Monday, October 29, 2007

The enemy's inroads

The enemy's inroads through the forests of my flesh
go deep.

He seeks not open country. See how he hides between
rows of manicured foliage where he works unseen
or by night, insinuating out of sight
subtle trappings, seductions, and thoughts unclean,
while watchmen and woodsman are away, or sleep.

Many they be who stand along the march and fend,
many on the roads aware, beating the bush to find
the fever feeding on the shadows there
— oh, and the woodsman,
helpless one brandishing one axe against the ambush,
— all on the Day depend.

Deep in the darkest and thickest ravine, or high
in the narrowest, windiest pass, where trees
rise so close beside the trail one can scarcely squeeze by,
there comes the enemy out from his covert nigh,
uncomfortable, mean — oh, how he taunts,
afraid of one woodsman's axe even then,
— by mere suggestion, how he plies his victories.

Hand-bound and toe-nailed in a death-dusty heap,
would man were not jailed so, in such misery weep,
— but oh, at the summit, skirting the tree line
the first whispering of warmth, rumor of radiance divine,
and in streams gravitating to the gullies below
the same lustre of healing in the animate flow,
— but watchmen and woodsman most certainly know

also hidden a ransoming fire does not sleep, though
the enemy's inroads through the forests of my flesh
go deep.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Start with the recovery of the Gospel

This morning an interesting article was emailed to me by an old Portland friend, Presvytera Candace Schefe, of Holy Transfiguration church in Anchorage, the only Greek Orthodox church in Alaska.
The article is entitled Orthodox Leadership in a Brave New World, and you can read the whole article by clicking the link. Although written from an Orthodox viewpoint, I think Christians of all stripes can profit from what its author writes about witnessing in the world of today. Following are just a couple of points lifted from the article, which I found particularly apt.

If Orthodox Christians should understand anything, it is this: Salvation is a concrete, existential encounter with the living God.

Moreover, this Lord gives gifts, including wisdom, knowledge, insight, and courage—all the elements needed to confront the maelstrom of confusion in which our culture finds itself, and all meant to be applied in the work of daily life, whether as mother, researcher, mechanic, priest—whatever our vocation may be.

Salvation is not understanding the correct theological concepts;
it is not nostalgia for civilizations past;
it is not formal membership in a long-standing parish;
it is not social activism;
it is not morally appropriate behavior;
it is not mastery of the moral vocabulary.

Further, it is not enough to recall the certainty of the past.
Nostalgic impulses, as comforting as they may be (including the Orthodox variants, such as the longings for Hellenistic Greece or Holy Russia), simply won’t meet the challenge.

Orthodox leadership today requires great courage.
Courage, said Winston Churchill, is the one quality that lets all other virtues flourish.
When Solzhenitsyn delivered his address three decades ago, he spoke not as a philosopher, but as a voice crying in the wilderness. He cried out against the dehumanization of men he experienced in the East and saw advancing in the West. Only people with moral clarity and courage could successfully challenge it, he exhorted. What the world needs is not more philosophers, but moralists.
The exhortation drew from a supreme confidence in the power of truth. Solzhenitsyn believed that truth is self-verifying. When the truth is spoken, its veracity is self-evident to the hearer. This is a profoundly Christian notion rooted in the teaching of the apostle Paul: When the Gospel is preached, Christ (who is Truth) is revealed.

Any Orthodox response to the cultural challenge must first presume a recovery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The wisdom of the Fathers, the artistry of the poets, the healings of the miracle workers, the courage of the martyrs, the knowledge of the scholars, the patience of the teachers, the foresight of the bishops, the faithfulness of the priests—all the elements that shaped and forged the moral tradition that founded Western civilization and must renew it today—start with the recovery of the Gospel.

As Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Christianity as religious artifact

The Portland Greek Festival is happening right now. It started yesterday at 10 a.m. and will continue today and right up through the end of Sunday evening. This is an annual event at Aghía Triás (Holy Trinity) Church in Portland, Oregon, that began the year I was born. It's been going on for fifty-six years. I've heard that it was the first of its kind in America, and that all other Greek Festivals stem from ours. Who knows if that's true, or just part of tradition. I've been "working" at the festival every year since I was thirty-eight years old. I put "working" in quotes, because what I do is not considered work by some of the Greeks around here. Why is that? Because I am an usher or guide in the sanctuary—I stay in the church and assist visitors in understanding what they are seeing there, and I also witness for Christ, without Whom there would be no sanctuary, and no festival.

I could write a book about the encounters I've had in the eighteen years I've been doing this ministry, but I won't. Just one example, though.

Yesterday I helped a woman who wanted a copy of a prayer that was printed inside the back cover of our service book, "O God, who accepted the gifts of Abel, the sacrifice of Noah and of Abram, the incense of Aaron and of Zachariah, accept also from the hand of us sinners these gifts…" (a prayer based on one in the Liturgy of James, the brother of Jesus). She asked if the prayer was printed anywhere, in a pamphlet or tract, that she could have a copy of. I didn't think so, but I told her I'd copy it out longhand on the back of a tract and give it to her. While I was doing this she told me about herself.

Thelma is sixty-five years old. Her husband is deceased. She does street ministry, on her own, without church endorsement, but also works with churches in various ministries, as the Lord directs. Since her husband died, she has been a missionary, having gone to China twelve times, and many other countries. She was with another elderly lady. She had just made a decision to accept an invitation to join some missionaries going to Mozambique, and will be leaving soon. Besides telling me about herself, she also told me about many things she had encountered in her ministry. It was hard for me to stay concentrated copying this long prayer while listening to her, and my back was starting to ache because I was bent over a low table.

She startled me when she asked, "Have you ever been to the Throne Room?"
I responded, "No, how do you get there?" and she told me, "When you go to your private room to speak to the Father, become as a little child, and ask Him!"
At another point she asked me if I knew that Paradise (the Garden of Eden) was still in existence? I said, the Bible doesn't say it is not, and the Orthodox Church says it is, so "Yes," I told her, "I know it still exists." She asked if I'd ever been there, and I said, "No," but I told her I'd read of someone who had, the monk Euphrósynos, and asked her if she'd ever heard of him. Her eyes just lit up, she smiled and nodded, "Yes!" That really startled me. A non-Orthodox Christian elderly woman missionary knows about an obscure ancient father who was allowed to enter Paradise while still alive! And she also claims that if one becomes as a little child and asks the heavenly Father, He would do even that, and He has done that for her! This may all sound like hysteria, but I was with the woman, and it really wasn't. I don't know what it was, but the Lord wanted me to meet this woman to know that she exists, and I've just shared the story with you.

So, I'm going back to the festival in about forty-five minutes, and what I wanted to write in this post still hasn't been written yet. Here it is.

The Greek Festival is successful for many reasons and in many ways. To some, it's the money that matters. For others, it's the whole community pulling together, each according to his or her ability, to roll out a huge welcome mat for others to see what the Greek culture is about, to practice "philoxenía" (hospitality, literally "love of strangers"), the most highly valued of virtues to the Greek mind. These people really do live up to this ideal, they are willing to help and to accept others, even incorporating them into the Greek kinonía if they want to be. But sometimes I wonder if they are too welcoming, too accepting.
I wonder if they are susceptible to a kind of Trojan Horse in reverse. They know that the world is patronizing them as a cultural and religious relic, a beautiful anomaly in today's world, a kind of harmless entertainment. It doesn't seem to bother them.

The sanctuary being open to the public has been a part of the Festival as long as I've been in this community. It symbolizes what is at the heart of any of the goodness we are perceived by others to have. The church tours we have are informative, and delivered in a spirit of modesty, tailored to the audience's background whenever possible. But to witness to our guests about Jesus Christ is left to the laypeople who man the sanctuary. The clergy will tell you everything about the church, its history, its culture, its tradition, even its understanding of scripture and theology, but that's the extent of it. People can listen and even ask questions and carry away just a little bit more knowledge about something beautiful and arcane, but what of Jesus Christ? Did anything they heard produce faith in them? Was the seed of the Word planted in them? Let's hope that it was and is, and may God give the increase.

But are we just playing into the world's matrix, letting it turn our faith into a commodity, Christianity as religious artifact?
Take Jesus out of the equation, and that's what you have, whether we're talking about Orthodox Christianity, or any other. Our form of church just has more tools than some of the others, but without Christ, those tools become mere toys, something for the world, or for us, to play with.

For us, the "game of church." For the others, just more interesting artifacts to decorate their drawing room.

May it shock my readers to view the image below, from Phoenix Home & Garden magazine (July 2001 issue).
Here is a room decorated with a collection of authentic icons, on the wall arranged in a cross-like pattern.
Notice the icon of the Resurrection is at the very bottom, near the floor. On the coffee table lie five icons just as artifacts to be handled (one of them in a glass frame). Let's hope they're not being used as coasters! (Of course not, that'd ruin the finish!)
To the right of the arranged wall icons is an art piece of what looks like a male nude, and there are other objets d'art all over the room.

Brothers, this is where we are headed, if we don't reveal to the world the One in whom we live and move and have our being (cf. Acts 17:28), not just at the festival, but every day, wherever we are sent. The world will love us if we make it feel better, on its terms, but like the icons in an Arizona businessman's great room we may find ourselves hung, arranged in a cross, and ignored.

Without Jesus, welcome to the world "as it is."

Friday, October 5, 2007

The study of inspired Scripture…

…is the chief way of finding our duty, for in it we find both instruction about conduct and the lives of blessed men, delivered in writing, as some breathing images of godly living, for the imitation of their good works. Hence, in whatever respect each one feels himself deficient, devoting himself to this imitation, he finds, as from some dispensary, the due medicine for his ailment.

St. Basil the Great

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Let's pray now!

I don't have very much to say these days that's bloggable. A drowning man doesn't talk much. Well, not drowning exactly… I'm exaggerating. But learning to walk on water is tough, and I can't even swim!
I found this cartoon on the OrthoDixie blog, and it shows visually something that I practice and sometimes preach, "Let's pray now!"

Early in my life as a Christian I'd meet people who'd say things like, "I'll pray for you," or "Please pray for me."

I thought the first was a kind of pious ‘put on’, and I'd say "Thanks!" and I always felt very uncomfortable with the second and hastily responded, "Of course, I will!" and then I'd just forget about it, like the guy in the cartoon. Clergy and pious old ladies usually said the first, and ‘humbler than thou’ wannabees usually said the second. Occasionally both the offer and the request were genuine, but rarely.

One day, I just sat up and decided to do what the Word of God says, "Pray all the time, asking for what you need, praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion" (Ephesians 6:18 Jerusalem Bible).

One thing that meant to me was this, I never again (or almost never again) told someone I'd pray for them. If someone needed to be prayed for, I'd just drop everything, including the pretense, and say, "Okay, let's pray now!" and start praying right then and there.

This readiness came with not a few surprises. Some people actually wanted to pray and wanted to be prayed for. Others simply excused themselves and so much as said, "Don't bother!" with an embarassed grin.

Being ready to pray at the drop of a hat (or yarmulke) is a very good way to increase your faith, because you have to rely on God to give you the words—and that's how prayer is supposed to be. If you haven't thought about this before, try it out. It has the same wonderful and incredible results as wearing a smile does. It catches people off guard and disarms them, and you too, and puts you in a place where, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, faith becomes possible.

The only time I express something like "I'm praying for you" is in a letter or email, and I am doing just that while I am writing it. Never the future tense, not even in a letter. Always the present. Always in His presence. He's with us here, with me while I type these words, with you as you read them. And in this written tabernacle I can ask your prayers for Romanós the sinner, and I can know that if only for a moment you're now bringing my cause before the Father, because that's all it takes, and that's all that's possible.