Friday, February 20, 2009


There’s something about Christianity that makes outsiders (if there is such a class of persons) think that it’s a crutch for the weak, a form of consolation for losers, a kind of drug, “an opiate for the masses,” as Karl Marx put it. Well, there is some truth to this idea, but it’s not what Christianity’s detractors think. Moreover, so many Christians are afraid that this idea might be true, that they go to extremes to prove that it isn’t.

Orthodox Christianity says that what’s wrong with man is that the icon of God is broken, and we’re that icon. They say that Christ came to fix the icon. Well, that’s one way to put it, and I want to get over that idea right away, not because I disbelieve it, but because as delicious as it sounds to those who want to creep away from the idea of an angry God who can only be appeased by the death of His Only Son, it can be misunderstood even more than some other theories of how salvation works.

The truth is, though, that man is broken, and some Christians are in such a hurry to fix him, that they actually shove God out of the way in the mad, and hopeless, attempt. Why mad and hopeless? We may be broken, but we can’t fix ourselves, no matter how hard we try.

Being broken is what we are, no matter how some of us try to cover it up. Admitting we are broken does not mean that we’re happy with it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be made whole again. It’s our confession of being broken that places us in a position where God can work on us.

Some people think that Christianity is a kind of self-help and self-empowerment program. They start with the knowledge that man is broken, but then they take charge of the situation. Mining the Holy Scriptures for verses that they can claim as God’s promises and His spiritual principles for overcoming, sure enough, they put God to the test—the proof (of God) is in the putting (allusion intended).

Christian businesses with names like “Believer’s Voice of Victory” or “This Is Your Day” bombard the unchurched masses with slick entertainment and self-improvement promotions. These are not ministries and have nothing to do with Christ or Christianity, except that they draw on the Bible for their vocabulary. They know that man is broken. They know who’s in the audience. They offer to fix them, for a price of course. Yet it’s not their job, and in fact and act, they can do nothing.

I have a brother in Christ who repeatedly confesses that he is broken. Furthermore, he wants to remain broken. How can that be? Doesn’t he want to be whole? He lives a normal life, has a job, goes to church regularly, and he is living victoriously over his enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil. How do I know this? Because of the fruits of his life. But also, when he receives the praise of men, he somehow skillfully evades it, always turning it back immediately to God, and in such a way that you feel he didn't even notice what he was doing. Talk about playing a game of “hot potato”!

Broken, because that state is where we are just by being human, is what draws the love and help of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to us. Admitting it, confessing it always, and turning to Jesus, that’s what opens us to the merciful heart of our loving God. Yet, this is not how Christians are taught to be any longer.

Many churches set human standards before their members instead of the Word of God. The leaders of these churches preach themselves, not “Christ, and Him crucified.” Go to almost any church web page and prepare yourself to hear about the virtues and accomplishments of their leaders. They set themselves up as examples of “successful” Christians, again placing before you not Christ, but themselves. They hold out to you these images of a “happy life,” while hiding the cross, except to wear it as jewelry. But the true cross is the happy life, because it is life with Jesus.

Not “success” is ours for the taking, brethren, but being broken, like the flask of ointment was broken, that the feet of Jesus might be anointed.

Ours is to stay close to Jesus, hanging on to His precious words, not as magic promises that we can force Him to grant, but as they are, the living words of the living God, spoken to us for our hearing, that we may have faith. And what is this faith? It is trusting Christ and only Him to be our saviour, confessing no other, waiting on Him to make us whole, without looking, without measuring ourselves to see if we’ve grown, looking only to Jesus and not at ourselves.

Yes, brothers, let’s be broken for Jesus, who said…

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Matthew 5:1-11 NIV

Broken music

Just to add another dimension to the thoughts in my post Broken,
I want to share, with anyone interested, the lyrics of a song by Five Iron Frenzy that was going through my mind over and over again the morning that the ideas began forming…


Billie Holiday on the radio
My sluggish heart is beating seven beats too slow
Another sad song and another shot of blue
Cold and unconcerned are anything but new

He said love endures all things,
and it hurts to think He's right
If I mark the span of failure
Is his burden just as light?

I am,
Close my heart so tight
Save me
From myself tonight

Limping through the world
There's a knowing look or two
Is it just the cripples here
Who understand the truth?

Why is love so painful?
Why do we always lose?
Paving pathways for the lost
The bitter, and recluse?

He said love endures all things,
and it hurts to think it's true
Did it nail Him to the cross?
Did it crucify Him too?

I am,
Close my heart so tight
Save me
From myself tonight

The angels are singing over the plains
The shepherds are quaking, echoing refrains
And all of our slogans, designed to take away the pain
Meant nothing to the Son of God that night in Bethlehem

I am,
Close my heart so tight
Save me
From myself tonight

After the blog background music finishes, you can listen to the song Spartan by clicking

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Head to Heart

This is nothing of mine, but I have to share some words of great import, encouraging words, again and again, as the poet sings to God, of God, for God, and yes, maybe with God, as we stand near to listen, fortunate that we could catch a glimpse of what the poet saw when we hear (or read) his words. The poet I'm speaking of we know as "The Postman," his nom de plume that of a kind of servant. Here are a few stanzas that appealed strongly to me, which I hope will incite you to follow the link to the entire poem and the scriptures that precede and follow it, in the title, Head to Heart

From head to heart
Bring down this single fact
That when You from heaven
Came down as man
You came to say,
"Fear not, I am in command."

"Do you love me Lord?"
I had asked
"Yes I do
More than My own life"
Not empty words
Of youthful love
When on the cross
You proved it true.

From head to heart
Bring down this single fact
That when You from heaven
Came down as man
You came to show,
How much You love.

O these words
Too strong for me
Striving exhausted
Impossible for man
Yet You have called
The weak and heavy laden
"Teach me Lord
To learn from Thee"

Now, go back to the link above, and read the entire poem. He opens his poem with Revelation 1:7, and closes it with Revelation 1:1-8. Truly, this brother is like the apostle of Ireland, Patrick, who encompassed himself with God's Word…

"Wisdom of God for my guidance,
Eye of God for my foresight,
Ear of God for my hearing,
Word of God for my utterance…"

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Only faith is unstoppable

Making faith in Christ the price which must be paid to save Western civilization from the Muslim hordes is to make Christ the means to an end, our end. It may be true that the apostasy of the Christian West is largely responsible for its decline, but so did the virtuous among the pagan Romans blame “atheism,” abandoning the old gods for this new deity Christ, for the decline of Rome. I’ve always found this charge of atheism against the early Christians not an absurd lie, as many Christians of later ages have considered it, but rather a hint of what being a disciple of Jesus really means. The atheism they were accused of was their abandonment of traditional gods and their religious cults. But then, what did they do instead?

Yes, they did worship Christ as a deity, so tell the ancient records but, whatever they were doing, it was still viewed as something irreligious and irreverent by their contemporaries. The great labyrinthine structures of medieval Christendom had not yet arisen, and the liturgy of the Church of the late Roman Empire was still comparatively simple and held very close to the Hebrew and Greek Christian scriptures. It was almost a religionless Christianity, something that only in recent times has surfaced again among followers of Jesus. In fact, as we find our civilization sliding into cowardly weakness and self-indulgence, it appears that this religionless Christianity may be the only one that will survive.

I read this in an online publication, the Brussels Journal,

Recently I visited Orléans cathedral. It is one of the largest cathedrals in a country of huge ones, a magnificent late Gothic construction whose interior soars more dramatically than the heavier interiors of Chartres or Notre Dame de Paris. Orléans is also one of the most dramatic towns in French history, the site of the greatest battle of the Hundred Years War when Joan of Arc, “the Maid of Orléans,” defeated the English and thereby ensured the liberation of her country from the foreign invader.

I have had few sadder disappointments than when I entered the cathedral. Not the architecture, to be sure, which is magnificent, but the ambience. It was like entering a morgue. There was not a soul to be seen. No clerics bustled about; no women arranged flowers; no one came and went to choir practice. There was certainly no Mass in progress or even, it seemed, in prospect. The side-altars had evidently not been used for decades. The magnificent Gothic revival confessionals gathered dust silently in the cold. The only sounds came from the rainwater which leaked copiously through the roof to form an enormous puddle by one of the columns, and the ridiculous sound of a CD playing, round and round, Verdi’s requiem. It was like a scene from a cheap movie in which frightened travelers stumble across a recently abandoned house, but it was frighteningly easy to imagine the cathedral, a few decades hence, completely ruined as so many cathedrals and former abbeys are elsewhere in Europe.

The choice of the requiem was, of course, sinisterly apt. The cathedral in its present state is nothing but a magnificent mausoleum to a dead Christian culture – with the only difference that, in modern mausoleums like that of Lenin and Atatürk, the dead man inside is venerated for his political action to this day. By contrast, the Christian culture of Europe has died not with a bang but a whimper.

On the Northern Alliance: A Response to Srdja Trifkovic,
by John Laughland

The Muslim hordes I referred to above are immigrants from Islamic countries that Western nations, including Canada and the United States, have been allowing to set up house among us without becoming part of us. And can we expect them to?

On a very basic day to day level, many of these immigrants are as law-abiding and abstemious as Christians once by and large were, but are no longer. They are the “flocks and herds” of Islam, harmless as brute beasts. Behind them and among them, however, are their “herdsmen,” and it is these that are causing havoc and fear, as they wage jihad (warfare against the infidels—that’s us) and incite others to jihad.

It’s not the purpose of this blog to analyze and take positions on political issues, as I keep reiterating, yet I keep finding myself getting drawn into the arena—but a much deeper arena.

I read the writings of anti-jihad, anti-Islamic contras who defend verbally the Christian West and decry the weakness and self-seeking duplicity of Western politicians. I admit it and agree with them; it is positively frightening how they are not faithful to their charges—the original inhabitants of the West—to govern and protect our democratic way of life, but we are, after all, democracies. We put these people in the driver’s seat. If we were really concerned that they are betraying our patrimony to internal enemies piece by piece, we would do something, now, and if not now, when?

Back to my original statement.
Some of the opponents of the encroachment of Islam are in fact Christians, or claim to be, and their war cry is to save Christian civilization, but it seems that they want to take a short cut. They seem to want to arouse the instincts of the masses of Christianised but not Christian citizens to somehow take a stand against Islam on a political and social level.

British National Party in the U.K., if I understand them correctly, want to deport every Muslim who tries to propagate his religion. I recently heard that there is a movement to make it illegal to sell the Qur’an in the Netherlands, just as it is illegal to sell copies of Mein Kampf. I sympathize with the sentiment but oppose the erosion of the right of free speech in banning books. On the other hand, I do agree with the BNP in wanting to deport unassimilating aliens that want to subvert the institutions of a country—for it’s not about religion; if it were, there could be no reasonable argument.
It’s about human rights.

We can’t use conversion to Christianity as a means of preserving Christian culture and civilization; it’s proven unreliable. On the other hand, conversion to Christ does cause real changes, but to individuals. These changed people, becoming followers of Jesus, do have a marked effect on society, usually out of proportion to their numbers, but they are unlikely to be mobilized into armies and mobs to combat theoretical or even real evils. This is not because they are cowards, but because they are truly fearless. They fear the coming of the Muslim hordes no more than they fear being surrounded by pious talking cultural Christians who, as a matter of fact, are even more numerous.

Authentic Christianity is the faith of the martyrs, witnesses for Jesus, and it cannot be stopped or defeated, ever. Even as stinging as Islam is, it only engulfs and conquers the unprotected. What is this protection? It is faith in the living God, and in His Christ.

א לָמָּה, רָגְשׁוּ גוֹיִם; וּלְאֻמִּים, יֶהְגּוּ-רִיק.
ב יִתְיַצְּבוּ, מַלְכֵי-אֶרֶץ-- וְרוֹזְנִים נוֹסְדוּ-יָחַד:עַל-יְהוָה, וְעַל-מְשִׁיחוֹ.
Psalm 2:1-2 (Hebrew Tehillim)

It is only Jesus

I never finished college.
In May, 1971, spring semester ended, and having finally secured for myself and a buddy a much-coveted room in the counter-culturally prestigious Butler Hall basement for my fourth and final year, I left Blackburn College for good, though at the time I didn’t know it. Rather than hauling the heavy piece of furniture back home to Joliet where I lived with my divorced mother and two younger siblings, I left behind in storage an heirloom bookcase that I thought I would again be using in my new room.

I used to play with my figurines and toy soldiers on the shelves of that bookcase when I was a three-year old child in the sunny living room of our tiny flat in inner city Chicago. From its shelves as I got older, I discovered books, histories, novels, and atlases which sparked my first interests, and my dad’s collection, on old 78 rpm’s, of classical music—Hungarian Rhapsody #2, The Firebird Suite, An American in Paris. Music that my more pop-minded mom called “dead music”—she preferred the latest music on her favorite radio stations. (This was in the early 1950’s.)

Back to college.
Yes, I never finished, and one of the prices I’ve paid all these years is not an unpleasant one, but somewhat tragicomic: I have “college dreams” on a regular basis. Usually they’re dreams about going back to school, to Blackburn, and trying to fit it in to whatever stage of married family life I was in at the time. These dreams always ended with my failure to properly enroll and stay at school, to go to classes and still be back in Portland, working and taking care of my wife and kids. The commute was terrible. (Just kidding!)

Tonight I had another college dream, not quite like any of the others.

I was apparently on a visit to my old college with others of my own generation, probably alumni like myself. The college had grown tremendously—in the dreams I’ve been having lately this is a recurring theme—and I had some difficulty finding the buildings I had known as a young student and recognizing them when I did find them. Blackburn is a “work college” where all the students are employed, many in construction and maintenance of the college’s property, and so there was always some building or remodeling work going on, then and now. I was lodging as a guest in a dorm that didn’t exist back in 1971, and it was Sunday morning.
I wanted to go to a church service.

Knowing that there was no Orthodox church in Carlinville, a small county seat of about 5000 souls hidden in a hollow of the southern Illinois prairie, I asked a student that I saw in the dorm if they still had Sunday services in Clegg Chapel, and what time they took place. She responded that there would be a service, at 10 a.m. I looked quickly at my watch and, sure enough, it was about 9:53 a.m. I should have time enough to make a run for it—if only I could find my way through the totally unrecognizable, rebuilt campus.

I found the chapel, attached as it was to Hudson Hall where I took many of my classes. I entered and went upstairs to the chapel entrance. The doors were flung open, and I could tell from the contemporary worship music that a service was already in progress. Through the open double doors I could see students sitting on (gasp!) wooden bleachers in neat rows, singing and clapping hands. “Oh well,” I thought to myself, “I guess I shouldn’t have expected the old hymns I was used to when I went to chapel forty years ago.”

What really surprised me was that the inside of the chapel had been converted into a kind of maze of wooden corral fencing, as on a ranch where animals are being funneled through the narrow passages and sorted. I slipped right in behind a long queue of students, mixed in with a few parents, as we almost danced to the music while slowly moving forward through the maze. Just before we got out of it, there was a gate that had to be raised up between two posts that everyone must pass under. As I came to it, I exclaimed, “Oh, this is the gate of the sheepfold, isn’t it!” Then I held the gate up above my own head, passed under it and out, and then let it slide back down onto the waiting hands of a woman behind me.

I found myself near the front of the chapel, where the raised area was. In a Presbyterian church, the front is like a stage where the pulpit is and, in Clegg Chapel, the choir stalls were in two opposing groups facing each other. Well, that’s how things were back then. But in my dream, taking place now, things were different.

First of all, the huge, shimmering leaded glass windows that were on one long wall of the chapel were shrouded in heavy plastic to protect them from remodeling work. Through the plastic I could see that someone had altered those simple windows by adding a stained glass medallion right in the center of some of them, the topics of which were not biblical in theme, but something to do with athletic awards, and they looked very much like neon restaurant signs with Coca-Cola style lettering.

The end wall of the chapel above what used to be the choir stalls was no longer a solid wall with a large, plain wooden cross on it. It was now a gigantic clear glass church window. I was oblivious of the service at this point (if it was even going on), and there was no band where I expected to see one. I found myself talking to the woman who had been behind me and who seemed to be the mom of a young student. This woman was about 40 years old. She was getting an explanation of the chapel by her daughter, and I occasionally commented on it, joining in their conversation.

I added historical reminiscences as, for example, telling both of them that when I was at school “thirty-nine years ago” there was no giant window up above, just a solid wall with a cross, and there were two groups of pews arranged as choir stalls. We three went up to the stage to see what was up there now. It was a mess. All just a scattering of amplifiers, electronic instruments and tangles of cables and switch boxes. Nothing like pews or the small organ that used to be up there, or the piano. Just props and portable back drops and other show-biz stuff in disarray.

That’s when I woke up. I looked at my watch and it was 1:15 a.m.

Then, awake, I remembered some more of the conversation I’d had with the woman. I had been telling her, “When I was at college here, I really liked to go to services in this chapel, because ‘everything emptied into white,’ as the song by Cat Stevens goes. The chapel walls were white, the pews and woodwork around the doors and the heavy beams of the high chapel ceiling were a rich dark brown. The large windows along one length of the chapel, and the even larger window at the back were inset into the deep masonry walls without frames, and each shimmering piece of leaded glass let through, along with the sunlight, the muted silhouettes of the trees that lined the outside sanctuary walls. The overall effect was that of worshipping, or praying, in the bright, greenish half-light of a forest of tall trees.”

I told her, “I liked going to chapel here because everything was so pure and uncluttered. I’m Orthodox, and that’s the fanciest religion there is. It was good to get away from all that sometimes.” (Remember, this was a dream, and I’m being very candid.)

That was it for the dream and its receding memory. Then, as I lay on my cot wondering whether to get up and write this dream down or not, my mind began a mental dialogue with itself.

“So what is church, what is religion, anyways? Is it the Byzantine splendor and intricacy of the Orthodox service, or is it the stark, natural simplicity of the unimaged Presbyterian chapel or Quaker meeting hall?” A passage from one of my favorite poems ran through my mind,

“Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones
There's something in this richness that I hate.
I love the look, austere, immaculate,
Of landscapes drawn in pearly monotones.
There's something in my very blood that owns
Bare hills, cold silver on a sky of slate,
A thread of water, churned to milky spate
Streaming through slanted pastures fenced with stones.”
—Elinor Wylie, Wild Peaches

Then, in the following few seconds, the original question came bat-fowling again through the cavern of my awakened consciousness,
“So what is church, what is religion, anyways?” And then, in a flash of light, I saw Jesus, dressed a simple white robe, walking with a few disciples, crossing a shallow stream picking their way over the stones, and my mind read unwritten words, and my heart heard,
“It is only Jesus.”

Friday, February 13, 2009

Even choosing what is right is a gift

It's strange how souls living hundreds of miles apart can often be found meditating on the same ideas. This morning on the drive to work, as I prayed and talked to the Lord about the new day, it came to me that all the good things I've tried to do, all the good words I've said or written for the benefit of others, even all the good thoughts I've had, these have all been just my reaching up, straining as hard as I could, to touch the only Good, so as to give meaning and purpose to my life. But when all is said and done, the "real me" only wants to find myself in the position described in Psalm 131,

"Lord, my heart has no lofty ambition,
my eyes do not look too high.
I am not concerned with great affairs
or marvels beyond my scope.
Enough for me to keep my soul tranquil
and quiet as a child that has been weaned.
Israel rely on the Lord,
now and for always!"

It is the Lord who is the source of our search for the Good, the One who grants us the energy to do whatever it takes to get there, and finally, He is the Good Himself. So, that's what was in my mind and heart as I drove to work this morning. Then, a moment ago I checked my personal email and found this quote from my friend in Alaska, Presbytera Candace. Her choice of quote matched my morning thoughts closely…

I agree that people have certain capabilities—one person has more, another less. But these capabilities alone can’t perfect them… Some people are proud of their successes. They attribute everything to themselves and nothing to the One who made them, gave them wisdom and supplied them with good things. Such people need to learn that even in wishing well to someone, they need God’s help. Even choosing what is right is a gift of God’s mercy. For it is necessary both that we should master ourselves and that God should save us.

— Gregory of Nyssa

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reliance on God

Psalms for the 11th Day
56 57 58 59 60 61
Psalm 56
Reliance on God

Take pity on me, God, as they harry me,
pressing their attacks home all day.
All day my opponents harry me,
hordes coming in to the attack.

Raise me up when I am most afraid,
I put my trust in You;
in God, whose Word I praise,
in God I put my trust, fearing nothing;
what can men do to me?

All day long they twist what I say,
all they think of his how to harm me,
they conspire, lurk, spy on my movements,
determined to take my life.

Are they to go unpunished for such a crime?
God, in fury bring the nations down!
You have noted my agitation,
now collect my tears in Your wineskin!
Then my enemies will have to fall back
as soon as I call for help.

This I know: that God is on my side.
In God whose Word I praise,
in YHWH, whose Word I praise,
in God I put my trust, fearing nothing;
what can man do to me?

I must fulfil the vows I made You, God;
I shall pay You my thank-offerings,
for You have rescued me from death
to walk in the presence of God
in the light of the Living.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A recollection of Ise 伊勢

When I was at 伊勢神宮, the great shrine at Ise, Japan I had an experience at one of the smaller shrines off the beaten path. It was exactly like all other Shinto shrines, a building with a wide and deep porch all inside an enclosure. Across the front of the building were tied bundles of branches to either side of the gate. In my mind's eye, I suddenly saw the whole enclosed area filled with worshippers standing in the Orthodox fashion, and the bunches of branches were now interspersed with the icons typical of an Orthodox temple, and the central doors were now the Royal Doors. Everything amidst the peaceful forest. No more bowing and clapping hands, no more hanging up paper streamers to the kami. The presence of 大神, Okami, the living One, was there, gathering up His people like babies in a large silk blanket. It was a sudden and piercing insight with other facets I cannot even describe. This is not a vision, just what happens to the heart that is seeking the will of God, when the mind is in the heart.

I hadn't really thought of this since last April until today, when I recounted it in an email to a friend who likewise has been to Japan. The photo is of the shrine where these logismoí came to me.

"Please worship with us"

“Please worship with us” followed by the worship schedule, “9 a.m. and 11 a.m.,” if I remember correctly. This is what was up on the marquee in front of Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church which I pass every Sunday on my way to church. I also pass this church several times on any other day and see this sign with the same message, or a seasonal adaptation, many times a week. Click the chunklet to the right to see what they advertise on their webpage.

I’ve been meaning to blog this before, and I just never got to it. But today, reading Fr Milovan’s excellent blog Again and Again, I found written in his post Ad Campaign this thought:

“For two years our Pan-Orthodox Clergy Brotherhood sponsored a billboard for Pascha with the words: Christ is Risen! As far as I know it hasn’t brought any outsider to any of our churches.”

“Hmm,” I thought to myself, “here’s a brother who is also a presbyter in the Church and also honest enough to admit the obvious, that some of the ways, maybe most of the ways, that we seek to bring ‘outsiders’ to Christ are largely ineffectual and, when you think about some of them, pretty ludicrous.” His post showed a photo of a billboard that says “Big Bang Theory. You’ve got to be kidding. — God”. Any of us who live or have lived in the Bible Belt have seen this kind of billboard. After all, God’s Word is being impugned! Someone has to defend Him!

Father’s post then reproduced a news item he had seen: ‘Orthodox’ buses will drive along London streets to oppose ‘No God’ ones. You can read the article yourself by clicking the link at the title above.

What a strange mindset the Church has sometimes! As if we had to fight satan on his own turf with his own base weaponry. His principality has nothing on the Kingdom of our God and His Christ as far as power is concerned. Yet we try to combat satan on a battlefield of his choice, letting him decide where he will attack, instead of us dictating the time and place which, if we only follow Jesus, our Stratigós (champion), would be quite different, giving us the advantage. After all, Jesus has already defeated death and hell, so satan has no where to go, but down.

I’ve often wondered who’s attracted by these church marquees aping the cinemas that say things like “Everyone Welcome,” and even advertise social events or entertainment opportunities under sanctimonious titles like “praise-a-thon” and what not. We don’t have to only imagine “what would Jesus do?” to attract disciples. He is alive and as active as He ever was, right now, and “He gathers the lambs.” That’s what Jesus is doing, here and now, and that’s what we’re doing too, if we’ve got our eyes on Him and do what we see Him doing.

Can you see Him doing anything like holding up a sign that says, “Join me for worship! Everyone welcome!” Our God doesn’t hold up signs for others to take notice; He is the Sign.

Jesus did not plead or beg for disciples. Neither did He accept just anyone who came to Him and volunteered. He didn’t do it then, He doesn’t do it now. He simply looks at you very intensely and says, “Follow Me!” It’s always our choice, and the call is daily issued, and always fresh. This is where the Church needs to put away its schemes and its toys and “go forth and make disciples of all nations,” following the Lord who is walking abroad in this world, seeking His lost sheep. It’s up to us, His little flock, to follow Him, and following Him to be disciples and to make disciples of all nations. That’s His call, that’s our calling.

As He said, “Let the dead bury the dead. Come, follow Me.”

Friday, February 6, 2009

Death by stoning

I’ve been reading the five books of Moses cover to cover, and I’m now up to chapter 9 of Numbers, in the NIV version. The version I have used all my adult life is the original Jerusalem Bible, but since receiving an NIV Bible as a gift, I’ve been reading and using it as well. My reading of Genesis through Deuteronomy is to get the feel of it in the NIV. There definitely is a difference, caused particularly by the different translations of individual Hebrew terms that are used.

One thing I’ve noticed in my reading is how severe the punishments were for offenses committed while the people of Israel were wandering in the desert. No less than ten offenses earned the punishment of death by stoning: Touching Mount Sinai while God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:13); an ox that gores someone to death should be stoned (Exodus 21:28); breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36); giving one’s seed (presumably one’s offspring) to Molech (Leviticus 20:2-5); having a familiar spirit (or being a necromancer) or being a wizard (Lev. 20:27); cursing God (Leviticus 24:10-16); engaging in idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7), or seducing others to do so (Deuteronomy 13:7-12); rebellion against parents (Deuteronomy 21,21); getting married as though a virgin, when not a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:13-21); sexual intercourse between a man and a woman engaged to another man (both should be stoned, Deuteronomy 22:23-24).

The foregoing are just those offenses whose punishment was explicitly defined as death by stoning. There were a great many others for which the punishment was just “death,” without specifying how the condemned were to die. Later, the rabbis finished the work of defining exactly what was to take place in the cases of capital punishment. The strange thing is, however, that there are very few mentions of such punishments being actually inflicted. There are three cases in the Bible in which a person was legally stoned to death as a punishment, and there are also five or six cases where someone was stoned by a mob, not in a legal fashion. A detailed case of stoning occurs in Joshua 7:24-26 when a man named Achan (עכן) was found to have kept loot from Jericho, a conquered Canaanite city, in his tent.

The time of Israel’s migration to the Promised Land was when Torah was given. At this time, there was no such thing as Judaism or Jews, only the Hebrew people, whom the living God YHWH had chosen as His special possession. Not just Torah, but particularly these laws of punishment, were given and followed during that stage in the process when God was fashioning Israel into His unique people, using a sort of shock treatment to winnow and purify them, because He knew that over time they would eventually stray and devolve back into living like the other nations. So there had to be a very severe beginning to ensure that at least a faithful remnant would still exist on earth at the appointed time, through whom would be born the Ransom for the sins of the nations—Jesus the Messiah, the Word of God in human form.

Even though the laws of punishment, such as death by stoning, were still “on the books,” by the time Judaism emerged as the religion of the Jews (as the people of Israel came to be known after the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom), the legal infliction of these punishments was rare. Doubts in Jewish society about the morality of capital punishment in general and stoning in particular were growing. For example, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel in the time when the religious courts had authority over capital punishment, a court that executed more than 1 person in 70 years was considered a “bloody court.” The incident recorded in the Gospel (John 7:53-8:11) of the woman caught in adultery has to have been an instance of illegal infliction of the penalty of death by stoning, which was still probably rather common in the time of Jesus, at a grass roots level. So also would have been the stoning of the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen. Remember, even the Jewish authorities could not legally execute Jesus for committing what to them was blasphemy. “We have no law to put a man to death”
(John 18:31).

Modern-day Judaism is almost unanimous in rejecting the severe punishments found in the Torah, though with various explanations and justifications. Perhaps there are some Jews who today would revive these ancient punishments, but they are in the minority. Again, these punishments were ordered by the living God YHWH, for a specific purpose, to fashion Israel His people. They were never intended for the nations, as can be seen if one studies the Talmud, where it states that they apply only to the people of Israel. Seeing that even for themselves their purpose has been achieved, Jews of today do not apply the severe penalties found in Torah.

From a Christian viewpoint, the death of Jesus Christ put an end not only to the laws of sacrifice in the Jewish Temple, but also to the whole body of Jewish laws. Again, the account of the woman caught in adultery cited above is an example of where Jesus was heading, along with His famous sayings, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) and, “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5)
. Some would see this as religious evolution, others as the plan of salvation of the living God, whose purposes are not revealed to man all at once, but only as He wills, who Himself is changeless, though we learn more of Him as we progress through His dispensations.

What of death by stoning in today’s world? Perhaps there will always be instances of such punishments inflicted illegally by irrational mobs anywhere in the world where memory of such cruelty survives, but surely no civilized nation on earth would sanction it or enshrine it in its legal system. Think again. That which is called “the third great monotheistic religion” has such punishments enshrined not only in the legal systems where it holds sway, but in its very “scriptures.” This religion, claiming to be the last and greatest revelation of God to man, supplanting not only Christianity but Judaism as well, holds up and holds to a penal code more severe than even that of the ancient Hebrews.

The living God YHWH, the Only God there is, crafted them He chose as His own hereditary people and shaped and formed them by means of these severe statutes, in order to chasten, purify, strengthen and preserve them, who were also going to be the mother and brothers of His Son, the Saviour Jesus Christ. There is only one Israel the heir to the promises, and only one Christ, who come of the seed of Abraham through Isaac. Yet another came claiming to be a prophet, who reversed the story, seized the promise given to Isaac and laid it on Ishmael, who stole for his own tribe the rôle of God’s hereditary people, imitating the rigor and severity of the ancient laws.

If inflicting the penalty of death by stoning is the sign of the true faith, then we all know which true faith that is, and we should hurry to embrace it. Doubtless, such severe punishments will craft us into a perfectly pure, sinless and moral society as it has crafted many another people before us. It doesn’t matter that we will not be free, because look what freedom, what free will, has bought for us—societies impure, riddled with vice and sin, idolatrous beyond imagining. It would be for our own good, it would be worth it, to submit to the loss of freedom, if it meant an earthly paradise, where everyone would be happy, healthy, safe, at peace. Everyone, of course, except those who disobey the law, the divine law that comes from the prophet and his followers, everyone who deserves to die.

Yes, for them, death by stoning is really no less than their just reward from “God, the compassionate, the merciful, owner of the Day of Judgment.”

Ah, but what if the real God shows up?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A short Bible study

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”
John 14:12-14

James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to Him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized. But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
Mark 10:35-40

There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death. And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left.
Luke 23:32-33

“Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”………….……………………………CLICK TO ZOOM
Matthew 10:32-33

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don't you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Luke 23:39-43

Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O God of Jacob. Selah. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah.
Psalm 24:3-10

Who is this King of glory?
The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.

The magic of existence

Some people talk as though it were totally barbaric and unworthy of Him that God should have created a world in which such a thing as sin exists, that has so corrupted His chief creation, Man, that He now must punish him with eternal torment in fire, unless he accept the bloody death of a unique Man, who is also somehow His only-begotten Son, who sacrificed Himself voluntarily to satisfy the requirement of His angry heavenly Father, whose Law demands blood to compensate for its violation, as a ransom for his sins, so that he can be regenerated in sinlessness as his first forefather Adam was originally created.

This is like saying that God created a good universe into which His chief creature Man was placed with the expectation that he would always be of one will with Him, while at the same time allowing an evil agent into it, which He knew would corrupt Man’s will, and then forcing Himself to eternally punish this Man and all his descendents from their very births to eternal damnation for breaking a Law which He established and to which He is now bound, when He could have either not created that Law at all, or else overridden it for Man’s sake, or else not allowed the evil agent to deceive Man and cause the sin that must now be avenged, since God is holy and cannot tolerate sin.

Well, what would you have? A good God who created a good universe into which He placed a good creature, Man, who sometimes acts against what he knows intuitively is right by a standard he didn’t create but which the good God did, whose Son also entered that good universe and somehow was accidentally put to death but was rescued and resuscitated somehow, so that His teachings could be learned and followed, restoring Man, if not to his originally perfect and righteous state, at least to a state in which his moral failures are somewhat in control, allowing most men to live together in relative peace and safety and to enjoy a reasonable level of freedom and happiness?

That would be nice. That is how Man would like it. That is how Man in his natural state would like to see existence and give it meaning. That is how a civilised and worthy God would have set things up, that is, if He exists. Let’s have none of this sacrificial talk. Away with the barbaric demand for blood by an angry God, who is unfit to be called Father if He has to send His only Son to a humiliating, bloody, excruciatingly painful death, to save His creatures from a sinfulness He almost willed them to have, to save them from an eternal and fiery torment that He imposes on all who reject His love. His love? Would a loving God have such a plan? Would He create beings only to torture them for not being His robot slaves?

With all due respect to those who try to prove God loving, righteous, rational, and worthy of our praise by departing from the words of holy and divine scripture to paint a picture of Him in colors that are pleasing to our sense and standard of right and wrong, of what we call love, and mercy, and what we would honor as holy—I know what they are trying to do, to make God lovable so that we will love Him and believe in Him—this strategy in the end does not produce the effect in us that the Word of God was revealed to produce, does not raise us out of our mortal human reason to immortal divine faith, does not deliver us from death and bring us to true life, does not equip us for and acculturate us to what we can only call (because it is just the other side of our ontological “event horizon” and we cannot express it any other way) life eternal.

The real universe, not the one that scientists explore, test, measure and define by human standards, not the one that sociologists and historians archive and try to understand, not the one that moralists and would-be theologians devise as a frame of reference to interpret the results of the studies of the other two groups, but the real universe—what really exists, what really operates and animates all that we can see, hear, touch, taste, smell, feel and philosophize—is so beyond our human capacities as to be conveyable to us only in what seems miraculous or magical, or else so out of sync with what we should have expected that it seems barbaric and primitive in the extreme.

Not that real universe, but its Creator, has told us about that existence which lies just beyond our human nature’s “event horizon” by taking up a literature as the vehicle of His Word, and that is what we call the Holy Bible. Why holy? Because it is, like Him, totally other, fully incomprehensible to those who would fit it into the container of their minds alone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not grasped it. The Bible teaches us, as a mother teaches her toddler using baby talk, how to take the first steps into that real universe where there is no other map that we can yet read, where there are features that could harm or even destroy us in our present state of being and level of maturity if we met them without warning.

We must listen very carefully, mimic and memorize the instructions just as we receive them, even in the limited language that we know thus far, because for us, where we are headed, where we have no choice but to be headed, is a state that now can only seem to be the magic of existence. It will only be magic until we find out and understand what lies behind it, until we find ourselves actually and even factually crossing that “event horizon” that limits our mortal, human vision, until by faith we come to immortal, divine being.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Looking for you

Lately, India has been on my mind a lot more than usual. I have a very long personal history with India going back to my teen years.

At about the age of 13, I picked up a book from my parents’ library, a novel about a girl my age growing up in India, that had a chapter entitled Krishna the Joyous. I also read H. G. Wells’ bulky 2-volume History of the World, which had lots of line drawings of pagan gods, among them Ganesh the elephant-headed god and, again, Krishna with his flute.

Later, in my college years and a little beyond, George Harrison brought to our attention the Hare Krishna movement through his music and then, suddenly, there they were, chanting and playing their weird instruments, finger cymbals, mridangas (my favorite, a type of drum), and jumping up and down with ecstatic fury all around town. In Edmonton, Alberta, where I lived after college, I used to visit the Hare Krishna temple, chant in Sanskrit, partake of bhagavad-prasadam (consecrated food), and read their books, but I never took the plunge. Why? Well, because of Jesus. He is real, Krishna is only a beautiful story.

Back to my interest in India, and even in one Indian religion, the Hare Krishnas, what attracted me to them was the beauty and joy evident in their worship. When I read their beliefs, though I could see instantly that it was all based on classical mythology, I was impressed by two things: They believe that there is only one God, whom they identify with the Krishna of the myths; and their scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, seemed to have verses that were borrowed from the gospel according to Saint John. That made me think that somehow their form of Hinduism had been influenced by Christian ideas and was better than the others.

Mind you, all this was before I had accepted Jesus Christ at the age of 24. I was, of course, still dealing in what C. S. Lewis called “boys’ philosophy,” and hadn’t yet come to realize the objective reality of our situation—born into a sinful world, and headed for Gehenna. Once that fact is grasped, one doesn’t care a fig anymore for myths, beautiful or otherwise, but only for Him who alone can deliver us from eternal death, Him who tramples death by death and gives life to those in the tombs.

The whispers of the Truth arrive even in the ears of peoples who walk in darkness, begetting in them the beginnings of faith, but in Whom they do not know, and so teachers and prophets arise among them, taking the best they can find from their human speculations, from myths, from ancient tales handed down, and religions are created that approach the Truth yet still fall short. It’s the universal, world-wide story of man looking for God. But this is, simply put, not how it works. Man’s search for God is nothing compared to God’s search for man.

Starting with Eden, it was not Adam and Eve who went looking for God, “but Yahweh God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ He asked.” God was looking for man. Later, though Noah could see that the world was full of wickedness, he had no plan, no work to do to fix this problem, but then, “God said to Noah, The end has come for all things of flesh…” and gave him the instructions as to what he was to do. Not Noah’s search for God, but God’s search for a man who would obey Him. Our first father Abraham, though he lived among an idolatrous people and was offended, he would have remained there, had not “Yahweh said to Abram, Leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the land I will show you…” Again, not man’s search for God, but a living and caring God looking for man. Throughout the Bible, this story, this true story, is repeated over and over again. It’s true that in Psalms, we read things like, “I have sought You with my whole heart, do not let me stray from Your commandments,” but these words are the prayers of one whom God has already found. God looked for him, found him, and now he seeks God. It’s not that we don’t look for God, but that’s not how we find Him: He looks for us, He finds us, we accept Him and what He has done for us, and now we look for the God whom we know, to please Him who is our Saviour and Lord.

In all the myths, you never hear of a god looking for man, only men looking for gods. When they don’t find them, since they know that there must be a “divine something,” they comfort themselves with man-made gods and religions. Planting these seeds, they obtain trees which bear fruit after their own kind, from ancient times down to the present, fruit that may give wisdom and knowledge, but can never give eternal life.

But here we have a God, the God, who is looking for man, and when He finds him, there is no such thing as religion anymore. “I saw that there was no temple in the city since the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb were themselves the temple.” When He finds us, He plants in us His own seed, that grows in us and bears fruit after its own kind, fruit that will last, the fruit of eternal life. He is always looking for man. He is looking for me. He is looking for you.