Friday, July 31, 2009

If we want to be Christians

The title of this post seems to be an absurd statement. How can anyone say, "If we want to be Christians…"? Aren't we Christians already? Isn't that what we are by being baptized, for believing in Jesus, for going to church services, and for trying to be helpful or at least friendly to the people around us? Well, maybe. But as I've sometimes said, "Wait! There is more…"

Fr Stephen has republished another post that he wrote a while back entitled Rightly Reading. I recommend this post to you, brethren, and you can read it by clicking here.

The following passage really caught my attention. It is so true…
Contrary to our popular self-conception, we are not a culture that values learning. We are a culture that values opinion, and opinion as entertainment (God save us from the pundits!). Dilettantism plagues us. If we want to be Christians, we must start with the small things and the practices that make for proper discipleship and “let not many of us become teachers.” Let many of us become those who pray, who fast, who repent, who forgive even their enemies and through the grace of God come to know the stillness within which God may be known.

No Time For God

I liked this Serbian Orthodox poster so well, that I inset the English translation provided, along with the poster itself, by Fr Milovan, and I am posting it here. For the original, click here. The resolution isn't too good, but the poster will zoom a bit larger if you click on it.

Looking at the poster again closely for the fifteenth time, I am simply struck by how typically Orthodox the mother's instructions are, especially the "…go immediately—now!" I have heard this most of my life, not only from mothers, but fathers and others as well. It's this "no nonsense, just do it" attitude that has sheared off for me the frills and thrills of false religion and pretended piety. Our God is too loving and too immanent for us to just ignore Him. And when we respond to Him, well, like the little boy says (through wrongly) in the second frame of the cartoon, "my whole life is before me." That is when real life begins.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Orthodoxy on trial

The triumph of Orthodoxy is not what we so boldly play it up to be on the Sunday dedicated to this name. Yes, they fought hard battles and long, the victors now becoming the victims later, then exchanging places as readily as dancers, as imperial and sacerdotal whims gave way to one another, and crowds of old men, some saints and others mere savants, dissecting each other's brains to an atomic level, and straining each other's syllables spoken, sung or scribed through sieves of partiality so clogged with flesh and blood, that it's a wonder anything came through.

It's not really about whether we make ikons or break them, whether we fellowship with saints above or only with those below. Nor is it about whether we can name a faithful virgin of Israel the mother of the ineffable God or only of the God-Man she bore, or whether Himself He had at all times an unobstructed and single will, nature, and being, or only appeared so.
It's not really about whether the Spirit can come on whomsoever He wishes with the anointing that teaches everything infallibly, or on all who call upon Him, or only on those upon whom human hands have been laid, over whom human tongues have prayed, generation after generation, unbroken, from the beginning.

The triumph of Orthodoxy is to be put on trial, tested by every antagonist, human and inhuman, visible and invisible, rational and irrational, using every temptation, to glory, to humiliation, to wealth, to poverty, to power, to weakness, to joy, to sorrow, to health, to sickness, to life, and to death, and thus tried, to come forth as a bride made beautiful for her Bridegroom, without any flaw, dressed in spotless white, with a heart purged of all malice, forgetful of all injury, seeking only to love, to love all without measure, without exception, unaware of her exaltation, her eyes fixed forever on her Beloved.

Unless we are put on trial in this way, we will never triumph.
Today we are one day closer to it than we were yesterday.
Are we ready?

Just talking to God

Recently reading the testimony of a young Christian man who converted from a very strict form of Islam, I came upon this passage,

"…one day, I was sitting on the steps of my house. I don't know why or how—
I broke all Islamic rules of praying and 'talked' with 'Allah' directly. I prayed in a whisper, ‘Allah please never leave me alone!' I don't know why I said that but right then I heard something I have not forgotten since. Someone, out of the blue, answered, 'I won't.' Shocked, I looked up and around—I didn't see anyone. I knew someone had answered me because I wasn't sleeping. I was all awake, thinking. Then I wondered what a Moslem is never suppose to think about at all—
I thought maybe 'Allah' had answered me."


For him, that was the beginning of his conversion to Christ…

"It was this thought that started the doubts in my mind about Islam."

The passages quoted are, by the way, in Part 4 of his testimony, which can be read in full starting here. The blog has several contributors. His blogger identity is Avenging Apostate, and the testimony is his.

Now, two things that he said stood out to me.

First, that in Islam one doesn't approach God directly in one's own words, but only through the ceremonial prayers that one says five times daily, accompanied by bodily movements. I am pretty sure that there are Muslims who love God and speak to Him in their own words; in fact, I know there are, because they have written these words down in poetic form. But for the ordinary rank and file Muslim, what he says is true. I know this for sure, because one of my close college friends, Shahid Yusuf from Pakistan (who incidentally taught me to chant the call to prayer in Arabic) explained this to me. He was surprised that anyone would feel worthy enough to speak to Alláh directly, just as our Christian brother testifies.

Second (and this is less important from my point of view), that after praying his direct prayer to Alláh, he audibly heard a voice give a response, yet there was no one nearby. I do not doubt this was a miracle, but it reminds me of the testimony of Augustine of Hippo. With him, it was the voice of a child who chanted "Take up and read!" from an unseen location, probably on the other side of a garden wall, when Augustine had cast his eyes upon a copy of the letters of apostle Paul which he had acquired but not yet read. In this case too, I would say, it was a miracle, even though we might be in a better position to explain it away as coincidence misinterpreted by an agitated state of mind. Of course, something like this could be said of our new brother's hearing the words "I won't!" without seeing the speaker.

Back to the first idea, that one can speak to God directly, in one's own words. This really stood out to me for several reasons. Let me start with my personal history.

As a child, I accompanied my parents to church, Sunday school and related events, even being an altar boy, until I was in my ninth year of life. After that, the family just stopped going to church. Before that happened, however, I had memorised all the customary prayers and pious actions (bowing, making the sign of the cross, etc.), and even after we stopped going to church, I still continued "playing church" with my little brother and our friends.

Every night, before I went to sleep, I prayed my prayers, either kneeling against the bed, or lying in bed on my back and looking up at the ceiling above me. My parents never prayed with me. I just knew what to do. The other thing that I began to notice, though, as I was growing up, was that my mother never said the church prayers at all, but little by little I began to notice her staying up all night, and hearing her just talk to God. Usually, she did not do this out loud, but very rarely she did, and that is how I figured out that it was okay to pray this way. I never asked her about it; I just started doing it too, talking to God. I can't remember when I began, but it was certainly by the time I was in high school.

Years later, after I had finished college, moved away to Canada, and was married, my mother wrote me a few letters that I saved, because they contained her testimonies. In her letters she wrote,
"I just stay awake in the night, and I talk and talk to God, and I know that He will forgive me for all the bad things I have done, even though I deserve to be punished for them." I wrote a little bit more about my mother and her testimony in my post Sorting out the past, and also have quoted longer passages of her testimony.

The idea of just talking to God, though, is what grabbed me. After becoming an adult, practicing Orthodox Christian, learning all the prayers by heart, and so on, I still primarily pray by just talking to God (without, of course, rejecting the memorised prayers).

In the book Beginning to Pray, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom explains that prayer starts out using the written prayers but it needn't stop there. We can just talk to God, because as we get closer to Him, He lets us know that this is good, talking to Him, our Father, in our own words.

Malli talking to God in her own words, from the film Ushpizin.

My final thought on prayer being this ‘just talking to God’ is:
It seems to me that one becomes more able to and more desirous of talking to God in this way, the more one makes the holy scriptures a daily and constant preoccupation. In other words, as we read the bible more and more, we are led to put its teachings into practice more and more, and we are gradually changed into people who can approach God more and more on intimate terms. At any rate, this has been my experience.

The testimony of the brother that got me started on these thoughts, well, I recommend that you read it. Of all the testimonies by former Muslims that I have read, this is the best written and easiest to relate to. I've also linked to his blog in my sidebar in the Mission to Islam category. May our good and loving God continue to protect him and raise him up as a good witness of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To God be the glory.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Here's to afflictions!

Today, for example, I am in a good state in terms of purity of thoughts, and my soul glides like a dolphin in a tranquil sea.
Everything is peaceful, and you think that it will continue like this forever.
But the road which the wisdom of God has mapped out does not change its course.
And behold, in a corner of the sky little clouds, simply unhealthy ideas, arise in the horizon and gather in the sky, in the mind.
Soon afterwards, the wind begins; thunder follows; the sea becomes rough, and before long a tempest of thoughts is formed.
Thus a state of bitter thoughts, etc., succeeds the purity, and various disturbances follow the calm.

If those who fear God lacked the various trials and temptations, some of us would have ended up in satanic pride; others in debauchery worse than Sodom; others in the darkness of unbelief and impiety, and so forth.

So then, it is to afflictions that we owe this little piety of ours,
as well as our hope of salvation.







Elder Ephraim of the Holy Mountain

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Only

And the LORD said unto Gideon, The people are yet too many; bring them down unto the water, and I will try them for thee there: and it shall be, that of whom I say unto thee, This shall go with thee, the same shall go with thee; and of whomsoever I say unto thee, This shall not go with thee, the same shall not go. So he brought down the people unto the water: and the LORD said unto Gideon, Every one that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth, him shalt thou set by himself; likewise every one that boweth down upon his knees to drink. And the number of them that lapped, putting their hand to their mouth, were three hundred men: but all the rest of the people bowed down upon their knees to drink water. And the LORD said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you, and deliver the Midianites into thine hand: and let all the other people go every man unto his place.
Judges 7:4-7 KJV

God is not interested in numbers but in the quality of our faith, as has been demonstrated by the action He commanded of sending the army to drink, and then accepting only the minority who lapped up the water like dogs.

I often wondered what was the meaning of that decal I see on the rear windshield of cars, especially minivans, that says "Only God" in white letters.

Myself, I don't hold by decking my vehicle with stickers or decals proclaiming my faith. To my way of thinking, that's not a witness—it's impersonal—and witnessing can never be impersonal. It just seems like a numbers game. "If enough of us Christians slap Jesus is Lord stickers and Ichthys fish on our cars, the world will know we're out there, and that there's lots of us."

So that's what's behind the slogan “Only God,” the idea that “only God could do something like that.” The idea is talked about in a book called Axioms, by Bill Hybels (which I haven’t read, but heard about).

What I thought it might mean is, "For me there is only One priority, only One ultimate concern, and that is God."

It reminded me of the Bible study sessions we used to have with our former pastor, Father Jim. He called the sessions, "Only Christ," and the emphasis was this: That when we met together to study the Word, we each and every one decided ahead of time to put away our own thoughts and opinions, and be ready to hear what Christ Himself, the Divine Word, would speak to us as we read the bible together.

Having this attitude had a tremendous effect. There was very little time wasted by people opining and speculating, or worse yet, pontificating. It's like, when you know in Whose presence you are sitting, at Whose feet (that's the meaning of session) you are waiting open-eared to hear His voice, like Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Those bible studies were the best I'd ever been too. We were really taught by God, not by men.

A reggae song has this lyric: "Gi' me a session, not another version" (Bob Marley, Mix Up Mix Up).
This is what divides the "Only Christ" from the "Only Man" attitude.

To whose voice are we willing to listen, to His, or to our own?

You are My witnesses

You are my witnesses
Call the world to the court and have them speak

Because they trust in me
They will understand truth and abide in love

Sufferings are coming
But those dragged into the streets
and in false houses
and before thrones
and into prisons
and trampled by feet
and spit on by evil men
Will yet not lose a hair on their heads

Out of beautiful mouths
They will speak words that strike down kings

If you were their witnesses
They would love you as their own

But do not stumble!
For nothing of this world
nor any measure of it
nor past despair
nor future fears
nor the exalted
nor the fallen ones
nor our enemy the grave
Will take you from me.

— David Dickens

Other poems just like this one can be found at his blog, Nothing Hypothetical. I don't know what it is or why, but his verses speak to me very strongly, something like a combination of the Bible and Walt Whitman, my favorite poet. I don't apologize for liking Whitman any more than I apologize for following Jesus and bearing witness to Him, but I know which one of them is the Master, and which one was just trying to be free. I hope he made it.

David, thanks for continuing these poems. Your others are every bit as foundational as this one. I thank God for your talent and testimony. Truth is Truth. Glory to God.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The perfect Psalm

Driving along the highway this morning on the way to work, as I passed a bank of some type of tall, dense shrubs, almost trees, I was seized momentarily by a feeling of panic, as if the six or seven thick trees represented a like number of unknowable but fearsome challenges that were soon to come against me. I snapped out of it in an instant, as my inner self cried out “fearless!” and my soul was reminded of the verse “I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” Such are the antics of the mind when placed in a state of semi-consciousness by performing some repetitive and automatic action, like driving the same road for the umpteenth time.

Now that my mind had been jarred back to reality, it started working again, talking to the Lord as a newly awakened child talks to its mother, repeating over and over the bible verse that was on its lips as it awakened.

It occurred to me, how long it has been since I have prayed that psalm, I mean, in the version that my mind has memorized it, in the old King James version! My favorite bible, the one I’ve used and prayed with for almost forty years, has translated Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” in such a plain and antipoetic manner that whenever I read it, I almost rush through it to get on to other psalms that speak more to my heart.

The truth is, that before I became an adult Christian, the text of Psalm 23 was just about the only bible verses I knew by heart, from having heard them so often, that I didn’t really hear what they were saying anymore. This morning that changed. As I repeated those old words I had memorized so long ago and then avoided all these years, it became very plain to me that there’s a very good reason that this psalm has found such a place for itself in the culture as it has. In a way, it’s a perfect psalm, just as the Lord’s prayer is a perfect prayer. It has covered all the bases. I repeated it again from memory, and it revealed itself to me like a long lost friend.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee!

“For all the saints…

…who from their labors rest, who Thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy name, O Jesus be forever blessed! Alleluia! Alleluia!”—I am singing these words from the old 1940 Episcopal Hymnal, not just writing them, as I remember a man who has had a great impact on my life, Sergei Fudel
Sergei Iosifovitch’s entire aspect and cast of mind reflected his constant striving towards the spiritual world. He was kept steadfast in his earthly life by his need to walk his path according to the will of God, with love for others, and retaining the hope of still being of use to the Church. The sorrows laid upon him left their permanently visible mark. It is as if he constantly remembered and saw that evil which mercilessly devours the world, and had learned to be humbly conscious of his weakness, to meekly hope in the mercy of God. His acquired experience made him careful in judgment, and imparted especial profundity to each word and opinion. I remember having the impression that Sergei Iosifovitch knew something secret, something that could not be related, perhaps something that is inexpressible. Nonetheless, he was able to relate an amazing amount in each of his words. A certain measure of the mark of endless sadness, of being not of this world, of incompatibility with the world around him, a sorrowful smile, a momentary utterly piercing glance, a calm, quiet, measured and not tiresome manner of speech, readiness to listen or to be silent and to pray – all of this formed an image in complete contrast to that of the hero of our times. It seemed that Sergei Iosifovitch’s appearance and demeanor was saying, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” (1 John 2: 15), and “…seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” (Мatthew 6: 33). He was repelled by any mask of spirituality, by unctuousness, pretense, or lack of candor. He avoided the mighty of the earth, and showed an eager preference for the outskirts rather than the center.

Lord, I thank You for his witness. May his memory be eternal.

Goodness and love in our soul

The last couple of posts have come out of a state of mind and soul in me that I have had a hard time understanding myself. In neither have I written down exactly what is on my heart, though both have a little bit of it. Just now, visiting Fr Stephen's blog Glory to God for All Things, I found some sayings of Elder Porphyrios that come closer than either of my own posts to express what I have been experiencing. He says…

Man has such powers that he can transmit good or evil to his environment. These matters are very delicate. Great care is needed. We need to see everything in a positive frame of mind. We mustn’t think anything evil about others. Even a simple glance or a sigh influences those around us. And even the slightest anger or indignation does harm. We need to have goodness and love in our soul and to transmit these things.

We need to be careful not to harbor any resentment against those who harm us, but rather to pray for them with love. Whatever any of our fellow men does, we should never think evil of him. We need always to have thoughts of love and always to think good of others. Look at St. Stephen the first martyr. He prayed,
‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ (Acts 7:60). We need to do the same.

Quoting from Fr Stephen's post The Fascination of Wickedness

Everything is a test

It’s hard to conceive of this, but everything that happens to us, and everything that we do with what happens to us, is a test, a probing by the Almighty, to see what we will do in every instance, even though He knows all. Wait! How is this possible?
If He knows all, what is the point?
We cannot see as He sees, understand as He understands, how our free will interacts with His mercy, or how His foreknowledge affects or doesn’t affect our choice. We cannot grasp how He can create beings like us, indeed how He can create a whole universe of free agents that all move within and have their being in Him, yet that is what He has done. There is nothing that happens to us, and nothing that we do about it, that is not observed, weighed and written down by the Almighty, for His unknowable purposes.
Yet through all this, one fact remains: He loves us.

"God is a Father who is easy to please, but hard to satisfy."
—C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Do much with little

It has always amazed me how life has a way of surviving no matter what and living even when the resources to support life are nearly non-existent. That’s why I’m sure that if there aren’t already life forms on other planets, at least those that man visits will soon have life all over them, except where even an atmosphere is absent, because no doubt some kind of life will escape our bulky presence, even if it’s microbes in our wastes.

The office where I work is a metal and glass structure built on a raised concrete platform and is surrounded by asphalt perforated with islands of manicured foliage. The joint between the base of the building and its concrete base is only about 3mm high and I don’t know how deep, maybe 20mm. Into this joint the weather must have blown some dust and plant seeds over the years, because we see dandelions, those hearty and faithful little weeds (I love them), growing out of the crack between metal and concrete.

Here is the first one of the season that has raised a stalk and a golden flower head. The leafy base is smaller than some others that haven’t yet sent up a flower flag, so we know where this one has placed its energies. It never ceases to amaze me how a living creature can do so much with so little—a dandelion growing and flowering where one cannot even see the dust of the earth, where little rain comes, and where the sun beats down hard and hot. That is really good seed, really powerful seed. When the time comes, it too will produce a head of seeds, sixty to a hundredfold, that the wind will carry away from its nebulous crown, and plant perhaps in more plentiful soil.

Then Jesus said to them, "Don't you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown."
Mark 4:13-20 NIV

Apparently, good soil is good soil, whether it be little or much!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A servant's heart

One virtue that nearly all ethnic and religious groups pride themselves on is their hospitality, or at least what they perceive as their spirit of hospitality. For those whose spiritual roots are in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures of the Holy Bible, their hospitality is the obvious response to such verses as,

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:17-19 NKJV

Let brotherly love continue. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.
Hebrews 12:1-2 NKJV

The Greeks among whom I live call this virtue philoxenía, literally, love of strangers, and the remembrance of Abraham’s hospitality to the three strangers when he was camped at the oak of Mamre is always at the back of our minds, visually in the form of the ikon, emotionally in the feeling of gratitude we have for God’s kindness to us.

Hospitality, though, has its limits for most people, even for Christians, even for me. The different kinds of hospitality we offer others, from shallow and formal to deep and unconditional, almost makes it hard to imagine them all being one and the same virtue.

I want to say that at some point, hospitality crosses a line. It ceases being just making people comfortable and happy and then seeing them on their way. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “Let brotherly love continue,” and though that is a good thing, must it stop there?

Or perhaps he meant more when he wrote, “Let brotherly love continue.” Could he have been thinking along the lines of holy apostle John? who writes, “This has taught us love—that He gave up His life for us; and we too ought to give up our lives for our brothers.” (1 John 3:16 JB)

One genuine virtue that seems to go unnoticed by Christians (I can only remark on them, since they are my social and religious group)—even while they are busying themselves with “works of hospitality”—is having a servant’s heart.

No, I don’t mean talking about having it and praising others who we say have it, but actually having it—a servant’s heart.

Those who have a servant’s heart are like women, as women used to be by and large before the changes wrought in them by feminism. Having a servant’s heart is not thinking of the virtue of hospitality, not limiting it by what we are willing to do for others, but being watchful, being careful of the ones we want to serve, and then
doing all we can.

Like the eyes of a servant watching his master,
like the eyes of a maid on her mistress’s hands,
so we keep our eyes on the Lord our God,
as we wait for His kindness.
Psalm 123:2

But having a servant’s heart is not only for women:
Putting the other before yourself in everything is what makes a man a man in the truest sense. The Man of men Himself demonstrated it, and His manhood was not diminished but attained the image.

How can it be so hard for us to see that it is by emptying ourselves of the glory of our individual being, in living for others with a servant’s heart, that we have been proven to have already passed over from death to life?

Regarding Christianity at least, what holy apostle Paul has written to his younger colleague Timothy is true, “The only purpose of this instruction is that there should be love, coming out of a pure heart, a clear conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5 JB), and in this he was only handing over what he had heard from the Lord,

For the Son of Man Himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.
Mark 10:45 Jerusalem Bible

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ikonostasis

My new blog Ikonostasis has gone public, but it is far from finished.
I'd intended not to make it public till I had all 700 or more ikons loaded into it, but I can't wait, and I see that it's going to take me a while getting them all loaded. It's humbling for me to know that even after spending so many man days on this project, I still have so little to show for it. Also, it's good for patience, in me and others.

This is not the effort of a learned ikonographer or ikon collector.
In reality I possess few actual ikons, and I'm not addicted to them either. It's just that I have collected for over 20 years the Sunday bulletins at my church, and most of them have ikons printed on the cover. All the ikons that are roughly the same size come from that collection, to which I have added a few others I have found on the internet or actually own and have scanned.

My reason for collecting these ikons has changed over the years.
At first, I was collecting them so I could make my own ikons and give them away. Then, I thought I was collecting them to send away to overseas new Orthodox believers. Neither of these things happened. Next, I decided, now that I have a scanner, I'd scan them all and make them available on a CD. But wait, along came the internet, and now I can just post them there, but I didn't know how. Finally, I realized I could at least make them available for downloading by blogging them. Voilà! That's where the project came down to earth.

I realize the collection will be very incomplete, and I have no expectations of doing anything more than I originally decided, that is, just get them online, so others can use them. As I get older, I am less and less fascinated with things or ambitious to do projects of this sort, but if the work is mostly done, I may as well finish it.
May anyone who finds my unworthy blog, either this one or any other, forgive me for the poor quality of my work. My task has always been to try to draw your attention to others more worthy than myself, and of course ultimately to Christ, who alone is Worthy.
To Him be glory now and ever.

The Book of Wisdom

The Jerusalem Bible (1966) has included within the Old Testament most of the books that are accepted by the Orthodox Church as scripture, though two or three are omitted. Apocrypha are books that have always had a bit of controversy attached to them. Different national churches of Orthodoxy also can have different lists of which books they include in their bible. For example, the Ethiopian Orthodox have, I believe, the longest list of Apocrypha, including the book of Enoch. These books are usually very interesting to study and uncover some profound truths. In many of the books are found additional prophetic references fulfilled by Christ. The early Church was aware of these, and that's probably why they were accepted as scripture in the first place.

The book of Wisdom (of Solomon) is one of the lesser known books of the Apocrypha, but it is full of wisdom, as its title suggests, and even prophecy. In the Jerusalem Bible it is found immediately after the Song of Songs (of Solomon). In my study bible (the one I write in) there are lots of underlinings and notes. I also put tabs on the edges of the pages so I could find the books more quickly, but as many have found out, this is a mistake. The paper that most bibles are printed on is too fragile and thin to support the tabs, and over the almost 40 years that I've had this copy, many of the tabs have torn the pages or fallen off. Don't try this!


Since one of my friends just wrote me upon his discovery of this book in the Jerusalem Bible, I thought I would share some of my favorite passages in my blog. If you find these interesting and want to get a copy of the Jerusalem Bible, be advised that this version is not the same as the New Jerusalem Bible currently being published. The original (1966) Jerusalem Bible has recently been republished in hard cover, but there are still plenty of copies in used book stores and on the internet of the "phone book" edition of the JB, which is the one that I use as a study bible. A leather-bound copy, on the other hand, will be very rare and cost as much as $250.

The book of Wisdom starts out…

Love virtue, you who are judges on earth,
let honesty prompt your thinking about the Lord,
seek Him in simplicity of heart;
since He is to be found by those who do not put Him to the test,
He shows Himself to those who do not distrust Him.
But selfish intentions divorce from God;
and Omnipotence, put to the test, confounds the foolish.
Wisdom 1:1-5

There are prophetic passages that can only have been fulfilled by Jesus…

[The wicked say to each other]
Let us lie in wait for the virtuous man, since he annoys us
and opposes our way of life,
reproaches us for our breaches of the law
and accuses us of playing false to our upbringing.
He claims to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a son of the Lord.
Before us he stands, a reproof to our way of thinking,
the very sight of him weighs our spirits down;
his way of life is not like other men's,
the paths he treads are unfamiliar.
In his opinion we are counterfeit;
he holds aloof from our doings as though from filth;
he proclaims the final end of the virtuous as happy
and boasts of having God for his father.
Let's see if what he says is true,
let us observe what kind of end he himself will have.
If the virtuous man is God's son,
God will take his part
and rescue him from the clutches
of his enemies.
Let us test him with cruelty
and with torture,
and thus explore this gentleness of his
and put his endurance to the proof.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death
since he will be looked after
—we have his word for it.
Wisdom 2:12-20

In the book of Wisdom there are passages equating Wisdom with the Holy Spirit, and in this guise the feminine pronoun is used. This has led to the writing of ikons of holy Wisdom, where she is seated on a throne in the foreground, while Christ is farther in and up seated on the cherubim and seraphim, and seated on the Father's throne, the invisible God…

For within her is a spirit intelligent, holy,
unique, manifold, subtle,
active, incisive, unsullied,
lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp,
irresistible, beneficent, loving to man,
steadfast, dependable, unperturbed,
almighty, all-surveying,
penetrating all intelligent, pure,
and most subtle spirits;
for Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion;
she is so pure, she pervades and permeates
all things.

She is a breath of the power of God,
pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
hence, nothing impure can find a way into her.
She is a reflection of the eternal light,
untarnished mirror of God's active power,
image of His goodness.

Although alone, she can do all;
herself unchanging, she makes all things new.
In each generation she passes into holy souls,
she makes them friends of God, and prophets…
Wisdom 7:22-27

A large part of the book of Wisdom is taken up with recounting the history of the world and interpreting it from a spiritual perspective, showing how God was present and working in it through His Holy Spirit…

The father of the world [Adam],
the first being to be fashioned,
created alone, he had her [Wisdom] for his protector
and she delivered him from his fault;
she gave him the strength
to subjugate all things.
But when a sinner [Cain] in his wrath deserted her,
he perished in his fratricidal fury.
Wisdom 10:1-3

Speaking of God's forebearance with Egypt during the Exodus…

For Your great strength is always at Your call;
who can withstand the might of Your arm?
In Your sight the world is like a grain of dust that tips the scales,
like a drop of morning dew falling on the ground.
Yet You are merciful to all, because You can do all things
and overlook men's sins so that they can repent.
Yes, You love all that exists,
You hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrance,
for had You hated anything, You would not have formed it.
And how, had you not willed it, could a thing persist,
how be conserved if not called forth by You?
You spare all things because all things are Yours,
Lord, lover of life,
You whose imperishable spirit is in all.
Wisdom 11:21-12:1

There is really too much in this book to give but a small sample, and even this can do it little justice. It is a great book of wisdom, as its title suggests, and whether you agree that it should be included among the books of the Bible or not, it is still worth reading. I can hardly lay my eyes anywhere in this book without finding treasures of divine truth. Speaking of what cured the Israelites of snake bite when they were in the wilderness…

But, for Your sons,
not even the fangs of venomous serpents
could bring them down;
Your mercy came to their help
and cured them.
One sting—how quickly healed!
—to remind them of Your oracles
rather than that,
by sinking into deep forgetfulness,
they should be cut off from Your kindness.
No herb, no poultice cured them,
but it was Your Word, Lord,
which heals all things.
For You have power of life and death,
You bring down to the gates of Hades
and bring back again.
Wisdom 16:10-13

Friday, July 24, 2009

Outgrowing Christianity

A fellow blogger, actually a dear sister in Christ (though I have a feeling she’d rather I’d not describe her as such) wrote this thought in her blog

“Churches often present salvation as something that will bring one the ‘good life’ as epitomized by the American Dream. It is entirely possible that that causes life issues to get framed less as what is good and right and holy and more as ‘what's gonna maximize my happiness’. When you have been promised that if you ‘say yes to Jesus’ that life is going to just keep getting better and better, then it is a short step to assuming that God wants you to be happy and so (insert your sin of choice) isn’t really wrong at all. Rationalization is an ugly thing.”

I agree with everything she wrote in that post and in this passage. The saying true but hard to hear, “Rationalization is an ugly thing,” really grabbed me, as that is something I’ve been guilty of most of my life, and so has almost everyone I know, but that is not the part of her idea that I want to pursue in more detail. Instead I want to explore an idea that issues from what she wrote in her first sentence, “Churches often present salvation as something that will bring one the ‘good life’ as epitomized by the American Dream.”

It’s the perception that this is what Christianity is about, because by and large this is how it’s portrayed in the media and on church billboards, that has turned off the average unchurched American to the possibility of Jesus Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed this issue already in the 1930’s in his book Nachfolge, translated into English as The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote that the church’s trafficking in what he called ‘cheap grace’ is what bores the world to disgust, and obviously I agree with him. Orthodox Christian readers may object that this is not applicable to the Orthodox Church, and I agree with them provisionally.

Orthodoxy is the intact form of the Church and presents a consistent, homogenous doctrinal and even practical face to the world. It is this alone which probably accounts for the majority of converts who come not by marriage but by choice, swallowing elements of strange dogma without question or turning the other cheek to things they don’t really agree with. But the same affliction that has decimated the ranks of non-Orthodox Christianity is intrinsically present even in Orthodoxy. I have seen the beginnings of the purveying of cheap grace in my own community, and the sorts of converts that are being drawn to us because of it. It’s all very, very green.

I have met many good Christians “out there” that are unchurchable because they cannot find the Church. It’s not exactly that the Church is invisible, but that it’s too visible, and not dressed in the humility of the Lord, but in the cheap, flashy garments of self-love and false hope, proud of itself and flaunting its illusory achievements, its building programs, its seminars, its selective charities and its roster of learned, professional leaders. It may be for different reasons, the externals may be different, but for the Christian today the churches have made the following of Jesus Christ within churchly structures nearly impossible, just as they did in Germany when Bonhoeffer wrote his book.

The outcome of all this is what I have called outgrowing Christianity. Those who are churchable pursue the American dream and justify it with selective scriptural abandon. Those who are unchurchable pursue the American dream and go it alone with their conscience as their guide. And as for me, I simply don’t know which group has outgrown Christianity more, or worse, whether they have perhaps outgrown Christ.

But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first…
Matthew 21:28-32a KJV

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reverence

There is not much that makes me cry.
I cry sometimes when I read the scriptures, or the life of one of the martyrs of Christ.
I cry sometimes when I consider the grace that God has bestowed on me a sinner in granting me even one intimate friend in whom I can watch His Holy Spirit at work.
I cry when I find what seem like grapes in the wilderness or early fruit on the fig tree (Hosea 9:10), and that is what made me cry just now, for the honesty that He bestows on His servants that live in Him.

As usual, Romanós the thief is stealing truth again, excusing himself by quoting a song, “And as all the wise men say, Grab it, if it comes your way!” What does the following passage on the subject of reverence make you do? It made this unworthy thief cry, because honesty is the sharp knife that cuts “cleanly through each knot of tangled lore,” freeing the sons of earth from their captor, death.

This short passage is excerpted from The Preservation of Knowledge, which can be read in its entirety by clicking here.

Reverence

Reverence is in the heart of the reverent. The outward manifestation is culturally conditioned. My family was a very affectionate one. My mother and father and sister and I hugged often. This was our expression of love and unity as a family. My cousin (even though he was a close relation) thought this was weird. He thought my physical behavior wasn’t respectful of my father’s position.

The Orthodox bow to the scriptures (even onto the floor); they kiss, and cross themselves. These seem to us like ritualistic nonsense. But to them it is constant and appropriate expression of reverence.

I know Protestant scholars with copies of their Bible with notes scribbled everywhere.
The binding is broken, the pages soiled from use, even some pages torn or missing. They might have several copies, different translations. So they leave them around without much care. They toss them onto their bed, or into a suitcase. They throw them in the trash when they have begun to lose their integrity.
(Pictured above, the marked up old bible of an Orthodox ‘scholar’ — not only Protestants write in their bibles!)

Which is more reverent? Neither. It is the heart that is or isn’t reverent. But the outward expressions can deceive our alien eyes.

In God We Trust

Life in the world is seen to require a practical orientation: one must be practical to succeed. Methodical, too, and persistent. Otherwise we risk failure, and that must be avoided at all costs. That's why we run after modern gurus of business, fashion, health and, yes, even religion.

Even Christians, those who claim to follow Jesus as well as those who prefer only to identify themselves as church members, can fall into the mindset of the priority of practical wisdom which, first, is no wisdom at all, and second, isn't ultimately practical.

Why isn't it wisdom? Because all wisdom is from the Lord and leads back to the Lord, and it comes to us when we have decided to make the Lord the priority
"…seek first His kingdom and His righteousness…"

Why isn't it practical? Because all that is practical is included in following the commandments of God, which assure us of receiving everything good that He has in store for us, "…and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33 NIV).

So the question for every man or woman, but especially for every Christian, is… Who do you trust?


Practical wisdom teaches, God helps those who help themselves. As any worldly proverb, this is both true and false at the same time. These words are not found in scripture, which reveals the mind of Christ. Some say they are, but the Word does not tease us with riddles.

The saying actually comes from Aesop's fable of the wagon driver and Hercules. The wagoner gets stuck in a rut and prays to Hercules to get his wheel out. Hercules appears to him and says, "Sluggard, put your shoulder to the wheel, and push! The gods help those who help themselves!"

Yes, this attitude of practical wisdom goes a long way back, and many Christians actually follow Hercules doctrine without realising it. Like those described by the psalmist, they claim to be devoted Christians when it is convenient, but when push comes to shove, they honor the gods.

Look after me, God, I take shelter in You.
To Yahweh you say, "My Lord,
You are my fortune, nothing else but You,"
yet to those pagan deities in the land,
"My princes, all my pleasure is in you."
Their idols teem, after these they run…
Psalm 16:1-4a Jerusalem Bible


What should be more natural, and more sympathetically regarded by everyone, than that parents should watch out for their children's welfare, not only when they are under age, but even after they reach adulthood?

Yet how often does this protective attitude stem not from the mind of Christ, but from that other mind, the mindset of practical wisdom? I have seen it again and again, even in my own church, parents leading their children to serve Mammon in place of Christ.

Instead of holding Christ before their offspring, by teaching, by example, by exhortation, by guidance, by love, as the One whom they should not only emulate but follow, they hold up successful businessmen, engineers, politicians, athletes, and even clergymen.

Is it any wonder, then, that the children outstrip their parents in worldliness, as they are only trying to please them? Is it any wonder that they take husbands and wives from among the denizens of this world instead of from the City of God?


In the film The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom, who was later to become a world renown evangelist, was asked by a Jewish cantor she was hiding in her home during the Nazi occupation, "Wasn't marriage ever in the picture for the daughters Ten Boom?"

She replied, "Betsy was always sickly, and was told she couldn't bear children, so she didn't marry. Myself, I had a young man, but we didn't marry, because his parents didn't think I was cut out of good enough cloth."

These are all Christians we are talking about, in 19th century Holland. But the same situation obtains today. In the selection of life partners, husbands or wives, Christian parents are still bent on making a good match for their son or daughter, rather than seeking the will of God.

Putting Christ out of the picture is very unwise. He is not only the unique Mediator between God and man, but also between man and man, and in these particulars, between husband and wife. It is only Christ who can bring them together in truth, and hold them together.

It is not a woman's background, culture, educational level, social status, wealth, intelligence or physical beauty that is getting married to a man's family heritage, prowess, worldly success, ability to provide well, social connexions, possessions, talents or stamina.

No, all these are what they will bring into the marriage in order to complement each other's weaknesses with strengths. They are the resources that God has given them and which they will use to fulfill His will for them.
It is not these things that are getting married.

A man and a woman are getting married, nothing else. They are as naked as Adam and Eve were. This is how it is when God is allowed to bring them together. "This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body" (Genesis 2:24 JB).

The alternative, which all too often happens, is what happened to Corrie Ten Boom and her young man, Christian parents restricting the pool of available mates for their children to those who are practical like they are, those who are successful, "known entities."

The justification for this is, "We only want to do what's best for him/her. We want to prevent heartbreak and disaster down the road." This attitude, though, is not restricted to the practical parents, but to the religious as well. Both, however, are following the same mind, their own.


This post is not especially about the relationships between parents and children, but essentially about trust, the word we see prominently displayed on every piece of United States money, from the humble penny to the hundred dollar bill.

In God We Trust. It's so pervasive, that it's no longer persuasive. Like many another monument of formal Christianity in America—Ten Commandments plaques in court houses, the Pledge of Allegiance to "one nation under God"—it too may cave under secular pressures.

Where it can only truly be written, in our hearts and minds, is all that matters. Will it prevail over the practical and worldly wisdom of success, allowing true liberty, true freedom of choice, to mold not only individual lives but families, churches, and nations?

Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”“Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”
John 8:31-32, 36 NKJV

I was astonished…

…to find these two poems in a blog I just visited, one belonging to an Orthodox brother. Again and again, the Lord has been revealing so much beauty and truth in beauty to my world-weary eyes. Thank you, David, if you are the author of these lines, which I am about to share with my (hopefully also astonished) readers…

There Will Be No Rain

There will be no rain but by my word
O Man of God have you come to slay my child?
You filled the pitcher, you filled the cruse
Will you not fill my son?

Are you the one troubling Israel?
The land is cursed by dead men
Limping around two altars with two feet
Whom will you follow?

Is he sleeping?
Is he about?
Has he traveled?
Now give a shout?

Nothing but a quiet prayer and a troff
Nothing but faith and eyes aloft
Nothing left of the mountain side
Truly God is God.

From Tyre and Sidon

From Tyre and Sidon my feet have journeyed long
Come to touch the hem, come to be healed

His voice gives to all without ever diminishing
Come all you are weary and rest

The kingdom is for the persecuted
The kingdom is for the rejected in Him
The kingdom is for the crying
The kingdom is for the starving
The kingdom is for the poor

Through the trees the Spirit passes
Bringing all things of Itself
Nothing has ever been said against it
It causes men to lift each other up

The harvest comes with self-control
The harvest moves with gentleness
The harvest is known by its faithfulness
The harvest is seen in its goodness
The harvest is shared in kindness
The harvest has proven its longsuffering
The harvest brings peace
The harvest frees the heart for joy
The harvest is love

Wait! There are more…
Were I Lost
Sell All You Have
Don’t Be a Fool
Lord God of Israel, There is None Like You
…and they go on and on!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Accepting what is provided

One way in which we train children and even disciples of Jesus is to elevate them to a greater level of responsibility, in effect letting faith have a role both in us the trainers and in them the trainees. As the trainees are dealing with their new responsibilities, we encourage them by making the most of their successes and minimizing their failures, in effect saying, “I believe in you, you can do it.” This is not to put faith in humans, as it may appear on the surface; it is actually putting faith in God, on whom we depend for everything, for virtue in ourselves and in others, because apart from Him we can do nothing good.

The experiment of taking “problem kids” and doctoring their records, then turning them over to a new batch of teachers who didn't know them, and who taught them with high expectations of their success, which they rose to, is a variation of this same method, except it was involuntary on the part of the teachers.

We have been given the grace of God to be followers of Jesus because someone or several believed in us enough to pray for us, gently guide us into the life of salvation, helping us to rise to their expectations because, knowing they loved us so much, we thought, “How can I disappoint him?” This is my story, and the story of many others I personally know or have read about.

Speaking of a promotion a brother wrote, “After noticing what a positive change the event had in me, I was bopping about my life mostly reflecting that this is a positive thing. But then I read this account of someone talking about how they did not want their identity wrapped up in anything other than Christ. They were headed to a new job, and they did not want this to impact who they were.”

This person who did not want his new job to impact who he was, because he didn't want his identity wrapped up in anything other than Christ, this is faulty thinking. The fact that he was given a new job or responsibility level has the significance of God personally assigning him a commandment which he alone can fulfill. The wrongness of his attitude comes itself from pride, and from trying to be more spiritual than God, who arranged his new job in the first place. Do you understand what I am getting at?

Here is a story from the Desert Fathers that applies to this situation of rejecting what we think ordinary and pretending to a loftier call:

It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, “I should like to be free of all care, like the angels who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God.” So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it, “Who are you?” He said, “I am John, your brother.” But he replied, “John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men.” Then the other begged him saying, “It is I.” However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, “You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat.” Then John made a prostration before him, saying, “Forgive me.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

A word to those who want to follow Jesus

Here follows the testimony of a precious brother in the Lord, for whom I have the utmost respect, regarding how we who follow Jesus can live in this world without becoming of this world.

Jesus is coming again soon, and we will all stand before HIM. Then we will know in a more real way how much He had loved us and how we had reciprocated HIS love.

As a brother has often exhorted us, “It is not how close I can walk near the edge of a cliff without falling, it is how closely I want to walk with Jesus.”

Am I caught up with the things that the Lord is caught up with?

There are so many things that I know nothing about, so many places I have not visited and I have but one life. I see the great men of God who walked the normal Christian life, for them it was making every moment count for God.

I heard another man of God say, “Thank God that some of the great men of God were not caught up with football or sight seeing.”

When a piece of work is silent about the existence of God, when God's role is substituted by magic or human bravery or anything else, it is surely as same as idolatry.

“Well, it is only a story,” one might say, but doesn't it propagate unbelief in the world?

God, teach us to pour out ourselves for You just as You did for us!

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
Galatians 5:19-21

The testimony quoted above was first published as comment number 13 here, but there is also a further word on this topic by the same brother, which I'd like to append.

The central issue is about denying the existence of God and substituting the need and role that only God should and can fill, by magic or human bravery or luck or something else. To an unbelieving world it is adding one more option to the clutter.

The question is no longer right or wrong, the question for the great men of God has been to increase in their service for the Lord, in the pursuit of which, even legitimate things were often given up.

What then can we say for all the good intentions that conjure up a story drenched in witchcraft!?

Friday, July 17, 2009

A ramble on Harry Potter

I left the following as a comment on Pilgrimage of the Heart blog, in response to a post entitled Reflecting on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (And Redeeming It). It's rare for me to come out on such specific contemporary issues, but what I wrote in response has a much wider application than whether or not to get hooked on a popular cult film. I hope my readers will understand that I am not taking sides on this issue, but only affirming what has been handed over to me as Orthodox Christian διάκρισις, diákrisis, discernment. Henceforth follow my comments…

Is the author of the Harry Potter series a Christian?

Does the author intend to write, as C. S. Lewis did in the
Chronicles of Narnia, tales of the supernatural or otherworldly that incorporate under mythical imagery and motifs the utterly true story of what God has done for mankind in Christ?

Granted that every human being instinctively knows right from wrong and even possibly as you say, "this story was written on the hearts of every man and woman," speaking of the plan of salvation, is it really of any value to patronize and even extol writings or films that merely hint at the Christian truths we know and say we accept, when they are framed in terms so suggestive of the "dark side"?

I have noticed that Christians of all stripes either praise and support the Harry Potter series or oppose it vehemently. It almost seems to be a litmus test for where one stands as a Christian. I have also noticed that nothing will convince either the supporters that they should abandon it, or the opponents that they should accept it. It seems human nature, that is, the carnal man, will have what he wants whatever the cost. Not a good sign.

What we choose to learn from, whom we choose to learn from, and how we choose to learn, tell us a lot about where we actually stand.

The magi came to a knowledge of the coming of a prince of peace by searching the stars (that is, by astrology), and in actual fact, they were led to encounter the one they sought by means of the occult. Yet, when they met Him, they realised their error. He was not who they thought He was, but Someone far greater. We can imagine them talking among themselves, "Even the stars knew of Him, but how wrong we were to ask THEM! Why, these Hebrews among whom He has been born, they had it all WRITTEN DOWN!"

If we were pagans, searching and seeking with all our hearts to find out the Truth, what or Who it is, it could be expected that we would try going down many avenues to find it—astrology, numerology, kabbala, eastern mysticism, maybe even magic. I think that all who seek the Lord with their whole heart, even starting out from these base beginnings, He will take to Himself, and reveal Himself as their Lord and Savior. As for those who merely trifle with divine things and the pretended desire for the same, He will elude them, even if they were to search the scriptures themselves. But for those of us to whom the Light of Christ has been revealed, how can we seek Him or seek to reveal Him to ourselves or to others by so base a means as the occult?

The magi knew no better and were led by stars.

We who know better don't need the stars.
We are led, as God's own people, by His Word, that which is written in the only divine scriptures on earth, the Holy Bible.

What will our response be when He asks us, "Lovedst thou Me?"


And Yahweh repays me as I act justly,
as my purity is in His sight.
Faithful You are with the faithful,
blameless with the blameless,
pure with the one who is pure,
but crafty with the devious,
You save a people that is humble
and humiliate eyes that are haughty.
Psalm 18: 24-27 Jerusalem Bible

Thursday, July 16, 2009

If you would be simple hearted…

Thanks again to Presbytera Candace for bringing to our attention this living word from a recent elder of the Church of Russia…

If you would be simple hearted like the Apostles, would not conceal your human shortcomings, would not pretend to be especially pious, if you would walk free from hypocrisy, then that is the path.
While it is easy, not everyone can find it or understand it.
This path is the shortest way to salvation and attracts the grace of God. Unpretentiousness, guilelessness, frankness of soul—this is what is pleasing to the Lord, who is lowly of heart. Except ye become like children, ye shall not enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 18:13).

— Elder Leonid of Optina

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

…the one bent down has many grains

Thanks to my dear friend Presbytera Candace for the following brief, and humble, saying of an anonymous elder, on humility…

The valleys below are nearly always fertile and fruitful, while the high mountains are for the most part dry and unsuitable for agriculture. Similarly, an ear of wheat which stands with its head up is always empty, whereas the one bent down has many grains. Have a humble heart, and you will be enriched with all that is needed for salvation.

— An Elder’s Counsels for Christians Living in the World

Sunday, July 12, 2009

We die with gratitude

The two Christian girls waited in the Chinese prison yard for the announced execution. A fellow prisoner who watched the scene from his prison cell described their faces as pale but beautiful beyond belief; infinitely sad but sweet. Humanly speaking, they were fearful. But Chiu-Chin-Hsiu and Ho-Hsiu-Tzu had decided to submit to death without renouncing their faith.

Flanked by renegade guards, the executioner came with a revolver in his hand. It was their own pastor! He had been sentenced to die with the two girls. But, as on many other occasions in Church history, the persecutors worked on him, tempting him. They promised to release him if he would shoot the girls. He accepted.

The girls whispered to each other, then bowed respectfully before their pastor. One of them said, "Before you shoot us, we wish to thank you heartily for what you have meant to us. You baptized us, you taught us the ways of eternal life, you gave us holy communion with the same hand in which you now hold the gun.

"You also taught us that Christians are sometimes weak and commit terrible sins, but they can be forgiven again. When you regret what you are about to do to us, do not despair like Judas, but repent like Peter. God bless you, and remember that our last thought was not one of indignation against your failure. Everyone passes through hours of darkness.

"May God reward you for all the good you have done to us.
We die with gratitude."


They bowed again. The pastor's heart was hardened. He shot the girls. Afterwards, he was shot by the Communists.

—dc Talk, Jesus Freaks, Volume I, Martyrs, pp. 109-110.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

And if we sinners… can love like this

Abbott Iscu lay quietly awaiting death in the Tirgul-Ocna prison as a result of the tortures he had endured at the hands of his Communist captors. He spoke very little and looked serene as he felt heaven draw closer. If he did speak, his words carried the weight of eternity, and all attention in the cellblock suddenly focused to listen to him. Yet each breath he took revealed the pain that wracked his body.

Across from him, horrified at the sight of the abbot, lay another prisoner near death. He was once a Communist officer, and it was at his hands that the abbot had been tortured to the point of death. He had been a faithful Communist, and for this he now shared the cell of those he had been told to make “recant the Christian superstition” for the sake of the party. As a result of something none of the other prisoners ever learned, he had been imprisoned as well and tortured by his own comrades.

Though he, too, was at the point of death, he could find no peace in death. He awoke in the middle of the night in a heavy sweat and grabbed the arm of the person nearest him. He knew most in the cellblock were Christians, so he begged prayer. “I have committed horrible crimes,” he said, “I can find no rest. Help me, please.”

Because of the damp cold and never really knowing when it was day or night, many in the cell were still awake. At the Communist torturer’s words, Abbott Iscu motioned for two other believers to come and help him. With their help, he was lifted from his bed and brought over to the officer, where he was set down on his bedside.

The Abbott reached out and laid a comforting hand on his torturer’s head. “You were young and did not know what you were doing. I forgive you and love you, as do all the other Christians you mistreated. And if we sinners who have been saved by Jesus can love like this, how much more is He himself ready to erase all the evil you have done, to cleanse you fully. Only repent.”

So in that common cell, others heard the confession of a murderer to one of the men he had murdered. They also heard the murdered absolving his murderer. They embraced at the end of their prayers and gave each other a holy kiss, as was the custom of Christians in Jesus’ time as well as those behind the Iron Curtain.

They both died that night and must have entered heaven together. It was Christmas Eve.

—dc Talk, Jesus Freaks, Volume II, Revolutionaries, pp. 122-123

If you haven’t got Christ

Excerpt from a talk given by Fr. Seraphim Rose at St. Herman's Women's' conference in Redding, California, in the summer of 1980. If things were bad back then, look at the world today!

All these signs of the times are very negative. They are signs that the world is collapsing, that the end of the world is at hand and that the Antichrist is about to come. It's very easy to look at all these negative signs of the times and get into such a mood that we look only for negative things. In fact, one can develop a whole personality—a negative kind of personality—based on this. Whenever some new news item comes in, one says, "Aha, yes of course, that's the way it is, and it's going to get worse." The next one comes in and one says, "Yes, yes, it's obvious that's what's going to happen, and now it's going to be worse than that." Everything one looks at is seen merely as a negative fulfillment of the horrible times.

It's true that we have to be aware of these things and not be unduly optimistic about contemporary events, because the news in our times is seldom good. At the same time, however, we have to keep in mind the whole purpose of our watching the signs of the times.

We watch the signs of the times not just so we can see about when Antichrist is going to come. That's rather a secondary thing.
We watch the signs of the times so we can know when Christ is going to come.

That is a very fundamental thing we have to keep in mind so we do not get overwhelmed by gloom, depression, or stay to ourselves, storing up food for the great calamity. That's not a very wise thing. We have to be, rather, all the more Christian, that is, thinking about other people, trying to help others. If we ourselves are cold and gloomy and pessimistic, we are participating in this coldness which is a sign of the end. We have to ourselves be warm and helping each other out. That's the sign of Christianity.

If you look at history (in fact, this is another good reason for reading Church history), you see that throughout the whole history of mankind, throughout the Old Testament, the New Testament and all the Christian kingdoms afterwards—and if you look at the pagan world, the same story—there's a continual time of sufferings. Where Christians are involved there are trials and persecutions, and through all of these Christians have attained the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, when the time of the persecutions come, we are supposed to rejoice.

[During Communist times] a woman in Russia was put in a psychiatric clinic for making the sign of the Cross in the wrong place or for wearing a cross, or something like that. Fr. Dimitry and his spiritual children traveled to Moscow, went to the clinic, made an appointment and talked to the doctor, and they finally persuaded him that she shouldn't be there. Fr. Dimitry says, "They're actually afraid of us, because when you press them about it, they say they haven't really got any law by which they can keep her there." So finally they agreed to let her go, after she had been there for a week.

When she was there they gave her various drugs and "inoculations," trying to break her down and get rid of her religion. When she came out she was a little shaken up. She sat down on a bench someplace outside the clinic and began to talk. "You know," she said, "when I was there and they were treating me so awful, I felt calm because I felt there was Someone there protecting me; but as soon as I got out here, all of a sudden I'm afraid. Now I'm all upset and scared that they are going to come after me again, that the secret police are looking right around the corner."

It's obvious why this is so.

When you're in conditions of persecution, Christ is with you because you're suffering for Him. And when you're outside, then there's the uncertainty of whether you might not get back into that condition. You begin to go back to your own human understanding. When you're there you have nothing else to rely on, so you have to have Christ.
If you haven't got Christ, you have nothing.
When you're outside, you begin to calculate and to trust yourself, and then you lose Christ.