Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The utterly unlike

There’s lots of things, even persons, who are, or will soon be seen to be, utterly unlike what we have imagined them to be all our lives.

Firstly, of course, there’s God. Whatever you conceive Him or Her to be, and even if you have memorized and understood everything the bible and all theologians have said about Him, and even read what the pagans have said about Him, you still (I should say, we still) are going to find out that though in everything that really mattered we knew Him quite well, there will be a whole lot about Him that will just take us by surprise—mostly, things that we couldn’t have even begun to know about Him, due to our puny brains and sensory apparatus not having a way to process the information. Ants may know that we’re there, and they may even have a good idea that we’re big, clumsy, slow-moving and dangerous. In everything that really matters to them they know us quite well. They won’t understand why some of us avoid stepping on them. They won’t begin to suspect that we compose and listen to something we call music, even though they may have something analogous to it on a very minor scale. Unfortunately for them, one of us hasn’t been transformed into an ant like themselves, so as to give them a better idea of what those big shadow-casters are that pass over their trails.

Secondly, there’s our own human nature, that which we seem to be while we are alive “in the flesh.” As a young man, I spent many hours observing my body and my spirit in function, long hours lying quiet but wide awake in the night. The result of my observations was a gradually increasing awareness that “I am not that” in reference first to my body, then even to my spirit, even to my mind. Anything that I was able to observe, watch and study, was yet experience outside whatever it is that I am. All these observations and my non-verbal thinking about them only demonstrated to me what holy scripture teaches, “For that which is,” that which exists, the world of things in its essence and with its causes, “is far off,” far removed from the sight of man, “and it is deep, deep; who can discover it?” (Ecclesiastes 7:24) How ironic, that even our very own selves, that we (think we) can know first-hand, should still be beyond our ken! Most of us don’t want to put the label “utterly unlike” on our cache of life experience, but I think that what life really is is utterly unlike our perception. We only know what we need to know and can know, and that’s not much.

Thirdly, or maybe I should say lastly, there’s death. Whatever you conceive it to be, or not be, and even if you’ve had a near death experience, or even been dead and through miracle or modern science been resuscitated, you still can’t come closer to knowing or understanding what it is than the distance separating East from West. My youthful experiments in observation also impinged on death. I used to withdraw my energy from my bodily extremities to experience “this is a hand, not my hand” and even “this is a body, not my body.” I tried to observe what remains when all senses, sight, hearing, touch, and finally even all thought, become inaccessible to a mind. What is left? Locked in a realm of being which cannot exist, yet does, I imagined the body I once inhabited, breathless, unfeeling, unmoving, as a formless numbness, and the existence of the outer world (where life was still going on) as an inaccessible “it,” not a thing or a place, just a nothing that somehow is, and beyond my penetration. That was as close as I came to apprehending death. It was very unlike what my normal mind envisions when I think of death, but it was still not “utterly unlike.”

It is this kind of approach that brings us, I think, to the threshold of at least sensing that what awaits us after this (what we call) life is something and Someone “utterly unlike” everything we have ever seen, heard, felt or thought. It makes even spelling the Name with a capital letter pale as insolence and ignorance before the reality of Him Who Is, and of As It Must Be. Not even speaking of God or of what we know about Him and His plan of salvation as written in His Word, the scriptures, we can still know Him as He reveals Himself to us and through us without our help or our imagination, and knowing Him thus, the “utterly unlike” gradually dawns on us, and of that, no man living can speak.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Socrates and the Sophists

When I am home alone and having some lunch, I am in the habit of turning to an easily laid-open old book that was a textbook from my college days, The Western Heritage of Faith and Reason. After not looking at it for decades, I started reading it again this way since the month of March. It never ceases to amaze me how a secular textbook about philosophy can often say truer things about spiritual, even Christian, life than books that are dedicated to the subject. The passage I am quoting here is not exactly of this sort, but it is still very illuminating. As Qoheleth says, “What was will be again; what has been done will be done again; and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 JB).

The passage reminds me of modern day conditions so much. I only wish we had someone like Socrates to add to today’s mix. I guess it’s up to each of us to be, perhaps not Socrates, but at least (as Jesus says) “the salt of the earth” (cf. Matthew 5:13), and as Martin Luther commented, “what is the good of salt if it does not bite?” I entitle this excerpt, Socrates and the Sophists.

Some of the Sophists were quick to point out that laws, in the legal sense, were human contrivances, frequently enacted in the interest of influential groups. They were not absolute things which represented absolute values, good for all men at all times. If this was true in the legal sense of the term, it might also apply to moral law. In short, some of the Sophists became complete individualists in their interpretation of laws, legal and moral. What men call justice may be merely a fiction to serve the interests of those in power. Even if there were such things as absolute justice and virtue and goodness, how should we ever be able to determine what they are? A thorough skepticism about man’s ability to answer such questions as these led many of the Sophists to reject any notion of absolute morality. Each man alone was to be the measure of what was and what was not good. Likewise, in metaphysics, each man was to be the measure of what was and what was not real, for why should any one man’s interpretation of such matters be any better than another’s? All this suggests some kind of intellectual and moral anarchy.

The threat to Greek life posed by the Sophists was far-reaching. Had they been content to challenge the metaphysical views of certain of their predecessors, it would not have been serious, for then new views might have been suggested in their place; but the Sophists challenged the very foundation of knowledge, even denying the possibility of knowing truth. When this is done the universe must remain a mystery to man, and, more important still, sincerity, integrity, honor, and all the other virtues that hold human society together are in danger of being undermined. How were these critics of the status quo to be answered? There was one man among the Greeks during the 5th century B.C. who, while not concerned with defending authority itself, was able and willing to attack the Sophists in the intellectual arena. That man was Socrates. He was the first Athenian philosopher of note, and his chief interest was in opposing relativism in ethics.

Like Jesus, Socrates wrote nothing, as far as we know. His personal impact was such that, again as with Jesus, many turned against him in bitter anger and eventually brought him to his death, while many others experienced a kind of “conversion” which made them look to him in memory as the greatest man they had known. He was a strange man, first of all in his personal appearance. He had a snub nose and strangely protruding eyes. His gait was peculiar, being likened to that of a waterfowl. He was compared in appearance to a silenus or a satyr. He always went barefoot. But far more striking than his physical appearance was his personality. In no sense was he an ordinary man, although he did marry and have children. He gave up his family profession of statue-making and spent his time in discussion, regarding it as his divine mission to seek for truth.

…He was admired by other men for his disregard of hardship, his self-control, and his ability to refrain from the use of wine, or, when joining in the drinking, to remain sober. But these personal characteristics are still not the basis of Socrates’ great reputation, even while they helped build it and manage to give some sense of the kind of man he was. More importantly, he has been designated a prophet and rationalist. He called men of his day to inner change, a kind of conversion to righteousness, and so reminds us of the great Hebrew prophets. In addition, he advised all men to follow reason, for it is reason that leads to truth and one must live by truth if he is to live well.

The Western Heritage of Faith and Reason, pp. 264-267.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Fasting is never a form of self-punishment.
Fasting is never a way to build our heavenly bank account.
Fasting is an act of worship, giving back what we always knew
never really belonged to us, so that God can bestow on us
something greater, Himself.
Fasting is an act of hospitality, cleaning out, emptying some organ or attribute of us, so that God can have more room during His visit.
Fasting is always a deliberate spending, even wasting, of our lives
on the slim chance that we might buy the world for God.
Fasting is always an act of abandonment, even of desertion,
of what we thought or have been told was our post or position in life,
in the hope that we will be proven wrong after all,
and find that God alone was right.
Fasting has little to do with food, but we do sometimes forget to eat while we're doing it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Orthodoxy is knowing that love has entered the world in the man Jesus Christ, and living in that love no matter where it takes us.

He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.
Matthew 10:37-39 NKJV

Orthodoxy is knowing that faith is not belief, but trust so certain that we know there is no loss with Jesus, and are fearless to do whatever He asks. It is knowing that obedience is love and draws us into the very life of God, where Father, Son and Holy Spirit all live together with us in one house. It is seeing with unveiled faces Him whom the world cannot see even through a veil. Yes, Orthodoxy is knowing that Love has entered the world and remains here among us, as long as we obey His teaching, no matter where it takes us.

I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him." Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?" Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
John 14:12-23 NIV

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ikon of the Holy Triad

Andrey Rublev's ikon of the Holy Triad

Very soon I will be publishing in a special blog, Ikonostasis, downloadable images of Orthodox ikons that I have been collecting for more than twenty years from the weekly bulletins of my home parish, Aghía Triás (Holy Trinity), now the Greek Orthodox cathedral of Portland, Oregon. There are probably eight hundred ikons in all, of all subjects. This is something I've always meant to do, but now I have a reason: I want new Orthodox nations and interested non-Orthodox to have access to this material, because like the divine liturgy, ikons are the common inheritance of all followers of Jesus.

In this post, I want to publish a bit of commentary on a very special ikon, that of the Holy Trinity, or as the Greek has it, the Holy Triad. There is one depiction of God in Three Persons which has been common in Western art, and has even burrowed its way into Eastern Orthodoxy, but which is not in accord with the mind of the Church, which is in turn the mind of Christ as revealed in scripture. This is the depiction of the Trinity as "an old man and a young man seated on thrones, and a dove in the air between them." Though Western art can portray God in this way, for the Orthodox it is unbiblical and therefore not admissible as an icon. This is not mere fussyness, but faithfulness to the truth, in contrast to human sentiment.

The Russian Orthodox Church (synod of Moscow, 1667) framed the canon regulating the depiction of the Holy Triad in ikonography:

It is most absurd and improper to depict in icons the Lord Sabaoth (that is to say, God the Father) with a grey beard and the Only-Begotten Son in His bosom with a dove between them, because no-one has seen the Father according to His Divinity, and the Father has no flesh, nor was the Son born in the flesh from the Father before the ages. And though David the prophet says, "From the womb before the morning star have I begotten Thee" (Ps.109:3), that birth was not fleshly, but unspeakable and incomprehensible. For Christ Himself says in the holy Gospel, "No man hath seen the Father, save the Son" (cf. John 6:46). And Isaiah the prophet says in his fortieth chapter: "To whom have ye likened the Lord? and with what likeness have ye made a similitude of Him? Has not the artificier of wood made an image, or the goldsmiths, having melted gold, gilt it over, and made it a similitude?" (Isaiah 40:18-19). In like manner the Apostle Paul says (Acts 17:29), "Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art of man's imagination." And John Damascene says: "But furthermore, who can make a similitude of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed and undepictable God? It is, then, uttermost insanity and impiety to give a form to the Godhead" (Orthodox Faith, 4:16). In like manner St. Gregory the Dialogist prohibits this. For this reason we should only form an understanding in the mind of Sabaoth, which is the Godhead, and of that birth before the ages of the Only-Begotten Son from the Father, but we should never, in any wise depict these in icons, for this, indeed, is impossible. And the Holy Spirit is not in essence a dove, but in essence he is God, and "No man hath seen God", as John the Theologian and Evangelist bears witness (John 1:18) and this is so even though, at the Jordan at Christ's holy Baptism the Holy Spirit appeared in the likeness of a dove. For this reason, it is fitting on this occasion only to depict the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove. But in any other place those who have intelligence will not depict the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove. For on Mount Tabor, He appeared as a cloud and, at another time, in other ways. Furthermore, Sabaoth is the name not only of the Father, but of the Holy Trinity. According to Dionysios the Areopagite, Lord Sabaoth, translated from the Jewish tongue, means "Lord of Hosts". This Lord of Hosts is the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And although Daniel the prophet says that he beheld the Ancient of Days sitting on a throne, this should not be understood to refer to the Father, but to the Son, Who at His second coming will judge every nation at the dreadful Judgment.

The fact is, many Orthodox churches still retain pictures of the Holy Triad in this unbiblical format, two seated men and a bird. All that this demonstrates is that Orthodoxy makes do with what is available. Many churches were built in a day when authentic ikons were not available, and they have never replaced them.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Nice people or new men

The title of this post is a well-known phrase to readers of C. S. Lewis, as it is a chapter in his book, Mere Christianity. At the end of this post is a comment I left on the blog whence my previous post Even now the axe… was taken.

They're worried about bad interpersonal behaviors among their ministry team members, apparently not a big issue to them, but just a minor detail that they think they can correct by exercising a little more self-discipline. While I don't disagree with that idea, it was clear to me that this group needs much more help than they can supply themselves. They are dealing in symptoms, but if they or anyone want to get to the root of the matter, one must use the axe of holy scripture to get at that root of sin and cut it out.

The classic Catholic/Protestant debate, indeed what got the crack in Western Christendom started, was the issue of how does one become a new creature, that is, how is one saved, and what does that salvation mean in daily life?

Catholicism was for confessing our total depravity, throwing ourselves in complete abandon upon God's mercy, and through a complex system of sacraments, pilgrimages, confessions, penances, and the excess merits of saints applied to one's load of sin, to escape hellfire and damnation. On earth, meanwhile, since people are sinners, they can more or less live as they always have, sinful, rebellious, greedy, lustful—in a word, barbaric—because if they play the game right and follow all the rules, their complete abandonment to God's mercy will save them.

Protestantism was for confessing our total depravity, throwing ourselves in complete abandon upon God's mercy, and through the possession of the correct doctrine of grace and works, by being one of the elect, and by prospering through industry and thrift, to escape hellfire and damnation. On earth, meanwhile, since people are sinners, they can more or less live as they always have, sinful, rebellious, greedy, lustful—in a word, barbaric—because if they play the game right and follow all the rules, their complete abandonment to God's mercy will save them.

Wait a minute! What's so different about these two views of salvation that would've caused a split?

Essentially the views are the same and differ only in minor details. This was noticed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer among others. He called both systems, "cheap grace."

Today, because church members and leaders are alike so unfamiliar with the bible except in knowing how to quote it to bolster their opinions and practices, we have situations like the one that prompted my post about the axe. Even after reading the testimony given there, it's as if nothing was testified and nothing heard. Instead, the discussion was diverted to a philosophical point, just as Photiní diverted attention from her sin when Jesus uncovered it, and posed a question about temple worship, thus diverting attention from the fact that she was wanton.

Listen! From the Lord's viewpoint, there's nothing immodest about looking closely at our sins, since He already knows everything about us, and because He is only looking at them closely as a doctor examines a diseased organ closely because his aim is to heal it.

Back to the original discussion, bad interpersonal behaviors, minor perhaps, but still annoying and unproductive.

The group is challenged to try to behave better. To justify what they are doing to remedy this situation from the bible, one of the team members bolsters their approach by quoting in full James 3:3-12, the passage about the evils of the tongue, overlooking completely the evangelical reason for this phenomenon. Jesus Himself says, "The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him" (Matthew 12:35 NIV).

So I wrote back once more, asking…

What is going on here? Are you trying to be nice guys, or have you abandoned everything to become new men and women?

Reality cannot be chunked into tiny splinters, as you guys seem to be doing, and worked on, one splinter at a time. The fact is, it is not we, or rather you, who are to work on it, the problem of too casual, snappish, disrespectful, swaggering attitudes among yourselves. If you try with this approach, you will fail, because at best you will be nice. That splinter of reality will have gotten so polished, it may blind you to the fact that the plank is still there, as horny and rough as ever.

Do you know any people who live in the Word of God, who have made it their home, in such a manner that they don't even have to carry the book around with them everywhere (though they often do), and who don't think in terms of improving their behavior or self-image, because their trust in so unshakably in the truth of the Word, in Jesus, that they are content to just follow Him in everything, not looking at themselves or others (hence, not judging), but only at Jesus, who is the author and finisher?

These people are around in the Body of Christ, but not always in church, that is, they may be church members but their real life is lived in that hidden place, where the Father alone sees them, and their actions, speaking louder than words, are sometimes overlooked by others, because they do not preach themselves, but Christ.

When we are seeking Christ in everything, we notice these people, and little by little we join their number until we too "do good and disappear."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Always Seeing Him

"…in the midst of the cloudy stormy morning—Bright Day…"

This has to be a song… At least to me these verses written by a young Christian brother in Indonesia resonate within my spirit like holy chant where divine scripture fills every word.

How wonderful it is when our eyes always set on Him and closely follow behind Him!
and by...

always seeing Him, we see the assurance of our faith and the radiant hope glows so brightly,
always seeing Him, we are transformed to be like Himself,

always seeing Him, we are realizing the vanity of earthly wealth
and glory,
always seeing Him, we are convinced that there is no power
nor anything can separate Him from us,
always seeing Him, we come to know that no other Beauty and Power can compare to His,

always seeing Him, we then be enabled to chant
in the midst of the cloudy stormy morning—Bright Day,
always seeing Him, we have the courage to cross the river in the darkest night,

always seeing Him, we are cheerful sheep among the foxes
'cause we trust and know Who is guarding us,
always seeing Him, we come healed, saved and alive,
because He is Risen,
always seeing Him, we encounter Most High God and our beloved neighbor
since He is perfect man and Perfect God,

always seeing Him, we joyfully follow Him through the narrow way
and bearing our lovely crosses go up to Golgotha…

— Yudi Kristanto

And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred.
Mark 4:8 KJV

At that time Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children."
Matthew 11:25 NIV

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Even now the axe…

An evangelical pastor challenged his congregation's lead team to get re-focused on the things that come out of our mouths. One of the team members writes,

"We’re trying to refrain from all of the following, between now and midnight, Friday:

Negativity (that is not needed to express a valid point)
Bitterness about another person or a negative circumstance (like someone who does something “stupid” or an electronic device that won't do what you want it to)
Joking around and busting
Talking to someone with malicious intent about someone else
Rolling of the eyes when someone’s name is mentioned."

I was surprised that anyone would try to approach these problems in this way, by using a challenge to exact better behavior.
After all, aren't these Christians?
Aren't these people who should know that it is not in the power of our meager and weak wills to raise ourselves?
Aren't these people who should know that it is by grace that we are saved, by faith, and not by works of the law?

Wait a minute! All they're trying to do is behave more like Christians should. What's wrong with that? And why shouldn't they try?

By all means try. To try to behave in a Christian manner is commendable, but who gets the credit if you succeed?
Divine scripture says through holy apostle Paul, "not by works, lest any man should boast." I don't have to quote scriptures to you.
These are well-known, uncontested truths, or are they?

Back to my question, "who gets the credit if you succeed?"
Not to be a spoil sport or a pessimist, let me assure you that on your own you will not succeed. You may "branch out and flower for a time" as the Psalms say of the wicked, but in the end you will fail. If this were not so, then Christ died in vain. If we could be "good" on our own, then there is no reason for Christ to die for us, no need for His righteousness to cover us.

This is what I wrote to the team member as a comment on his blog (forgive me if I seem to repeat myself):

All of your efforts will come to nothing in the end, unless you submit yourselves to the truth of God's Word, which says, "What comes out of a man is taken from what he puts inside himself."

Practical application—
Rather than try to focus on and cure the symptoms,
go for the root, and axe it.

And how do you do that?

By filling up on the Word of God, not on television;
on the Word of God, not on the internet;
on the Word of God, not on computer games;
on the Word of God, not on newspapers and magazines;
on the Word of God, not on the contents of your iPod;
on the Word of God, not on the latest Christian books;
on the Word of God, not on rumors;
on the Word of God, not on hanging out with your friends.

Do you see a connecting idea in my example of practical application above?

The downfall of the churches as assemblies of God's people, and of the people themselves as individuals, comes from the utter lack of respect for and immersion in the Word of God, i.e., the Holy Bible.

Read the Word of God every day, throughout the day, fill yourselves with it, rather than filling yourselves up on that which cannot last and which divides and slays the spirit.

Remember, it is not just money that Jesus is talking about when He says, "You cannot serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or love the one and treat the other with scorn. You cannot serve both God and Mammon." The bottom line on Mammon is that it is anything that diverts your attention, unlawfully, from the Word of God.

Again I say to you, don't just try to cure the symptoms, strike at the root of worldly attitudes in yourselves by using the axe of the Word of God. Christ has already used it to fell the world tree of death. Now He has given it to you to do the same in yourselves.

"Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees…"

Glory to You, O God, glory to You!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Nobody is listening

There are various reasons for blogging. Originally, mine was to share some experiences with others about witnessing for Christ. Over the three years or so that I’ve been writing on line, my topics have ranged far and wide. The title of my blog came from my favorite spiritual book other than the bible itself, and in a very general sort of way, I have tried to stay with discipleship as a theme.

I confess, though, that I have also used my blog to vent my frustrations with Church. That in itself is enough to get me blacklisted and abandoned by all. Yet I still have a few friends who still visit, and some who even comment from time to time.

I never wanted my blog to be a flag advertising my opinions or to draw attention to myself, and thankfully, at least the latter hasn’t happened. For me, the best effect my blog has had, is that through it I have met many brethren who are faithful followers of Christ. If that’s all it has accomplished, I am satisfied, but I hope that among the anonymous visitors here, some have been helped in some way, and not hindered.

Lastly, I sincerely apologize and ask forgiveness of anyone whom I may have offended.

The question presented itself to me again, why should I blog, why should I express what the Lord has put on my heart to say, since in all likelihood nobody is listening?

One can get that impression from seeing how few comment, but that impression is unreliable. Most people reading blogs don’t comment on them, unless the topics are inflammatory or provocative. I never intended my blog to be such, so why expect lots of comments?
In fact, though my posts are often lengthy, myself I have little patience to read lengthy posts written by others. Hence I try to keep it short. Well, my friends, you have seen the results.

The complaint that nobody is listening should never stop anyone from blogging, or speaking, or doing anything for Christ, if He has supplied you. The fact is, this kind of thinking is the same as that of people who once criticized Brock and me for doing unprofitable work when we went downtown and read the gospels out loud in public.

They said, “what good does that do? Nobody is listening. It doesn’t bring a return.”

This way of thinking is man-centered, results-oriented. It is not for any of us to judge this way, but for God alone. What is ours is to plant the seed and believe on God’s promise to give the increase. If we prevent ourselves from planting seed, whatever form that seeding takes, then we have also kept back part of the money, figuratively speaking, that we received for the sale of our land, as Annas and Sapphira did. Only in our case, it was not mere money, but life itself, that we have withheld—and lives that can be saved by Christ only if those whom He has sent go forth and bring the good news.

I write this to encourage all who have been given the gift of faith coupled with knowledge of the truth of God, personal knowledge not mere book-learning, and joined to the gift of speech, to not withhold themselves from thus testifying, witnessing for Christ, even in so lowly a way as blogging. When God speaks to you, it is not only for yourself. Sometimes it is, but often it is for others. We cannot know what use the Lord has planned for our humble words, spoken or written in Him.

It is a wonder that anyone should hear the Word of God speaking to him, but if he does, how can he hold back from announcing it to others?

Can two walk together, except they be agreed?
Will a lion roar in the forest, when he hath no prey?
Will a young lion cry out of his den, if he have taken nothing?
Can a bird fall in a snare upon the earth, where no gin is for him?
Shall one take up a snare from the earth,
and have taken nothing at all?
Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid?
Shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?
Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets. The lion hath roared, who will not fear?
The Lord GOD hath spoken, who can but prophesy?
Amos 3:3-8 KJV

I write as an Orthodox Christian, but what some of you may have suspected is true—I am actually a Baptist, of the same following as John the honorable forerunner. It took a child to teach me that living in my own tomb would only result in me dying there, when the Lord of life had been calling me to come forth and live. Though we are unprofitable servants, unworthy followers of the Lord of all, He has entrusted us with a real mission. Let’s not leave it lying at our feet, but pick it up, and carry it abroad, and speak the Word that He puts in our mouths, write it if He has given us the words, even if nobody is listening.

“Do two men take the road together…?
…the lion roars, who can not be afraid…?”

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Just preach Christ

The Orthodox Christian does not proselytize; he evangelizes.
He does not preach Church,
he preaches Christ.
In this he follows His Master, who in the gospels does not seek converts, but seeks that which is lost.

Never do we find that Jesus in His earthly ministry went after people. Never do we see Him arguing a philosophical point to win over an opponent. Never does He proselytize, but He does have words for those who do.

Οὐαὶ ὑμῖν, γραμματεῖς καὶ Φαρισαῖοι ὑποκριταί, ὅτι περιάγετε τὴν θάλασσαν καὶ τὴν ξηρὰν ποιῆσαι ἕνα προσήλυτον, καὶ ὅταν γένηται, ποιεῖτε αὐτὸν υἱὸν γεέννης διπλότερον ὑμῶν.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:25 NIV)

What do we find instead? Two disciples of a Jewish prophet, John the Forerunner, are directed by him, pointing to Jesus walking by and saying, “That is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

What did the two disciples do? They followed after Jesus. Why? Because they believed the word of the prophet. How did they approach Jesus? They asked, “Rabbi, where do you live?” How does Jesus respond? He says, “Come, and see!”

The encounter with the Truth is gentle. There is no compulsion exerted from the outside. Everything is accomplished inwardly. All movement is internal first, in the heart. Then, it is manifested by the feet, running after the Lord.

This is why the Orthodox Christian does not argue semantically to win over an opponent. He does not preach Apollos. He doesn’t preach Paul. He doesn’t preach himself. No, he preaches Christ, and Him crucified, and risen from the dead.

People want to draw us into arguments, wrangling over words, but it is precisely this tactic that the evil one used when he wanted to entrap Christ. To every argument, Jesus responded not with human reason, but with the plain words of scripture.

The Word of God does not need to defend Himself.
He simply is what He is.

In the same way, brethren, all who follow Jesus, all who believe and stand on the Word, who preach, like the angel of the last days, the eternal gospel, just preach Christ, to yourself by submitting all your thoughts to the Word of God, to others by proving on the battlefield of your body that you follow Christ the Victor over sin, and to all those whom the Lord places in your path by your courtesy and generosity, and by always having a spirit of welcome, for men have welcomed angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Worship is dangerous

I can't believe that I found this essay, quite by accident, but what the author writes really speaks to me and defines very well how I feel about worship, what I think worship is, in the context of liturgy, or what goes on in church. It is because I feel this way, or rather because I know these things to be true, that I am disappointed with the kinds of things I see going on in my own home parish of Aghía Triás, and in other churches that I have visited, looking for a place to worship. Thank God that in at least some Orthodox churches, the Divine Liturgy still conforms to worship as described in the following essay, which I found here.
(The accompanying images are not from Aghía Triás, but from other Orthodox communities throughout the world.)

Leviticus 10: The prohibition against drinking alcohol prior to divine services (verse 8) immediately follows the tragic account of Nadab and Abihu (verses 1-7), a fact suggesting that these two priests may have been intoxicated when they undertook the unauthorized liturgical rite that cost them their lives.

In any case this latter incident discloses the danger inherent in divine worship. This probably needs to be emphasized, because some of those who drive off to church each Sunday morning seem not to be aware that they are placing their very souls in peril. (Otherwise they would be dressed with modesty and dignity, arrive on time, stay until the service is over, and avoid distraction and gossip while they are in church. Indeed, sometimes the behavior of the clergy up in the sanctuary is even worse.)

Worship, after all, is encounter with God, and God is anything but safe.

Throughout Holy Scripture, therefore, we find the theme of danger with respect to the things of God, particularly the rites and appointments associated with the divine worship. Nowhere in Holy Scripture is worship portrayed as completely safe.

In this sense biblical worship is nearly the opposite of “seeker friendly,” the adjective describing worship along lines dictated by the religious tastes of the uninitiated, worldly, unrepentant, and spiritually immature folks who are likely to drop in at church on Sunday morning.

Those that would draw near to God must resolve to feel uncomfortable (very much like Moses, when he was commanded to take off his shoes at the burning bush), at least until they become accustomed to the discipline of the worship.

The experience of the holiness of the true God is not native to man (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27-32; Hebrews 12:28-29).

These reflections pertain with special intensity to those charged with the oversight of divine worship, the stewards who safeguard the sacred mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1-5; 6:9-11; Revelation 22:14-15).

It is instructive to observe that St. Paul warns such men (for Holy Scripture never envisions women in this ministry) especially against the evils attendant on the drinking of alcohol (1 Timothy 3:3; 2 Timothy 4:5).

This is to me what Orthodox worship is—biblical worship—and why I firmly believe that it is the heritage of all followers of Jesus. If we are to worship God in communal assembly at all, it is in the Divine Liturgy, which has been handed over to us as the heritage of the saints. Anything else that we do "at church" can take any number of forms as needed, and as really necessary (not just to make pious busy-work). But worship is something that God thought was important enough to lay out for us, at first in the Torah for His original hereditary people Yisrael, and then with the coming of His Son, in the Divine Liturgy of the new Israel, the Church. That is one thing that "Orthodox" means—straight worship—and there it stands as it has stood for centuries.

Jesus, Uninterrupted

It’s strange how once people have decided that they have pigeonholed you, they then proceed to build a relationship on the phantom they have created, with what is merely a figment of their imagination. So it is with my boss, whom I have known and worked with since I was twenty-nine years old and he was twenty-five. It’s a wonder that people can know someone for decades, and yet not even begin to know them. I hope I know him better than he knows me. He certainly has given me the opportunity to see his actions and hear his opinions these nearly thirty years. When you're the boss, you think you can say anything. But when you know Who is really in charge, you dare to say anything (that He gives you to say).

Unbelievers and skeptics abound, and as scripture says, some of them are "like shooting stars bound for an eternity of black darkness" (Jude, 1:13 Jerusalem Bible). That sounds like the description of a comet that makes its turn around the sun from outer space and then heads back out to the deeps, never to be seen again. Who says the ancients didn't understand a thing or two about natural science?

Some of these are caught between unbelief and the itch to believe, calling themselves agnostics. That's my boss, for you. Like a comet with a very long elliptical orbit, he comes close and wanders far in wanting to know the truth, but it seems he never dares more than take a brief peek.

Often he's on his way to the outer darkness, but he still wants the approval of idiots like me, a detestable but economically viable Christian, and so he tries to reconnect on what he thinks is some commonality between us. Usually it's some book he's been reading about history, anthropology, or religion. He thinks those are my interests. That's the pigeonholing I mentioned earlier. I oblige him, and listen to his banter with as much interest and sympathy as I can muster. You never know where the Lord is going to open a door…

Lately, he's been reading the book Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them), a book by Bart D. Ehrman, a New Testament scholar at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On a couple of occasions he has kept me on after a meeting, to tell me all the interesting things he's finding out about the origins of Christianity in this book—things he's always suspected were true, but now he thinks he has the evidence. Being a moral person, of course he considers it his duty to share these discoveries with me, a benighted Orthodox—in some ways the best, in other ways the worst kind of Christian.

I've taken a look, not at the book itself, but at the Wikipedia article about it, linked above under the book's title. I've also found some interesting book reviews, like the one from which I'd like to quote this brief passage.

In a series of dramatic revelations for the ignorant (the very definition of a hardcover best-seller, I’d say), Ehrman notes that there have been a lot of changes to the Bible in the past 2,000 years. I don't want to come between Mr. Ehrman and his payday, but this point has been made much more eloquently by, among others, Benson Bobrick in his wonderful Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired. [This book] has much of the same information as Misquoting Jesus, minus the idiocy.

—Alex Beam, “The new profits of Christianity”, The Boston Globe, April 12, 2006.
Now, I would never call my boss ignorant, but this reviewer does call a spade a spade when he describes at least some readers of this book in those terms, as he points out that little if anything new was presented in Jesus, Interrupted that hasn't already been presented to public scrutiny elsewhere.

My response to the claims put forward by my boss about what went on in the early Church falls into two categories: Some things he has read are correct, other things he has read are disastrously wrong. The author of the book he's reading is not above suspicion of slanted historiography. But this is too complex an idea for one, who wants to believe the unbelievable, to digest. On moral issues of his choice, he asserts there is a lot of gray area. On speculative issues like this, gray is not a possibility; everything is either black or white, all true or all false.

What a bother it all is! As scripture says, "be warned that writing books involves endless hard work," (Ecclesiastes 12:12), and this, as everything else, says the wise author "is vanity" (ibid., 1:2).

Why is this? Because, as the same author says, "there is nothing new under the sun. Take anything of which it may be said, 'Look now, this is new.' Already, long before our time, it existed. Only no memory remains…" (ibid., 1:9-11).

Now, this is all I have to say about the book, even the very idea of, Jesus, Interrupted—as if such a thing were even possible! What I do assert, however, is a completely different proposition.

Jesus, uninterrupted.

Do I have to write a book to prove this proposition?
I think not. It's already been amply documented in The Book I Didn't Write, A History of the Life of the Most Active Man the World Has Ever Seen, From Its Beginning to Its End. How's that for a title?
It reminds me of the title of a book I have in my personal library written by the great non-conformist Greek Orthodox philosopher Apóstolos Makrákis, Triluminal Science, Surveying the Universe and Explaining Everything (ISBN 9780938366188). Not too pretentious, eh?

Seriously, how futile the attempt to refute in one short book what is written abroad in the history of the world, the real world in which lives the real Christ in His real Church, an uninterrupted life, both of the Risen Christ (it's not just a slogan, cf. John chs. 20-21), and of the Everlasting Gospel (cf. Revelation 14:6) in the Church against which the gates of hell will not prevail (cf. Matthew 16:18). We are not here talking about the claims of Roman Catholicism, nor of any other mimic of the Truth, but rather of That "which has existed from the beginning, that we have heard, and we have seen with our own eyes; that we have watched and touched with our hands: the Word, Who is Life…" (1 John 1:1 Jerusalem Bible).

Yes, this and no other, is the reality:
Jesus, uninterrupted.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The audacity of love

Bishop Theophan the Recluse used to say that praying only with words written by another is like trying to talk in a foreign language using only textbook dialogues. Like many other church fathers, he said that we must look for our own words in order to pray. I suppose that this is truly possible for us (if we dismiss artificially invented prayers of our own) only in moments of desperate need, real anguish, either for ourselves or for others. In such moments we do not "recite" prayers, we simply cry out to God, "Lord! Please come to him and comfort him!" The audacity of prayer is born only in the audacity of love.

Abba Makarios said, "Love gives birth to prayer."

—Sergei Fudel, Light in the Darkness, p. 50.

Worship the Father in Spirit and Truth

In His conversation with the woman of Samaria, whom the Greeks name Photiní, the enlightened, our Lord Jesus Christ revealed what is important, or rather, what is more than important—what is essential—to the Father as regards worship.

When the Lord demonstrated to Photiní that He knew everything about her, she quickly and abruptly tried to change the subject, to draw attention away from her sins, and thought to start up a philosophical discussion with him.

“Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, while you say that Jerusalem is the place where we ought to worship.” The Samaritans had an alternate temple on Mount Gerizim to rival the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. There can be only One temple.

She may have diverted attention from an issue that loomed large in her consciousness to one that seemed trivial in comparison, but in so doing she opened a door for Jesus to address an issue far greater than her personal sin.

“Believe Me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know; for salvation comes from the Jews.

“But the hour will come—in fact, it is here already—when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.”

Here is Jesus, Y’hoshua ben Yossef, whom some called Rabbi, Himself a practicing Jew who honored the temple, calling it His Father’s House, who paid the temple tax, who instructed those whom He healed to follow the regulations outlined in Torah for their restitution to normal Jewish life…

Here is Jesus, a Jew, and many even think a Jew of the Pharisee denomination, talking to a mixed up woman of a mixed up, unorthodox sect, the Samaritans, who could not even get the Torah written correctly and had superstitious beliefs…

Here is Jesus, telling us that whether we worship with the Orthodox, or whether we worship with the non-Orthodox, that does not matter to God, His Father, to whom only one kind of worshipper is acceptable.

“…true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.”

This kind of worshipper apparently is not qualified by the location of worship, nor by the institutional aspect of it, “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem,” and yet one thing remains certain, “we worship what we do know; for salvation comes from the Jews.”

What is this worship that our Lord is talking about? What does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth? There are many hints of it in the holy and divine scriptures. It is not for me to tell anyone what it is, but to point to where it can be found.

One place to start is with holy apostle Paul, who writes, “the God I worship spiritually by preaching the Good News of His Son…” (Romans 1:9 Jerusalem Bible) You see, worship is not just standing in a temple. Worship is also “preaching the Good News” of Jesus, who alone is the living One, and to believe in Whom is the very best work.

That, my friends and brethren,
is a good place to start on the road to find out.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The purpose of all doctrine

There is an excellent and brief post on Fr Stephen's blog Glory to God for All Things. It underscores the importance that the experience of God has for the Christian. I will explain no further, but only provide a short quotation which spoke volumes to me, and leave it to you, dear brethren, to continue if you wish and read his whole thought, called We Have Seen. This, I testify again, is true Orthodoxy. This is what is waiting for all followers of Jesus, if they have not yet reached it.

The safeguarding of saving knowledge (true participation in the life of God) is the purpose of all doctrine. Every dogmatic statement of the Church has as its sole purpose the safeguarding of true participation in the life of God. Dogma is not an argument over ideas, but a statement that guards the Apostolic witness (which is living and true).

There is also a wonderful story from the Desert Fathers at the end of his post which I will not spoil by retelling it—it too is short, to the point, and memorable, and will no doubt join your personal library of anecdotes. I would call this story The Rabbit Chase.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Two uniques, and a third

Not sure of how this post is going to end up, but fairly certain of three things I want to say, hopefully I won’t reveal too little or too much. There are two absolute uniques in my life, and many more that are not quite absolute, but almost. Unique is the person of Jesus Christ, as the Son of God in the Holy Triad, as living Truth, Teacher, and Savior. Unique is the Bible as the only expression of the Word of God on earth. There are my two absolute uniques, from which I cannot budge. Of course, in a mystery, they are really One unique.

From the time of my adolescence, I was driven to find or make something that was unique, that was true, that could save me. Though I am Greek by faith and even by culture, my family is Polish on both sides, and at least nominally Roman Catholic. I am the only Orthodox member of it.

I grew up in a dysfunctional family with an obsessively religious mother (who nevertheless did not believe in the Catholic church and never attended until she did in her casket at death), and a philosophically leaning non-religious father. His mother tried to make a Catholic out of him, but his skepticism about churchly things was the result of being snagged by the ear and pulled out of a private pew at Saint Hedwig’s parish in Chicago by a priest. He made his mother join a different parish, because he would never set foot in that church again.

We had a bible in the house, a King James version in a dusty, beige cloth cover. The pages were yellow and brittle, the font in two columns too small to read, and the language too archaic to understand. I knew there was something special about this book, but I never saw anyone reading it, or even try to, until I picked it up and tried. Discouraged as a child, I picked it up later and started studying it when I entered high school. It was still mostly unintelligible, but by then I knew I had to have something unique and powerful that I could believe in. I worked my way through Genesis to Proverbs, then skipped over to the Gospels.

In the ninth grade, I began copying sayings from that bible that made sense to me into a notebook, numbered them, and began writing, or at least gathering, my first “scriptures.” At that point, I didn’t think of the bible as unique, but as one of many sources from which I could draw saving knowledge. This mistake came from the fact that my family stopped going to church when I was 8 years old, and from that point on, I was on my own, with whatever tidbits of Polish catholic piety I had absorbed. Truth seemed to be wherever I could find it. Church was a mysterious, dark and fragrant place lodged in my memory.

Little by little the notebook grew, but after doing this for awhile, I gave it up. It was obvious to me that my “scripture” was just a notebook of ideals that I wasn’t able to live up to. I started delving into non-Christian religions and the occult, reading my way through the explosion of New Age literature that was emerging in the 1960’s. There wasn’t an area I didn’t explore. I even bought and read a paperback of the Satanic Bible by LaVey. “What trash!” I thought at the time. I never fell for it, but I was curious. Still, my older sister and my mother believed in the supernatural and E.S.P., and both claimed to have such gifts. I cautiously followed along, sometimes witnessing unexplainable things.

In college, I came into contact with Christian students and for the first time met people of my own age who believed in Jesus in a way I hadn’t encountered before. They seemed to think of Him as a unique person, one like no other. They also not only read the bible but had copies of it in modern English. I didn’t know such people or things existed. To me, Christ was a statue in my grandmother’s living room, His presence or protection over me was a plastic image of the Sacred Heart that had glow-in-the-dark rays coming out of it and hung on the wall above the light switch in my bedroom since I was a little boy. Of course, there was Blessed Mother, who was also a statue. The statues of Jesus and His Mother always had their hearts showing.

I still needed a guide, something that would save me, because now I knew that couldn’t be a person. In college and from reading New Age books, I had found out that Jesus was a good moral teacher, and that everybody was potentially, if not already, God. We were all just little gods trying to find our way back to being the big God. I couldn’t quite figure out what was to happen to us, though, when we got there. Would we really be merged into Him like a drop of water falls into the sea and disappears? Somehow, this thought seemed a bit too simple.

When you don’t recognize anything or anyone as unique,
my goodness, have you got a problem!

In college, and I won’t go into detail, I started writing again, and fadged up a book of “scriptures” far more original and sensational than my little notebook ever was. At the same time, though, I bought my first modern English bible, the New English Bible, and began reading it, starting with the Psalms. After a short time, I bought my first copy of the Jerusalem Bible, and that was the beginning of my conversion to Christ. Starting with the Old Testament, with Genesis, I met in literary form, a new Being, Yahweh, who began following me everywhere and making me see things in a new way. I was sure that He was a unique being, as well as a unique person. It wasn’t long before I was sure that the bible was also something unique.

I’ve given my testimony as to how I came to Christ in other places, so I won’t repeat it here, but my meditations this morning showed me all that I have just written in a flash, and how important, how crucial, it is to know that there are two uniques, Christ as the Only Begotten Son of God, and the Bible as the expression in human language of Who He is. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not leaving out God the Father, or God the Holy Spirit. When we speak of Jesus Christ being unique, we are also speaking of the Father and the Holy Spirit as well, since in essence, in being, the three are One, the Holy Triad. As Christ said, “If you have seen Me you have seen the Father,” and “I will send you another Comforter, who will tell you of Me.”

There, the two uniques, but what of a third? Well, to tell you the truth, there’s more than a third. There’s billions. Those uniques are you and me, and all our fellow creatures who have been created to know, to love and to praise God, as scripture says, “Let all that have breath, praise the Lord.” Made in the image and likeness of the One God, who is unique, more One than even a mathematical unity can express, how can we also, each of us, not be like our Maker? We also are unique. It is understanding this, that you and I are as unique as God is, and that Jesus Christ died for each of us as though we were the only man or woman on earth, that provides the answer for the question of our personal existence. Why are we here?

“You are here,” He responds, “because I am.”

Look for the good

These are sayings of a Serbian bishop which resonate in my heart, as they reflect the truths by which I have tried to live my life in Christ. They define for me what true Orthodoxy essentially is, not a doctrinal formulation or a rudder full of rubrics, but living in such a way that reveals Christ in you to others, and Christ in others to you.

Stop looking for that which is bad in your neighbors but rather find and love that which is good in them and you will save both them and yourselves.

You will save them since every man already believes in his own goodness, everyone likes and wants to be good, everyone feels that eternal and divine calling to perfection. One should, therefore, support others in this: believe in them and help them develop that which is good, which abides in them and which they ultimately respect in themselves, that they develop that inner goodness, that it be strengthened and that it bring them victory over evil… For, it is only that which is good in man that can be loved and it is only in love that one can live.

It is with this teaching that the Apostles set out into the world on this day [Pentecost].

—Bishop Hrizostom (Vojinović)

To read the whole from which these excerpts are taken, visit Fr Milovan's blog Again and Again, and read the post entitled Good in Every Man.

For readers not familiar with Orthodox language, when we say "you will save them" this does not mean that we personally save them—as a matter of fact we know that only Christ can save anyone—but we only do what we see Him doing: We try to love others as He does, and so help them to lay down their defenses, so He can save them.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

New Orthodox nations

“But when the Son of Man comes, will He find any faith on earth?”
Luke 18:8 Jerusalem Bible

I used to have a small sign pinned up in a hidden spot above my desk at work where only I could see it. It read, “Don’t give offense. Don’t take offense. Forgive everybody everything right away.”

This saying just came to me as I was doing my work helping to start a new company. My boss was a friendly tyrant, and I had accepted his offer to employ me again (I had worked for him before) on his solemn promise that he would behave himself this time round. Well, fifteen years have passed and I am still working for him, but he has had many slips in keeping that promise. Perhaps that’s why the Lord prepared me for what was to come by teaching me that saying.

Don’t give offense.
Don’t take offense.
Forgive everybody everything right away.

Just as my boss didn’t live up to his promise to behave, I also haven’t lived up to the standard set before me in this saying. We both have missed the mark. The good thing is, for me the saying still holds true, and I still practice it. It is a worthy saying.

Where did it ultimately come from?
Well, I think it’s a distillation of the teaching of Jesus on how we should act towards others. It is an aspect of right action, orthopraxía as we call it in Greek. It’s quite useless to pretend to be a Christian or especially an Orthodox disciple of Christ if right action (orthopraxía) doesn’t accompany right worship and right thinking (both contained in the term orthodoxía).

“Therefore, everyone who listens to these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on rock. Rain came down, floods rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall: it was founded on rock. But everyone who listens to these words of Mine and does not act on them will be like a stupid man who built his house on sand. Rain came down, floods rose, gales blew and struck that house, and it fell; and what a fall it had!”
Matthew 7:24-27 Jerusalem Bible

We live in a time period in which it is both easier than ever and harder than ever to live the Orthodox life, especially in what are traditionally non-Orthodox countries. I address this post to the brethren who belong to new Orthodox nations like East and West Africa, Indonesia, Korea, Japan and, yes, America too.

The traditional Orthodox nations, the Middle East, Greece and the Balkans, the Ukraine and Russia, have a long history, worthy of both praise and blame in the way they have lived and preserved their Orthodox faith. I needn’t go into detail on what is blameworthy, and to do so would only draw down on me the righteous indignation of those who see the Orthodox world as faultless and flawless.

We already know what is praiseworthy, because we have become the blessed recipients of the faith “once delivered to the saints” which they have handed over to us in these new lands. We have much to thank them for, and because of the love and respect we owe them, it is not for us to look backward and criticise. It is for us to make sure that what we have received is believed and lived in spirit and in truth, and that is my object, to draw attention to our position, and our responsibility.

What is this position? And what is this responsibility?
Our position—We are a minority population of ancient Christians dispersed throughout a modern (as they put it) post-Christian world.
Our responsibility—We have to live the life of faith and not just believe or agree with a set of doctrines.

Orthodoxy is the apostolic faith in an apostate age.
So what do we do?

The answer to this question is found in the words of Jesus quoted above, “…everyone who listens to these words of Mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on rock…”

And there is more.
Unlike people in former ages, we can read, and we also have the divine and holy scriptures to instruct and direct us. That’s what I meant when I wrote, it is easier than ever to live the Orthodox life. With these riches within our grasp, how can we let ourselves live in spiritual poverty? Must we wait for some calamity to sober us and make us come to our senses, that is, to become sensible people?
I hope not.

Now then, how is it harder than ever to live the Orthodox life, especially in what are traditionally non-Orthodox countries?

The temptation to hide our faith for political correctness, in order to get ahead, is very strong.
I marvel in my own Greek Orthodox community, how parents let their children slide so easily into the worldly life, the Christless life, and even encourage them to do so, thinking they are doing them a favor, helping them to be successful.

I marvel that they have forgotten what 400 years of Tourkokratía almost did to Greece, and that they do not recognize that we are living in America under the same Tourkokratía under other names. (By the way, revisionist historians are now saying that the 400 years of Turkish rule over the Greeks and other Christians was not all that bad, as this article demonstrates.)

For us Christians of the new Orthodox nations, Africans, Indonesians, East Asians and Americans, there is little or no bad blood or historical baggage coming to us as we unite ourselves to the ancient Church. We are not involved in nationalistic and sectarian antagonisms, but we can allow ourselves to be sucked into religious ghettos (or turned into religious museums) if we are not really following Jesus Christ.

Our opportunity to share the authentic good news—
Jesus Christ risen from the dead
is immense, but only if we listen to His words and act on them,
as the Lord Himself teaches.
This is not advice.
This is not optional.
He is the Truth, the Way, and the Life.
This is Orthodoxy.

A good shepherd

I have nothing of my own to say or write, but I would like to share this story about Elder Porphyrios (may his memory be eternal).
I found this on Maria Morrell's
blog and you can read the entire online book, Elder Porphyrios: Testimonies and Experiences, or just the chapter from which this excerpt was taken, Elder Porphyrios' conversations with Cypriots, at this link. Many people go seeking Orthodoxy or are drawn to it for the wrong reasons. This story shows, if we are willing to see, what the nature of true Orthodoxy is: not antiquity, ceremony, and dogmatic precision (though these are there), but love. Not our love for God, but His love for us, which He reveals through His servants who follow closely behind the Master. Now, the story…

It was a very beautiful spring afternoon. We reached Oropos with the usual manifest worry as to whether Elder Porphyrios was there, whether or not he was sick, if he would speak to us, if he was too tired from the many visitors on that day, etc.. We had these uneasy feelings every time we set off to visit him.

Arriving there, we found ourselves before a most unexpected scene. Glory to God! Elder Porphyrios was there. He was not in bed, but up and about. He was in good health. He was in a field (right next to the Convent that he later built), overseeing scores of people who had gone there voluntarily to plant different things in the field.
The scene was indescribably picturesque and biblical. The 'good shepherd' in the midst of his 'rational sheep'. The instructor of souls even demonstrating how tomatoes should be planted. So that everything would be as it should be, perfect.

Naturally, we didn't even consider approaching him to kiss his hand and to receive his blessing.

We stopped the car a good distance away from the area where the large number of people were working. We remained in the car and we tried to console one another and each person was saying: "It doesn't matter, nature is so pretty here and the afternoon is so beautiful. Let's enjoy it at least."

Half an hour went by, and I felt the need to get out of the car and take a little walk in the forest nearby. I was so grieved because I would not talk to the Elder that I wanted to be alone and maybe to cry a little. I wanted to speak with him so much and to get his advice about the enormous problems that then burdened me. Besides, I went to Greece only once or twice a year. Who knows how many months would go by before I would see him.

As I was walking the length of the forest, my friends who had taken me there in their car came running towards me. "Come on," they said to me, "the Elder is calling for you." "Me?" "Yes, he said to go up to him, he wants you." "You're joking?"

We had not told anyone that we were there. We didn't even speak to anyone from the time we arrived and parked the car here. No one took any notice of us because they were all so busy, and we were far away from them. The only way they could see us was with a telescope.

They practically dragged me to the Elder. I couldn't believe that Elder Porphyrios saw me. More importantly, he saw what was happening in my soul at that time.

I approached him. I kissed his hand, and he made me sit down next to him. He kept me near him for about an hour. He and I were talking while all the others around us were digging the ground and planting. This was happening to such an extent that I felt it was improper for me to receive preferential treatment. The others were killing themselves working and I was enjoying the seat of honour next to the Elder without my offering any help.

At that time I knew very little about Christ and I studied the New Testament very little. Only later, when I had been taught by Elder Porphyrios to study the New Testament and the Fathers of the Orthodox Faith, did I understand the meaning of his actions that day, "...and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3).

The Gospel according to St. Luke gave me the answer, "Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured saying, This man receives sinners and eats with them.' So He spoke this parable to them saying, 'What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he finds it, he lays it on his shoulders rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost! I say to you likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (Luke 15:1-7).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Light

A short but very excellent post, Over time [and not overnight] by our new brother in Indonesia, Yudhie, includes some very good thinking about sharing Christ with others, that is, about evangelism. He concluded his essay with a quote of Abba Barsanuphios which I posted as Sow in Hope. His words reminded me also of a saying of Abba Porphyrios which I posted as The secret of true evangelism. All these posts share in the same spirit, that which motivates us to witness Christ to our unbelieving neighbors.

As it so happened, right after reading Yudhie's post, I picked up my copy of Jesus Freaks II—Revolutionaries by dc Talk to read, and inside as a bookmark I found an old Christian comic that I really liked and saved. It also is about sharing the good news with others. I decided to scan the comic and post it here, in case any of my readers would like a copy. The seven frames of the comic can be downloaded to your computer by left clicking the mouse button to enlarge to image, and then right clicking and selecting "Save Picture As."
Here it is…

The crown of scripture

A Christian brother wrote,

I’m not saying we should stop new believers from reading the bible itself. But we’re so blessed to live in age when there are so many amazing resources available. We should certainly be discerning in what we choose. But it seems like we want people to use a microscope to analyze God’s word in tiny details when it’s equally important to give them a telescope to see the grand, vast, picture.

It's certainly wrong to study the bible as one studies a specimen under the microscope, except perhaps for bible scholars (if there really is such a thing). It's equally wrong to pretend to give people "the big picture" by not making them study at all but instead by entertaining them. Both these approaches to the written Word of God are ways to escape the main function of scripture, and that is, to bring us face to face with our sin, and with our Saviour.

We say we study the bible, but actually the bible is studying us. We may think we are rightly dividing the Word of God, but actually the Word of God is rightly dividing us. That is, if we let Him. (Jesus is the Word of God. The bible is His icon.) Rightly dividing us from our sin, from the world and all its pomp, and from the power of the evil one.

Back to the brother's statement that "we’re so blessed to live in age when there are so many amazing resources available," it's precisely this mistaken attitude about the technological "resources" available to us that has changed Christianity from a living faith and close walk with the Lord to a kind of dinner theatre about such a faith and walk.

We have become detached from the Word of God like a doomed fetus becomes detached from the uterus and then dies, which the mother may not discover for days, but which can kill her as well if it is not discovered in time. That mother is the Church, that fetus is the believers who do not live in the Word but only "watch a movie" about it and think they've "got it."

To live in the Word of God is to make the holy and God-breathed scriptures, the bible, our daily bread, our constant companion, our very home.

This means never being without it, physically, when possible, even if it's only a slim New Testament and Psalms tucked into a pocket.

This means rising in the morning with the Word on our lips, praying and thanking the Lord in the words of psalms and prophecies, not just five times a day as Muslims do, but all through the day (and night).

This means turning not to vain and sometimes vile entertainments (making excuses for the profanity in them), but turning to the bible for refreshment, for relaxation, for recreation.

No, you can play sports, go on hikes, collect stamps, read novels, write poetry, play the guitar, have an electric train set, or even a speedboat… but what’s on your mind, really?

I am not different from the rest. I often have to yank my attention back to where it belongs, visit the mansion that Christ my Lord and Saviour has prepared for me in His Father’s house. What? You thought He was talking about the heavenly mansion? Well, yes, of course, that one too. But the study of and meditation on the inspired words of the divine and holy scriptures, that is like a foyer leading into the heavenly mansion, and a foyer is part of the house, isn't it?

Paradox upon paradox, that the churches that claim most strongly to be centered on the bible have the most trouble cleaving to it, but find ever more numerous by-paths and supposed short-cuts to keep them off the One True Highway to Heaven—the Word of God.

Who is Max Lucado? A better question is, why is Max Lucado? And why all these dozens of “Christian” authors and their books? Isn’t the Word of God in the form of the bible enough for us? Isn’t the Holy Spirit here with us to help us understand it? But how can we hope to be disciples of the Lord, if we do not stay constantly at His side?
And how do we do this?

By “never letting the sacred volume out of our hand” as Jerome says.

Instead of expanding your facilities and upgrading your film stash and other technological enhancements, get back to the bible, teaching it, studying it, learning it by heart, worshipping with it, praying it, prophesying with it, evangelizing with it, healing with it, feeding on it and living in it.

There is no other divine scripture on earth, no other literature whose sum is greater than the total of its parts, no other book so alive that it doesn’t need to be enhanced with movies and computer games.

And we think that we can do better than the living God who provided this crown for us?