy, and suffering and dying for the message. They were no longer living for the prestige, possessions, and pleasures of this world that so many of us today who call ourselves Christians still pursue.

A life-changing reality
The resurrection of Christ gives hope to us all. It offers the Muslim assurance that there is forgiveness. It offers the poor and downtrodden the promise that the suffering of this world is not all there is. And it offers to each of us the foretaste of God's new reality, the future made present, where we can begin to experience freedom from fear, shame, rejection, and slavery to destructive habits.

All of this is for us in Christ, if we will come to him to receive it. For we too can meet the risen Christ.

But the resurrection also declares that we can no longer live as though this world is all there is. And for those of us who do have the possessions, comforts, and power that this world offers, that is a challenge. For Jesus lays claim to our allegiance, and assures us that real life is not found in the abundance of stuff or adrenaline rushes we have, but in giving all for him. Shall we then live for Christ? Or shall we claim his name, but continue to pursue our own prosperity, pleasure, and preference?

"He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again." (2 Corinthians 5:15)

Money Talk

"Your checkbook is a theological statement
as to where your heart is."

I struggled with this concept for a VERY long time. Along the way I allowed myself to get hoodwinked by the TBN and mega-church "style" of thinking about money, that your money belongs to God, so get with the program and give your ten percent (or more, really). That's supposed to be the starting point. I doubtfully listened also to the teaching that "heaven's floodgates will open" for you when you tithe, that God will erect a protection around your income, etc. I know this last part is a Judaic teaching found in the Talmud, and there are "stories" to prove its validity, some quite entertaining.

But what I've finally come to is this: My salvation was paid for with More than money (see John 3:16), and what I've learned from this is that the return I make to God is to be paid with more than money (see 1 John 3:16).

The tithe is a principle of the Old Covenant and connected to the Temple in Jerusalem, which is no more. Also, there were various kinds of tithes. To whom or to what would we pay tithes now, since We are the living Temple of the Holy Spirit? I thought the answer was, my local church, it being a part of the big Church of Christ. I don't think so now. In fact, the institutional church has only one place to put our tithes—in its denominational stomach, by men "whose god is their belly" (see Philippians 3:19).

I knew this at the beginning of my Christian life… the Church is not to operate at a surplus. The earthly blessings which we enjoy from the Lord are due Him in complete service and self-abandonment to His purposes. And what are these purposes? Read what James has to say about "true religion." Read what the prophets of Israel have to say. Hear what Jesus Christ says in the gospels.

Instead of using our money to give glory to God by multiplying "houses of worship" and "worldwide ministries," that commodity, along with all my "possessions" and my life itself, is due the Lord in a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, that is offered whenever I do His will in the place and time I find myself right now.

In practical terms, what I found in myself and what I see in others in my church, is giving money bolsters pride and the unwillingness to offer time and energy, very personal commodities. Anybody who has it can give money. But time, and attention (some would say caring, or love), who is prepared to offer that, even a tenth of what they have been given?

Money? I never think of it. It always comes. The Lord sends it.
(Mother Theresa of Calcutta)

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
(Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah)

Friday, December 22, 2006

How faith and piety are handed over

The author of this blog is not a theologian trained in schools where they study what cannot be studied, theology. He studied the humanities, something which can be studied because it is worldly, human knowledge. He drew his Orthodox faith and piety from parádhosis (παραδοσις, "handing over the goods"). He received it in the way faith and piety are transmitted… from teacher to disciple, from parent to child, from elder to disciple, from Christian to Christian, in other words, by personal relationship. For this reason he is one who experiences divine things, not one who learns about them, having faith as a guide and not knowledge (encyclopedic-scientific information). He “walks by faith and not by sight,” as Apostle Paul says (2 Corinthians 5:7). This is why his blog seems sometimes harsh; it does not have the compromises that reveal little faith, nor accommodations to avoid being unpleasant to people of contrary views, nor any false brotherliness. He believes at all times that “honesty is the best policy.”

“…it will be no use… to sail for the World’s End with men unwilling or men deceived.”
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Not my will, but Yours

Whether you have a degree or not (I don't),whether you're ordained or not (I'm not),
as a follower of Jesus there isn't a moment when you're not available for ministry,
not a location where you're exempt from doing His will. It's all just a matter of choice.

Not only in a "Christian" context does the seed of the Word get planted in the souls around us by every action, every word, even every thought that issues from our being.

The call of Jesus is so fundamental, so basic, so universal, and so available (in the Word of God) that most people miss it.

The incense smoke screen between the sacred and profane is pierced by a mere puff of breath, of the Holy Breath (το πνευμα το αγιον, to pnévma to ághion) who lives in us.

It's good that you say, "His will, not mine."
In a slightly different form, that's another one of the prayers of the hesychast—"Not my will, but Yours, not my thoughts, but Yours, not my love, but Yours, not my life, but Yours."

Over and over, we whisper it under our breath, we wake up hearing it flowing as the blood pulsing through our temples, we feel it reverberating with our very heartbeat. It is the background silence (ησυχία, hesychía) to our waking stream of thought.

Everything is consecrated now, all water is holy water, all paths walked in obedience to the call of Jesus become paths to paradise, though they pass through the valley of the shadow of death.

Go with God, dear brother, and pray for Romanós the sinner who prays for you. I am here with you.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The church, visible and invisible

It has been and continues to be a real struggle for me, this concept—"the Church."
Until this year that's almost over, to me "the Church" meant first, the local congregation that I am a member of, in this case, a Greek Orthodox parish, and second, the worldwide community of Christians that confess the historic faith of (at least) the first ecumenical synod of Nicæa (AD 325), whether or not they know the "symbol" of that synod (called by non-Orthodox, the "Nicene Creed"). As a Greek Orthodox, I express my understanding of "the Church" in the second sense by identifying myself as exactly that—Greek Orthodox—but that does not stop me from fellowshipping and even praying with non-Orthodox Christians. Though this has helped me to be "numbered with the transgressors" by some of my co-religionists, I hope those that tolerate my lack of discretion are doing it for the right reason—because they too love the Truth—and not out of mere niceness.

But back to the topic, the church, visible and invisible. This is a struggle for me.
The church visible, this is the institutional church in all of its forms. I only know this church visible as it is in America, but I'm guessing it's the same in most places. The church visible has form, has rules, has systems, has an inside and an outside, has an architectural presence, has a distinctive culture, has professionals and laymen.

The church visible operates very much like a business, far more than one would expect from simply reading the gospels and epistles. Its hierarchy operates pretty much like that of any secular institution, and its employees, the clergy, find themselves pidgeonholed by both themselves and the laity as a professional caste, whose success or failure rides on management skills and devising programs to keep their people busy.

In the churches that are run by laymen, such as my own, those selected to parish councils and similar structures are generally the wealthy and those with business savvy and connexions. And why not? They're needed if the church is to have a successful building program and stewardship campaign. The church visible gives glory to God by investing its money with great acumen. After all, it doesn't want to be classified with the steward in the parable of the Talents, who hid the one talent in the ground to turn it over to the Master without interest, and get cast into the outer darkness.

In the last building program at my church, for example, the emphasis was giving glory to God by expanding our facilities. Just like a big business. It's a good thing God's our boss! And we sure showed Him we were worthy! People were encouraged during that campaign to reveal what they gave and challenge others to outgive them! We were talked to by wealthy patrons and encouraged by them "to give till it feels good." And the beat goes on… Just today, our loquacious presbyter gave his confession publicly that he hadn't paid his pledge as much as he'd thought, but that he made up for it, by prepaying the rest of the pledge through year's end right now. His advice to us was to do the same and, what's more, to tell at least one other person that you had paid up your pledge ahead of time, and encourage them to do the same! This is the "church visible" where I live. How about you?

What I have come to see and participate in at least a little this year is the church invisible. The visible church at regular intervals pays its respects to this invisible church by calling them "unsung heroes, the uncanonised unknown saints," and the like. Sometimes they even drag out a story or a legend about one of these crossbearers and extols them, especially in my church. But to what effect? Hearing Fr. Paul rattle off in perfect koiné Greek at the end of liturgy a half dozen or more names of saints being commemorated, lickedy-split, wow! I'm always so impressed! How can he do that?

The church invisible. How do you know when you're approaching the borderlands of the invisible church? You begin to take on the state of invisibility yourself.

The best thing to do when you sense this happening is… to run even faster after Jesus! Don't look back! Strain ahead for what is still to come. Accept the loss of everything and look on all the advantages you have in the world and even in the visible church as so much rubbish. Why? Because all these things are really disadvantages, as holy apostle Paul declares in his letter to the church at Philippi (Philippians 3:2-16). Decide now and every day to follow the call of Jesus Christ, decide once and for all that "all I want is to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and to share His sufferings by reproducing the pattern of His death" (Philippians 3:10 JB).

How do you enter the ranks of the invisible church? By paying your tithe with more than money, by not looking to be thanked, by announcing the Word of God without charge, fear or praise, by emptying yourself to assume the conditions of a slave, by putting yourself in places where faith is not only possible but inevitable, by serving those whom the world considers unworthy, because by doing so you turn tables on the world—the Word of God calls people like this, those of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:38). The author of Hebrews continues giving good instructions for those who are willing to enter the ranks of the church invisible…

"With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us, especially the sin that clings so easily, and keep running steadily in the race we have started. Let us not lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection." (Hebrews 12:1-2)

"Three times Jesus encourages His disciples by saying, 'Fear not.' (Matthew 10:26-39) Although their sufferings are now secret [invisible], they will not always be so: some day they will be manifest before God and man. However secret these sufferings are at present, they have their Lord's promise that they will be eventually brought to the light of day. … Those who are still afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who have fear of God have ceased to be afraid of men. All preachers of the gospel will do well to recollect this saying daily. … We are in God's hands. Therefore, 'Fear not.' "
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, "The Decision"

One final thought. Yes, in the Orthodox Church, the visible church is plastered with icons, that is, images of the saints, to remind us of what the author of Hebrews wrote, "With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us… " When we worship there, we are visibly present and the icons are visibly present, to incite us to look beyond them to the invisible presence of the saints. I almost wrote, "What if we took seriously…" but instead, I want to say, Just take God at His Word and "throw off everything that hinders" you, "especially the sin that clings so easily…" What sin is that? The sin of being satisfied with the externals, with what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched in the church visible. Stand up, stand up for Jesus! Then, follow Him, no looking back! The visible church with its visible icons fades out as the church invisible with its living icons invisible to the world reveals itself—and you among them, a living icon.

Yes, go with Jesus.