Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Easier or harder?

PRESCRIPT: I could not think of a title for this post, but on the drive home from work, thinking about one of the themes presented, I remembered a lunch I shared with some pilgrims and (at that time) the three sisters at the Monastery of the Honorable Forerunner John the Baptist. Listening to sister Agní give us her testimony in Greek, I learned a new word I hadn't heard before, when she concluded her witness with the words δεν ειναι ευκολο (dhen ínai éfkolo), “it ain't easy.” Hence the title, asking, [does believing in Jesus make your life] easier or harder?

Have you ever been invited out to lunch by a group of three or four people whom you know for the most part only slightly, and been invited maybe out of a sense of obligation? And maybe these people knew you to be a Christian, though none of them were, and that might make the social setting a bit awkward? And to top it off, you might’ve been in a foreign country, where they were speaking a language you didn’t quite understand?

I’ve had that experience a little bit, but only in part. Sometimes when I’ve visited the Greek monastery in the forests just beyond Goldendale, Washington, I’ve found myself seated at table for lunch with some of the sisters and their guests, and all of a sudden, everything goes Greek on me. That leaves me out of the conversation for the most part, because I only know Biblical (koiné) Greek, the dialect we use in the church services. My knowledge of the demotic dialect is limited to being able to listen and understand maybe about half, and as for joining in a spirited talk, well, kalimera and yasou don’t go very far. The difference is this, that I am with other people who I’m certain are followers of Jesus, all Christians like me, so no matter what happens, I never feel uncomfortable, even when I’m left out of a conversation. But getting back to the other scenario…

In a foreign country, like Japan. The Japanese can be very formal and shy when they don’t know how to deal with a situation. One of the women who talked so animatedly with you last time you went to lunch, this time tries her best not to look at you. A sense of nervousness seems to have flipped the language switch, and you find everyone is talking Japanese to each other, leaving you out of the conversation, except when they want to know something from you. So you just sit there quietly, sad on the inside. Maybe the thought comes to you, “This must be what it’s like, in some small way, for Christ, who is present, sitting with them and with millions of others, watching them and waiting for them to come to Him.” Then maybe a surprise question was popped on you, waking you from your brain-fugue. The friend who invited you tells you, somewhat apologetically, that they were all just discussing why Japanese people do not have nor need a religion. You can see where this was coming from, and now you know why the averted glances. What can you say? Well, you just tell them the truth, and hopefully in words they can understand.

And from there, you start witnessing, about how religion from the world’s viewpoint is something you add on, like a topping. “One has their work-life, their social-life and their religious-life. But with Christ it’s different.” From the look in the women’s faces, your friend suddenly realises that he’s going to have to translate, since he knows English best. You pause a moment to let him catch up, and then, “Christ becomes your life and encompasses you,” you tell them. Returning a moment to the topic of their conversation, religion, you continue explaining the difference between what they and most people think, and what is really true about religion and Jesus Christ. You tell them, “If one believes in Christ, their life does not get easier, like religions teach, but it gets harder.” Their puzzled looks, and your friend’s initial remark about the Japanese not having or needing a religion, prompts what comes next. You try to make the point that you agree with them, the Japanese do not need a religion. Far from it, because their life is so well-organized, it would only bog things down. But what they do need is Christ.

It gets quiet again all of a sudden,
and you drop one final seed into what you hope is fertile soil.

You make the point that, if they want an easy life, then they shouldn’t bother with Christ—He’s not for them. But if they want to know the truth, then they have to believe in Him, and the consequence of this belief will be a life of struggle.

You don't know if they understood,
but you pray that God will give the increase.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Living with the saints

I’m still reading the biography of J. Hudson Taylor, and I am making headway.
It's an interesting and inspiring life story, and so real that I feel I’m right there with Hudson and his people, young missionaries from the British Isles having just made a dangerous ocean crossing to land safely in China, where they have now changed completely into Chinese dress—for the men that meant shaving the front of their heads and putting on false queues—quite a change for mid-19th century Europeans.

But they don’t seem to mind, nor do they complain of the moderate hardships they experience in their day to day lives. Everything is for Jesus to them, and to them He is so real, so present, that nothing can deter or discourage them. I feel very close to them, and to my other saints, because we all have Someone in common, a living Lord who is with us at this very moment, and all the time, whenever we can tear ourselves away from earthly preoccupations. This experience is the reality behind the words of the cherubic hymn in the divine liturgy,Let us set aside all the cares of this life, that we may receive the King of all…” and in the hymn sung at the service of compline, for God is with us.”

I imagined the wonderful cameraderie these missionaries shared, as they ventured into the inland regions of China where literally “no [European] man had gone before,” to carry the good news that through Christ we are reconciled to God. It made me think of such moments in my life, and in the lives of the saints I know, how turning around from their own pursuits, they gave themselves to love and serve one another. This thought reminded me of an incident in the life of Sergei Fudel, who was for most of his life a state prisoner in the Soviet Union for his Christian faith. He writes…

During my endless wanderings through the corridors of the Butyrka Prison in Moscow, I suddenly met Father Valentin Sventitsky. Rather foolishly I asked him, “Where are you going?” His face lit up with a kind of inner warmth as he answered, “To be with you!” He was always such a reserved man, severe, exclusive, but that day I felt a ray of kindly, all-seeing saintliness shining at me. He approached my soul, which was in need of his help. He was like a “staréts” [an elder]. This is what prison life can make you see (Light in the Darkness, p. 108).

Reading about Hudson Taylor and his fellow missionaries drew me closer to them and also to the saints I was already on familiar terms with. They are all so similar, and these are the closer examples that have influenced me to be the way I am. So for better or worse, it’s their fault! But this is the way that’s always seemed right to me, even though to others, even other Christians, well, they simply can’t seem to deal with it.

I'm going back now to join my newest friends, the saints of the China Inland Mission, who without having known or ever heard these words from the Orthodox service, lived lives as examples of what they mean…

Having beheld the resurrection of Christ, let us worship the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One. We venerate Your cross, O Christ, and we praise and glorify Your holy resurrection. You are our God. We know no other than You, and we call upon Your name. Come, all faithful, let us venerate the holy resurrection of Christ. For behold, through the cross joy has come to all the world. Blessing the Lord always, let us praise His resurrection. For enduring the cross for us, He destroyed death by death.

Prayer of a hunted man

Psalms for the 29th Day
139 140 141 142 143
Psalm 142
Prayer of a hunted man

To Yahweh, my cry! I plead.
To Yahweh, my cry! I entreat.
I pour out my supplications,
I unfold all my troubles;
my spirit fails me,
but You, You know my path.

On the path I follow
they have concealed a trap.
Look on my right and see,
there is no one to befriend me.
All help is denied me,
no one cares about me.

I invoke You, Yahweh,
I affirm that You are my refuge,
my heritage in the land of the living.
Listen to my cries for help,
I can hardly be crushed lower.

Rescue me from persecutors
stronger than I am!
Free me from this imprisonment,
and I will thank Your Name once more
in the assembly of the virtuous,
for the goodness You show me.

(Yes, Lord, You know my path!)

Outside the gates of Paradise

The devil can’t stand to see anyone happy, and so he contrives by every possible means to spoil our joy. Wives and husbands torment each other. Parents and children antagonize each other. Employers and employees sabotage each other. And even most friends can’t stay friends for long. What’s wrong with us? And when the devil can’t get at us any other way, he even makes us a horror to ourselves!

But all this was foreseen, and we were warned, “a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Why must it be this way? How much love He has, that the Father sent His Son to us, to become a man like us, to feel the same pain of spoiled joy. He came to live among us, outside the gates of Paradise, and He died, leaving His holy body hanging on the tree, so that partaking of it as thieves, we could someday reenter Paradise, with Him.

Just as the peace He gives us is bestowed in the midst of battle, so is His joy bestowed in the midst of anguish. There is no higher way above, nor humbler way below, the way of the cross.

“If any man will be My disciple,
let him take up his cross, and follow Me.”

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Brotherly love

Psalms for the 28th Day
132 133 134 135 136 137 138

Psalm 133
Brotherly Love

How good, how delightful it is,
for all to live together like brothers:

fine as oil on the head,
running down Aaron's beard,
running down Aaron's beard
to the collar of his robes;

copious as a Hermon dew
falling on the heights of Zion,
where Yahweh confers His blessing,
everlasting life.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Christian Challenge

I really love the letter of holy apostle Paul to the church in Rome. There's really so much there to feed on, as to how to live as a Christian. It's not Jesus teaching us as He does in the gospels, but it's the Holy Spirit, whom He promised to send, and who will lead us into all truth (John 16:5-15), who speaks to us through the words of the holy apostles.

In my previous post I recapped a comment I left on a Muslim blog, in which I attempted to respectfully point out why I think that their efforts to reform Islam by editing the Koran to omit the verses that they feel "do not come from Allah" was not going to work. Although they subjugated many cultures of superior merit (such as Egypt, Babylon, Persia and Byzantium) and assimilated them into the Islamic empire and religion, the grafting of these good fruit-bearing branches to a tree bearing evil fruit did not change that tree. The thing to do is to chop down that tree, uproot it, and plant a new tree, one that bears good fruit. I concluded with the testimony that the Bible is the tree that bears good fruit, and that the good fruit is Jesus Himself.

By inviting them to turn away from reforming Islam and toward Jesus, I was taking a risk. I call that risk, "the Christian challenge." It's a risk because those who identify themselves as Christians don't always speak and act as Christians, as followers of Jesus. The content of "the Christian challenge" is what we find in the epistles, like these verses from Romans. Can we honestly invite Muslims or any other people into the fold of Christ's flock, if we ourselves do not follow what God is speaking to us here?

Do not let your love be a pretense, but sincerely prefer good to evil. Love each other as much as brothers should, and have a profound respect for each other. Work for the Lord with untiring effort and with great earnestness of spirit. If you have hope, this will make you cheerful. Do not give up if trials come; and keep on praying. If any of the saints are in need you must share with them; and you should make hospitality your special care.

Bless those who perescute you: never curse them, bless them. Rejoice with those who rejoice and be sad with those in sorrow. Treat everyone with equal kindness; never be condescending, but make real friends with the poor. Do not allow yourself to become self-satisfied. Never repay evil with evil, but let everyone see that you are interested only in the highest ideals. Do all you can to live at peace with everyone. Never try to get revenge; leave that, my friends, to God's anger. As scripture says: Vengeance is Mine—I will pay them back (Deuteronomy 32:35), the Lord promises.
But there is more: If your enemy is hungry, you should give him food, and if he is thirsty, let him drink. Thus you heap red-hot coals on his head (Proverbs 25:21-22). Resist evil and conquer it with good.
Romans 12:9-21
Jerusalem Bible

My Christian brothers, think of these words I just cited from holy apostle Paul. To me, this is a challenge to everyone who says he believes. My Muslim brothers, if you've visited my blog and just read what I have written, and what I cited from the Holy Bible, think about these words. Isn't this the way of life that deep down you too know is right? Compare these words of holy apostle Paul to what you find written in the Qur'an and the Hadith, just as I asked you to compare Muhammad with Mary the virgin mother of Jesus. Isn't the contrast obvious? Isn't the difference between the tree of evil fruit and the tree of good fruit inescapable?

Christian brothers, take the challenge. Muslim brothers, take the challenge. I invite the first to be what they claim to be in word and deed, and the second
"to taste and see that the Lord is good." And to both I say, it is ours to begin the work, but it is God's to finish it.

Do not let your love be a pretense,
but sincerely prefer good to evil.
Romans 12:9

Reform Islam?

I recently discovered a new blog, "Muslims Against Sharia." This is a group that wants to preserve Islam as a religion of the modern world, and the way they want to do it is to "pull its fangs," that is, to edit out all that is incompatible in it with civilised life. One of the primary ways they are doing it is by editing out those verses in the Koran that they believe "do not come from Allah." I added the 129th comment to a post called Reform Koran, in which they decribe the process of Koran editing. The following is my comment. If you want to read the original blog post and the other 128 comments, click on the hyperlink above.

As a late-comer to this blog and blogpost, and not having been able to read thru all the previous 128 comments (that's a lot!), nevertheless I have this to say:

To edit out the offending verses in the Qur’an is a work for the entire Islamic people, or their representatives. This is, of course, an impossibility, because there is no such thing as an “ecumenical” Islam. There are far too many sectarian divisions.

There is an inherent absolutism in the Qur’an about its contents, that is explicit and cannot even be matched in Judaism or Christianity.

The absolutism in the TaNaKh (Torah-Nevi’im-Ketuvim) of Judaism is implicit, and though the words of the scriptures for them cannot suffer any change, they have a tradition of evolving understanding about them, such that the violent passages in the Torah are modified by the pronouncements of the later prophets, without the necessity of editing them out (G’d forbid!).
The absolutism in the Bible of Christianity is an extension of the same inherited from Judaism, in which it is admittedly a participant. A verse in the final book of the New Testament, the Revelation, is explicit that anyone who adds or subtracts from the words “of this book” will receive all the plagues described in this book. This verse is often erroneously applied to the whole Bible, but it actually only applies to the book of Revelation. The absolutism of the Christian Bible is still just an extension of that applied by Judaism, and the way in which it is moderated is the same as in Judaism, by an appeal to reason and adaptation to culture. For both Jews and Christians, this willingness to modify or reinterpret the actual, unchangeable texts, still elicits problems, controversies and divisions.

The absolutism of the Qur’an can thus be viewed as a fortified version of the absolutism of the other two religions “of the Book.” Yet, this absolutism contains, as has been pointed out in some of the previous comments, unsolvable contradictions derived from the very pages of the Qur’an itself. Analyzed by an impartial logician, the Qur’an contains self-contradictions at a level which cannot be combined with the level of its absolutism, and thereby disproves itself as an infallible and perfect utterance of Allah. Similar contradictions can be found in the TaNaKh of the Jews and the Bible of the Christians, but they do not invalidate these scriptures, because the level of absolutism is simply not as high as that of the Qur’an.

As an example, the Qur’an speaks of Miriam the sister of Moses as also being the mother of Jesus. This is a well known mistake, and by itself demonstrates a logical, historical error that invalidates the whole of the Qur’an, because the Qur’an is to be accepted as absolutely perfect and correct.

Another example, in the Bible Jesus makes reference to the eating of sacred food from the Temple by secular persons who should not have eaten it, as having happened during a particular high-priesthood. In historical fact, the high priest He cited was incorrect. Yet the Christians claim that Jesus is God, and that the Bible is inerrant. How can this single example not invalidate both claims? First, because they believe Jesus assumed the human nature with all its characteristics, including fallibility in knowledge as well as the temptation to sin (the Jews call this “the evil impulse”), it was possible for Him to make an error as being human, though they believe that because He was also God, it was impossible for Him to yield to temptation or to sin. Second, because the Bible is believed to be inerrant does not invalidate it because it is not considered to be the “Word of God” in the sense that the Qur’an is so believed. Instead, like the incarnation (descent into human nature) of the Son of God, the inspiration (descent into human literature) of the Word of God can exhibit the same possibility of error in historical facts and other details.

Now, for the Christian, one more fact or item of belief also strengthens the absolutism of the Bible without turning it into a blatant bibliolatry (idolatry of a book), and that is, the Word of God and the Son of God are both names of the same Being, who is considered to be a person (hypostasis) of the Holy Triad (One Divine nature in three hypostases). Therefore, to call the Bible “the Word of God” is, though universal and unchallenged, still a conventional simplification or application of the absolute belief that Jesus is Himself the Word of God (the Divine Logos of the Father), but that the Bible is His explicit, written "image," and therefore reliable.

The point of my comment is this, that the Qur’an claims to be what Jesus is, that is, the Word of God. Muhammad therefore becomes what the Virgin Mary is, that is, the means by which that Word entered the human world. Is it not obvious that here we have two completely and diametrically opposed ideas?

If you plant a tree, and year after year it yields bad fruit. If you cultivate it, if you graft onto it branches of other trees with good fruit, if you care for it and try to improve it in every way possible, and yet it bears bad fruit no matter what you do, then there is only one thing to do. Chop it down, uproot it, and plant a tree with good fruit.

The tree with bad fruit is the Qur’an.

The tree with good fruit is the Bible.
And what is the good fruit that is hanging on that tree?
It is Jesus.

Taste and see that the Lord is good. (Psalm 34:8)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Run for your life

Psalms for the 24th Day
116 117 118 119:1-32

Reading the psalms this evening, reciting them and breathing them into me, fragrant as my bible is right now with the smell of basil from the feast day of the finding of the holy Cross, there I found some ρηματα (rhémata > living words) that nourished my soul, reminders of my path. (You alone, Lord, know my path.)

I have faith, even when I say,
‘I am completely crushed’.
Psalm 116:10

(Lord, You know what I mean when I recite this verse in prayer. And at times, I do feel completely crushed, yet there is no place I can be, or feel myself to be, where I do not have faith.)

Yahweh, I am Your servant,
Your servant, son of a pious mother,
You undo my fetters.
Psalm 116:15-16

(I can’t undo my fetters. I can’t do anything to free myself from bondage, Father. It is You alone who can free me, because You alone have freed me. “You undo my fetters.”)

I run the way of Your commandments,
since You have set me free.
Psalm 119:32

(In my distress I cried out to You, “Lord, why have You given me yet another day?” Your answer was instant, Your will to me was clear. You said, “I have raised you again to life, so that you can carry out My commandments.” Nothing more, nothing more had to be said. I heard Your voice, Lord, and I am satisfied. “I run the way of Your commandments, since You have set me free.” Glory to You, O God, glory to You!)

Draw me in Your footsteps, let us run.
Song of Solomon 1:4

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Not by us, Yahweh

Psalms for the 23rd Day
110 111 112 113 114 115

Psalm 115
The one true God

Not by us, Yahweh, not by us,
by You alone is glory deserved,
by Your love and Your faithfulness!
Do the pagans ask, ‘Where is their God?’

Ours is the God whose will is sovereign
in the heavens and on earth,
whereas their idols, in silver and gold,
products of human skill,

have mouths, but never speak,
eyes, but never see,
ears, but never hear,
noses, but never smell,

hands, but never touch,
feet, but never walk,
and not a sound from their throats.
Their makers will end up like them,
and so will anyone who relies on them.

House of Israel, rely on Yahweh,
on Him, our help and shield!
House of Aaron, rely on Yahweh,
on Him, our help and shield!
You who fear Yahweh, rely on Yahweh,
on Him, our help and shield!

Yahweh remembers us, He will bless,
He will bless the House of Israel,
He will bless the House of Aaron,
He will bless those who fear Yahweh,
without distinction of rank.

May Yahweh add to your numbers,
yours and your children's too!
May you be blessed by Yahweh,
Maker of heaven and earth!
Heaven belongs to Yahweh,
earth He bestows on man.

The dead cannot praise Yahweh,
they have gone down to silence;
but we the living, bless Yahweh
henceforth and forevermore.

Εν Ιορδάνη βαπτιζομένου σου

Psalms for the 23rd Day
110 111 112 113 114 115

Psalm 114
Hymn for the Passover
fulfilled at the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John the honourable Forerunner


When Israel came out of Egypt,
the House of Jacob from a foreign nation,
Judah became his sanctuary
and Israel his domain.

The sea fled at the sight,
the Jordan stopped flowing,
the mountains skipped like rams,
and like lambs, the hills.

Sea, what makes you run away?
Jordan, why stop flowing?
Why skip like rams, you mountains,
why like lambs, you hills?

Quake, earth, at the coming of your Master,
at the coming of the God of Jacob,
who turns rock into pool,
flint into fountain.

The Messiah: King and Priest

Psalms for the 23rd Day
110 111 112 113 114 115

Psalm 110
The Messiah: King and Priest

Yahweh's oracle to You, my Lord,
‘Sit at My right hand
and I will make Your enemies
a footstool for You’.

Yahweh will force all Your enemies
under the sway of Your sceptre in Zion.

Royal dignity was Yours
from the day You were born,
on the Holy Mountains,
royal from the womb,
from the dawn of Your earliest days.

Yahweh has sworn an oath
that He will never retract,
‘You are a priest of the order of Melchizedek,
and for ever’.

The Lord is at Your right hand.
When He grows angry He shatters kings,
He gives the nations their deserts,
smashing their skulls,
He heaps the wide world with corpses.
Drinking from the stream as He goes,
He can hold His head high in victory.

A childlike people

Another cool, misty dawn. I wake up in darkness and offer my morning prayer to You, Lord, thanking You beyond what my words can express. You have saved me, and given me another day.
Whatever is Your will for me today, Lord, let it be done.
Help me to follow You.

There is a covering of grey, translucent clouds hanging low over the city as I drive to work. Crossing the Columbia River, I look eastwards down its course and see the silhouette of Mount Hood, sharply defined against a brightening sky in the sliver of clarity between earth and clouds. It arises from its blankets of fog to greet the morning, its crest almost disappearing again in the waters above the firmament. No wonder the native people venerated the peak as a god, Wy’east, and gave him personality. They were a childlike people.

My thoughts drifted between prayer and memory.
Japan, and the dawn, its sun rising as a red disk against an off-white, cloudless sky. There too, a childlike people invest a mountain with personality, Fuji-sama, as he arises in a gentle slope from the sea, but his peak is high and mighty, also a god, a kami, watching over his islands and his people. Encircling him a host of ordinary mountains like attendants. The dreams of a childlike people, to console them with hopes of what they know not, to allay their fears of what they do know—death.

Father, let these childlike people awaken, putting off their coverings of myth, to meet Your Son. The roots of our fears strike deeper than we dream. Lord, uproot these tares that Your hands have not planted, and plant Your true seed in us and in them, so that we can stand up and see You as You are, and know that You are with us, as You promised, even to the end of the ages.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The love of God

Not my words, Lord, but Yours.

Not by us, Yahweh, not by us,
by You alone is glory deserved,
by Your love and Your faithfulness.
Psalm 115:1

Psalms for Day 22: 107, 108, 109.

How do we know that God loves us?
Aren’t we just too small and unimportant to bother with?
Doesn’t He have better things to do?
Or maybe it’s just that we don’t want Him to love us, so we prefer to remain in the dark about it.
That’s easier, because we can be “our own” men, not owing anyone anything, especially not owing Him.
What does the Word of God say about God’s love?
Here are some examples from Psalm 107.

Give thanks to Yahweh for He is good,
His love is everlasting:
Let these be the words of Yahweh’s redeemed,
those He has redeemed from the oppressor’s clutches,
by bringing them home from foreign countries,
from east and west, from north and south.

(Verses 1-3)

These words are for God’s hereditary people Israel, and are prophecy fulfilled in our day, as the return of Israel to the land proves. He addresses His own people first, and proves His love by always bringing them back. If you are a follower of Jesus, the Son of God, then you too are addressed in these words. He has redeemed you also from the oppressor’s clutches. Who or what is the oppressor? Death itself, which oppresses everyone. How has He redeemed you? By the precious blood of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, that is, Jesus Christ.

Some were living in gloom and darkness,
fettered in misery and irons
for defying the orders of God,
for scorning the advice of the Most High;
who bent them double with hardship,
to breaking point, with no one to help them.

(Verses 10-12)

What is this? Does the loving God fetter those who defy Him and scorn His advice, that is, His Word? Does He really send them hardship, try them to the breaking point, and withhold all help from them? You cannot escape this. It’s here in the scriptures. You can’t make up a god out of your false hopes, and then search for Bible verses to prove your ideas. Why would God do these things to people who reject Him? That doesn’t seem very loving now, does it? Perhaps they’re right to reject Him, if that’s the kind of God He is. What else does it say?

Then they called to Yahweh in their trouble
and He rescued them from their sufferings;
released them from gloom and darkness,
shattering their chains.
Let these thank Yahweh for His love,
for His marvels on behalf of men;
breaking bronze gates open,
He smashes iron bars.

(Verses 13-16)

What? Is that all it takes? If you’re heading down the wrong road, and things are just getting worse and worse, all you have to do is just “call to Yahweh”? That just seems too simple, doesn’t it? Surely, somebody has to pay for the wrongs, if they were wrong to begin with! Yes, and Someone has. It’s He who broke “bronze gates open” and smashed “iron bars,” when He descended into She‘ol, into Hades, into Hell…

Isaiah knew it would be so.
“The world of shadows mourned,” he cried, “when it met You,
mourned at its bringing low, wept at its deluding.”
The shadows seized a body and found it was God;
they reached for earth and what they held was heaven;
they took what they could see: it was what no one sees.

(Chrysostom, Paschal Homily)

The psalm continues with more examples of the love of God.

Some, driven frantic by their sins,
made miserable by their own guilt
and finding all food repugnant,
were nearly at death’s door.

(Verses 17-18)

So here’s a bit more about what’s going on. It’s not just God that punishes man with the penalties of sin, but the sins themselves have an effect on those who commit them. What’s this? Their guilt makes them miserable? How can this be possible? Is there a real right and wrong? Or do people suffer like this because they really do know that there is a God, and that His ways are holy?

Then they called to Yahweh in their trouble
and He rescued them from their sufferings;
sending His Word and curing them,
He snatched them from the pit.

(Verses 19-20)

What does it say that God does when the afflicted call to Him? He sends His Word and cures them! How is this possible? What can it possibly mean that “He sends His Word”? What is this “Word” and how does it cure anyone? Can it possibly be what is called the scriptures? Backtracking to an earlier psalm for a moment, we might find the answer in Psalm 19, where the Law, Torah, is described in a way that makes us think whether it might be what Psalm 107 is calling the Word…

The Law of Yahweh is perfect,
new life for the soul;
the decree of Yahweh is trustworthy,
wisdom for the simple.

The precepts of Yahweh are upright,
joy for the heart;
the commandment of Yahweh is clear,
light for the eyes.

The fear of Yahweh is pure,
lasting for ever;
the judgments of Yahweh are true,
righteous every one,
more desirable than gold,
even than the finest gold;
His words are sweeter than honey,
even than honey that drips from the comb.

Thus Your servant is formed by them,
observance brings great reward.
But who can detect his own failings?
Wash out my hidden faults.
And from pride preserve Your servant,
never let it dominate me.
So shall I be above reproach,
free from grave sin.

(Verses 7-13)

“Thus Your servant is formed by them” and “free from grave sin” seem to be saying that the “words of Yahweh” have the power to shape us and free us from sin. It sounds like this might be the answer to what is meant by God “sending His Word and curing” people who “called to Yahweh in their trouble.” If this was true for them, can’t it be true for us as well?

Psalm 107 reveals to us a lot about how God, the living God of Israel, thinks and acts, showing us that God really does have a distinct personality, and isn’t just a “cosmic process.”

Sometimes He turned rivers to desert,
springs of water into arid ground,
or a fertile country into salt flats,
because the people living there were wicked.

Or again, He turned a desert into sheets of water,
and an arid country into flowing springs,
where He gave the hungry a home
in which to found a habitable town.

(Verses 33-36)

It isn’t just the mindless and purposeless forces of nature that change things on earth after all, but the just judgment of God that He expresses within time. Here’s an interesting verse…

Pouring His contempt upon the nobly born,
He left them to wander in a trackless waste.
But now, He lifts the needy out of their misery,
and gives them a flock of new families;
at the sight of which, upright hearts rejoice
and wickedness must hold its tongue.

(Verses 41-42)

Whatever else we think, we can see as we look around us, especially in these times, how these very things are happening. The “old money” families, despite their wealth and prestige, are coming unglued. Their control of whole nations has brought them nothing but inner decay, moral and spiritual. On the other hand, are we alarmed when we see the prosperity, in our United States, of the new immigrants, the Latinos, the Koreans and other Asians? These latter are by and large “people of the Book,” who take God at His Word and rely on His faithfulness…

Mary declared, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away.”
(Magnificat, Book of Common Prayer; Luke 1:52-53)

Psalm 107 concludes with this thought about the love of God…

If you are wise, study these things
and realise how Yahweh shows His love.

(Verse 43)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Church fathers are alive and well

What? Do you think I am speaking of the “great ones” like Ignatios of Antioch, the Desert Fathers, Chrysostom, and the Three Hierarchs (Basil and the two Gregories)?

No, though they may be great, and their teachings and acts still resound till our own day, I am speaking of those presently alive in the body, who with hearts on fire for God without knowing it, speak, write and act for Him just as these, their noble, spiritual ancestors, did.

And where do we find such treasures as the church fathers of the present day? Who among the great hierarchs and ecumenical prelates do we find speaking, writing and acting for God, as did those of ancient times?

Well, I’ve heard plenty of praise for men like Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomaios of Constantinople and New Rome, who drags the world behind him in awe and wonder as he pontificates and enlightens us on our duty to be “stewards of the earth.” And I’ve seen the “Christianity” shelves of major bookstores crowded with books by such modern greats as Max Lucado, Josh McDowell, and Bishop T. D. Jakes. But I think that the greatest of church fathers are now, as always, hidden among us, like lilies in a bed of leeks, growing quietly, unnoticed except by chance.

Having heard some speak, I consider myself fortunate. Having seen some act, I have been encouraged to follow. Having read some write, I want to share.

Here are some words I just read, that I want to share. They are from a comment on the text of James 1:9-11. If you would like to read the piece from which they were taken, and I heartily recommend it, click on the author's name at the end of this post.

“We all have a little Pharasee in us. We all have a way of making ourselves feel better by finding someone or some group to whom we feel morally superior.”

“God will re-make the universe and is in the process as we speak. Everything is being perfected. The Spirit is working on us one sin at a time to get us ready for this new Heaven and new Earth. The problem is that I want to decide when and how that perfection takes place. I am trying to put myself in the place of God. This is the core of all of our sin.”

“Take a look at your lot in life. Whatever it may be, be grateful for it. Be grateful but do not cling to the position. God is working to level the playing field as we speak. The sun will wither our pride, and grow the seed of love in the compost of our poverty.”

“Be grateful when you are in a low position because you will be reminded to look up. Be grateful when you realize you are putting your trust in richness. When you find you are putting your faith in richness of money, morality, spirituality, or anything other than God, be grateful because the sun that is the Holy Spirit has just shown you your flower that He will soon wither away.”

Sunday, September 14, 2008

September 14 ~ Holy Cross

In Paradise of old, the tree stripped me bare, for by the eating thereof, the enemy brought in death. But now, the most holy tree of the Cross that doth clothe all men with the garment of life hath been set up on earth, and all of the world is filled with most boundless joy. Seeing it exalted, ye people, now, let us the faithful all cry out with one accord to God in faith: Thy house is full of glory, O Lord.
Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross
Sessional Hymn of the Canon

Psalms for Day 14

The book of Psalms, divided into 30 portions for the days of the month, are my prayer book. This morning, two of the psalms appointed spoke very tenderly and strongly to my soul, and having nothing of my own to say, I simply want to share them.
Brethren, will you pray these psalms with me?
(From the Jerusalem Bible)

Psalm 71
An old man's prayer

In You, Yahweh, I take shelter;
never let me be disgraced.
In Your righteousness rescue me, deliver me,
turn Your ear to me and save me!

Be a sheltering rock for me,
a walled fortress to save me!
For You are my rock, my fortress.
My God, rescue me from the hands of the wicked,
from the clutches of rogue and tyrant!

For You alone are my hope, Lord,
Yahweh, I have trusted You since my youth,
I have relied on You since I was born,
You have been my portion from my mother's womb,
and the constant theme of my praise.

To many I have seemed an enigma,
but You are my firm refuge.
My mouth is full of Your praises,
filled with Your splendour all day long.

Do not reject me, now I am old,
nor desert me, now my strength is failing,
for my enemies are uttering threats,
spies hatching their conspiracy:

‘Hound him down now that God has deserted him,
seize him, there is no one to rescue him!’
God, do not stand aside,
my God, come quickly and help me!

Shame and ruin on those
who attack me;
may insult and disgrace cover those
whose aim is to hurt me!

I promise that, ever hopeful,
I will praise You more and more,
my lips shall proclaim Your righteousness
and power to save, all day long.

I will come in the power of Yahweh
to commemorate Your righteousness, Yours alone.
God, You taught me when I was young,
and I am still proclaiming Your marvels.

Now that I am old and grey,
God, do not desert me;
let me live to tell the rising generation
about Your strength and power,
about Your heavenly righteousness, God.

You have done great things;
who, God, is comparable to You?
You have sent me misery and hardship,
but You will give me life again,
You will pull me up again from the depths of the earth,
prolong my old age, and once more comfort me.

I promise I will thank You on the lyre,
my ever-faithful God,
I will play the harp in Your honour,
Holy One of Israel.

My lips shall sing for joy as I play to You,
and this soul of mine which You have redeemed.
All day long, my tongue
shall be talking of Your righteousness.
Shame and disgrace on those
whose aim is to hurt me!
Psalm 73
The triumph of justice

God is indeed good to Israel,
the Lord is good to pure hearts.

My feet were on the point of stumbling,
a little further and I should have slipped,
envying the arrogant as I did,
and watching the wicked get rich.

For them, no such thing as pain,
their bodies are healthy and strong,
they do not suffer as other men do,
no human afflictions for them!

So pride is their chain of honour,
violence the garment that covers them;
their spite oozes like fat,
their hearts drip with slyness.

Cynical advocates of evil,
lofty advocates of force,
they think their mouth is heaven
and their tongue can dictate on earth.

This is why my people turn to them
and lap up all they say,
asking ‘How will God find out?
Does the Most High know everything?
Look at them: these are the wicked,
well-off and still getting richer!’

After all, why should I keep my own heart pure,
and wash my hands in innocence,
if You plague me all day long
and discipline me every morning?

Had I said, ‘That talk appeals to me’,
I should have betrayed Your children's race.
Instead, I tried to analyse the problem,
hard though I found it—

until the day I pierced the mystery
and saw the end in store for them:
they are on a slippery slope, You put them there,
You urge them on to ruin,

until they suddenly fall,
done for, terrified to death.
When You wake up, Lord, You shrug them off
like the phantoms of a morning dream.

When my heart had been growing sourer
with pains shooting through my loins,
I had simply failed to understand,
my stupid attitude to You was brutish.

Even so, I stayed in Your presence,
You held my right hand;
now guide me with advice
and in the end receive me into glory.

I look to no one else in heaven,
I delight in nothing else on earth.
My flesh and my heart are pining with love,
my heart's Rock, my own, God for ever!

So then: those who abandon You are doomed,
You destroy the adulterous deserter;
whereas my joy lies in being close to God.
I have taken shelter in the Lord,
continually to proclaim what You have done.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Another Apostle Peter

I have to share this with people who visit my humble blog, both because it is worth reading and to encourage my fellow Orthodox Christians who also follow our Lord Jesus Christ to see an example of true, living Orthodoxy. This is an article about Coptic priest Zakaria Botros that is posted on the Infidel Bloggers Alliance. Father Botros (I believe his family name is the Coptic form of Peter, hence the title of this post) is an Orthodox evangelist to the Arab, mostly Islamic, world. Without all the theatrics and charismatic shamanism that goes on in televangelistic orgs such as TBN, Fr Botros brings the life-giving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ to millions of Arabs, via television, internet and other media. Without getting commissioned by the hierarchy, he has taken the Lord's "great commission" seriously, and is winning back souls to Christ, out of the slavery of Islam. That's about all I can say about him. I invite you to read the rest, by following this link: Al Qaeda Declares Coptic Priest Zakaria Botros "One of the Most Wanted Infidels in the World"

Pray for the continuing ministry of this man of God, for his protection from adversaries, and for long life. Fr Zakaria, may God grant him many, many years!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Prayer for the Church

Lord, how quickly and easily we get corrupted!

It’s easy to see what should be the form of the church, what should be its ministries, its worship, its lifestyle, from reading the gospels, the acts, and the epistles. Yet, we somehow always drift away from that which spiritual logic indicates and into the paths of our own devices.

In the first generation, we know that the holy apostles were set aside by God and they themselves accepted this, that they should have a ministry based on what was given to them, and that is what they lived for. Their daily needs were taken care of in whatever way each day afforded, whether some of them did manual work for their living as well as preaching, or when the Spirit had them preach or minister so totally that the church, that is, the people to whom they ministered, taught, evangelized and so forth, helped them out with their daily bread and a place to sleep. The same was true of all those whom the Spirit touched: they lived for You and the spreading of Your gospel, for the making of disciples of all nations. They had no private lives or needs, for what could be private to them who had given up everything to follow You?

And so it was through the ages and so it is today. The apostolic life can no more change than You can.

The lifestyle of the flock, the members of the church, also flows logically from the gospels, the acts, and the epistles. If we stayed in the scriptures, our lives and lifestyles would flow out of and be formed by the same spiritual logic. We would all minister to one another from our abilities according to each other’s needs.

The form of the church outwardly in various ages has wavered between what is formed by the spiritual logic of the scriptures, and what we want to make of them to fit our own imagined needs, which are really wants. In most of our history, those who were called or set apart to minister, still supported themselves by the work of their hands, to the extent of their real needs. Married priests had to farm, or do crafts, or teach, to earn their earthly keep and support their families. To the extent that they put themselves out to do the church services they were recompensed out of what their flock had and were willing to offer. Themselves, even when married, remained in actual fact not just in name, servants of the people of God, without private lives or privileges. Only those who gave themselves over completely to the needs of the church, and whose work really took up all their time, were supported out of common funds, and that only according to their needs, not their wants. But how quickly and easily these ways were corrupted, both in West and East. And at the present day, the ways of the church have so far drifted into the ways of man and so distant from Your ways, Lord, that we cannot even recognize, in the light of the logic of your Word, anything of the true in what we see in the church. We have drifted so far, that to even speak as I am now, is considered foolishness or even heresy. But You, Lord, know what You gave us, what Your holy apostles handed over to us, and what we have done with it.

Grant us, Lord, mercy in these last days, and let Your servants find the way of life that You have clearly revealed in Your holy scriptures, and deliver us from ourselves and our selfish plight. In the time that is left to us, help us to live as You live, so we will be ready to meet You without fear at Your second and glorious coming.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Whom do you trust?

Lord, help me always to tell it like it is.

We witness to the Lord Jesus Christ wherever we are, as second nature, without thinking about doing it, without personal intention or expectation, only the unspoken prayer, “Give the increase.”

A co-worker calls to me from over the cubicle wall. “You gotta see this!” I get up immediately, drawn by the hint of incredulity in the speaker’s voice. I round the corner and sit in an empty chair near the PC screen, as my friend reads aloud to me what he’s found on the internet, “Man is willing to pay $50,000 to Jews willing to relocate to Dothan, Alabama!” and then, “Hey man, this is for you!”

Even though he knows I’m a Christian, there’s just something about the label “Orthodox” that makes this friend, and many other people I’ve known over the years, think that I’m some kind of Jew. It doesn’t help that I’m bearded. A short conversation sprang up between us on the subject of the news story that concatenated a whole string of facts and ideas. Jews leaving small town America for the big cities, then, the depopulation of Polish Jewry, leaving hundreds of abandoned synagogues and cemetaries all over Poland, then the instant celebrity of any Polish Jewish boy who actually wants to be bar mitzvah’d. Then, as invariably happens, food comes up. “Yeah, aren’t rubens tasty with kosher corn beef and swiss cheese? Uh, wait a minute, even though the ingredients are kosher, that combination isn’t. Why?”

Then the conversation moves along as to how the rabbis added layers of “kosher” laws to the original single injunction “You must not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” and how ridiculous this is, in view of what Abraham and Sarah offered to God the Holy Triad at their campsite at Mamre. Maybe God didn’t like the taste of meat and dairy at the same dinner (which is what He was served up), and so the next chance He got, He laid down the law about the “mother’s milk and kid’s meat don’t mix” thing.
Then the talk moved on to what happened to the two angels that visited Lot in Sodom, and then what happened to the city, and how Lot escaped with his two daughters, his wife having looked back and been morphed into a salt pillar. And then how what happened next gave rise to the Orthodox saying, “Do not defile yourself in the wilderness, where in the city you were pure.”

I can’t remember the rest of the conversation, but I have to remark on the faithfulness of God, who does not let His Word go forth and return to Him void. Whether my friend identifies himself as a Christian or not, he could find meaning in, and welcomed the exchange of ideas and stories recounted on a colloquial level, in fact he initiated it. This is how we witness. We just remain willing to defenselessly and joyfully deliver the Message that He wants to send. He appoints the rendezvous, and it’s always, as Sergei Fudel calls it, “a miracle of unexpected joy” (Light in the Darkness).

Did I bring Christ into the conversation? Did I announce the “four spiritual laws?” Did I ask my friend if he is saved? No, not this time, because that’s not what happened. But I am ready to, whenever the Lord ordains it. “Not my will, Lord, but Thine!”
Another co-worker showed up with a question, and as I was actually on my way out the door when this conversation occurred, I just let it go with a “Good night, guys, have a good evening! See you tomorrow!”

On the drive home, I got to thinking. All these folks I work with are very nice people, and at least a couple of them have told me they were or are Christians, and in the past (I’ve known them several years) we’ve sometimes shared a little about our Christian lives, or at least our upbringing. I know what some of them reject. In fact, no one in my office “goes to church” except me. Yet, they’re all nice people. This is the product of religious Christianity. When C. S. Lewis said that Christ came not to make nice people but new men (Mere Christianity), he was writing about this very thing.
So, as I was driving home, I was turning over in my mind, what is the source of my belief, what does my life in Christ grow out of (for this is the only thing Christian life can really mean)?

I thought back to one of my favorite concepts, that though we have five sense organs to give us knowledge of the natural world, we have one sense organ to give us knowledge of God (I should say spiritual world, but that would not be enough). That sense organ is the brain, in which resides the mind. The mind is the eye with which we can see God—everything else we use it for are like “extras” thrown in by the Maker. The problem is that most people use the mind for very opposite purposes, either because they don’t know any better, or because they do, and they don’t want to see God (Romans 1:20-21). When people have asked me why I believe in God, I sometimes say, “Honestly, it’s not really belief per se. I just know He’s there. In fact, He’s here with us right now in this very room, as we’re talking. It’s like I can see Him, not with my eyes, of course, but with my mind. I guess you could say, with the eye of faith.”

Then as I drove along, I started wondering how people must see me, and others whom they know are followers of Jesus, or at least call “religious” folks. They sometimes know that we pray, or say prayers, or talk to God, or whatever. But they, even when they claim “to believe in a God,” simply don’t pray. They don’t really think that there’s Anyone there listening. I can see their point. On the purely natural level, there’s no evidence of anyone or anything that “hears” all our thoughts and words, and “sees” all our actions.

So where do we, where did I, get that notion in the first place?
I can see how people can accept the concept that there is a God, but not know anything about Him, because there’s nowhere to find “more information” except—in the Bible! And that Book has had the most wild history of promotion and defamation of any book known to man, not to mention a whole slough of writers intent on making us believe that though it’s God’s Word, it’s not perfect (implication, not reliable), and that it must be studied in the context of its time and place.

Back to the notion that Someone is there that knows everything about us, hears all we say and think, sees all we do. For me, that has come primarily from the book of Psalms, which is rich with detail on the nature of God, Who He is, what He loves, what He hates, what He does and can do (there’s nothing He can’t do, but there are things He won’t do). I’m sure there are many places in the Bible where God’s nature is revealed simply enough for anyone to understand, but for me the Psalms are that place.
Now this is where “faith” actually does kick in, even for me. It is by faith that I accept and believe that what the Bible says about God is true in the first place.

Yes, faith—this is the stumblingblock for those who may claim to “believe in a God,” but cannot bring themselves any closer, let alone confess Him before men. They may justify their disinterest by their agnosticism, and their agnosticism by their biblical illiteracy, and their illiteracy by the corruption of the institutions representing Christianity. But without taking the personal initiative to seek the Lord where and when He can be found (Isaiah 55:6), that is, in the Word of God, they cannot hope to be justified or become children of the Promise, putting false hope in the “goodness” they attribute to the “God” in whose existence they say they believe, but of whom they have no objective knowledge.

So then, though the mind can “see” God, only faith can tell us of His attributes, and “can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of realities that at present remain unseen” (Hebrews 11:1). And that faith cannot be arrived at by any amount of human thinking or speculation. That was the heresy of the false gnosis of ancient times. Instead, we have been given (as the Jews say) “the precious Implement by which the world was created,” that is, the Word of God. We have been given it (again, as the Jews say) “not to be made into a spade to dig with,” in other words, not something to serve us, to bolster our opinions and thoughts. Instead, we have been given the precious Implement “through Whom all things were made” (Symbol of Nicæa), and Who alone can remake us, as the Psalms declare.
What is faith then?

Of course, in an everyday sense, it really comes down to trust. Without realising it, everyone lives their life day by day based on trust that “things are as they think they are.” This is like not being afraid to enter the highway and jump into a lane of fast-moving cars, because you trust that the fear of instant chaos, damage or death will keep everyone on the road in their lane. This is like not being afraid to fly to Japan on a jet airliner because you trust what the scientists have discovered about the laws of physics, you trust the pilots to know how to fly the plane, and you trust the entire apparatus of the airport maintenance system to make sure there’s fuel in the plane and so on.

In various other areas of life, we have come to trust, or have faith in the reliability of various human institutions, and so we are able to live our earthly lives and function in relative peace and stability. We know we can trust scientists, as long as they stay scientific. We know we can trust doctors and other professionals, as long as they stay true to their various disciplines. Why then this lack of trust, this absolute disdain of theologians and clergy, and of “organized religion”? Sorry to say, a large proportion of these people have not stayed true to their discipline, wandering where they don’t belong, or bending the Bible to fit their agendas. However, there’s nothing more I need say about it here.
What I want to say is one more thing. Just as we trust a scientist when he stays scientific, we should trust a theologian when he stays theological. What is the discipline of the scientist? To study the natural world, do experiments, get results and publish them, so others can duplicate them. What is the discipline of the theologian? To study the Bible, do experiments (follow Jesus), get results (the life of salvation) and publish them (make disciples of all nations). If a theologian can’t be found where you live, find them among the Church fathers, or become one yourself.

True science requires honesty, study and hard work, but it’s worth it. True theology, the same.

The true scientist trusts the natural world to be true, takes it at face value, tests it, confirms its truth, and himself can be trusted. The true theologian trusts the Bible to be true, takes it at face value, tests it, confirms its truth, and himself can be trusted.

Whom do you trust?