Friday, April 30, 2010

The Matrix revisited

Well, actually not the whole film of The Matrix, but just one small scene from it, something that I’ve blogged before, the scene in the dojo where Morpheus tries to raise Neo’s perception of reality by saying, “Stop trying to hit me and hit me!

This is not just an exercise in raising someone’s consciousness, as a Buddhist might see it. The Matrix (the first movie of three in a series, of which I have chosen to see only the first) provides the viewer with an avalanche of spiritual and metaphysical concepts. What is unique about this film is that it somehow strikes a universal chord in believers or practitioners of many faiths, religions and philosophies. The Wachowski brothers are nothing if they aren’t geniuses when it comes to laying out a multi-dimensional fantasy world which has so many connexions to the real world—not the ‘world of the real’ that Morpheus welcomes Neo to in the ‘desolation scene’ inside the computer. I’ve heard of a Hasidic Jewish boy who on a flight somewhere spent the entire time discoursing to a non-Jewish woman seated next to him (once they’d made acquaintance) how The Matrix reveals and supports the hidden world of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, and the teachings of the Hasidic masters. I’ve read at the blog of an American Buddhist monk studying in South Korea how The Matrix ties into and demonstrates the truths taught by the Buddha. I’ve heard that even in the Orthodox Church, when the first film came out, it was quickly commandeered and put to use in youth Sunday schools in various places as being a metaphor for the Orthodox way of life and spiritual warfare. It is in this last regard that I believe it is most helpful.

Now, back to my topic, the words of Morpheus to Neo in the dojo scene, “Stop trying to hit me and hit me! In the space of only eight words were spoken a decisive truth about our lives in Christ, not as mere believers but as followers of Jesus.

Did our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ ever try to do anything? Or did He just do it? This is the key to understanding these words. No, He didn’t try to preach the good news, heal the sick, give sight to the blind, raise the dead. He didn’t try to die on the Cross, descend into Hades, preach to the souls He found there, or raise them with Him to paradise. He didn’t try to rise from the dead, breathe on His disciples and tell them “Receive the Holy Spirit,” or ascend into the heavens to sit at the right hand of Divine Majesty. No, our Lord Jesus Christ never tried to do anything. And since this is true, why should we?

This idea of “I’ll try to... (you can fill in the blank with anything you wish, just don’t try to!)” has infected all of modern society. It softens the possibility of failure, allows for a gracious rebound after dropping the ball to do something (that most probably one hadn’t the slightest intention of doing anyway). We have all caved into this at some point in our lives, or we’re doing it at this very moment. However, my brothers, this is a simply a beautified disguise for our besetting sin, that built-in law of failure that comes as part of our inheritance in the old Adam.

Christ the Resurrection and the Life, like the movie shadow Morpheus, expects nothing less from us than to do what He commands. He knows nothing of trying. He knows that on our own we will always fall flat on our faces. He knows that we know that He will pick us up and stand us on our feet after every failure, as The Matrix character Trinity commands Neo after he has been killed by a barrage of bullets, “Now, get up!” The command of Christ to us at such moments is even stronger than Trinity’s. All we have to do is follow His instructions and do what He commands.

“Don’t try to... (you can fill in the blank with anything you wish),
just do it!

Expect the resurrection of the dead, don’t just look for it!
Let your confession be your profession.
Let them call Him your obsession.
Don’t try to follow Jesus,
just follow Him!

Do you want to be well?

The following was going to be a left as a comment to my own post Office life which I wrote after reading the comments left there before me, but after writing it, I decided to publish it as a testimony in its own right.

It is the complete lack of freedom in the workplace that bothers me, in a country where freedom of speech is a supposed basic right, coupled with the almost universal compliance by most Christians with the world's determination to eliminate God from every aspect of public life.

It is not unlike what happened with the Orthodox Church in Russia in the Soviet era, when the clergy were forced to sign a document pledging their loyalty to the Soviet system, making "the victories of the motherland our victories"—seemingly a harmless, patriotic affirmation—yet, the professed aim of the Soviet-ruled motherland was the complete triumph of atheism! Hence, the bishops signed a document that made them say that it would be their victory if all belief in God were exterminated. Those who didn't sign became martyrs—witnesses—of Christ.

We read books about the history of Christianity, and its triumph in various countries, and they make it sound as if there were whole periods when Christianity was strong, vibrant and dynamic. Perhaps this has been true in local instances at various times for very short periods.

But I am beginning to suspect that at almost all times and in almost all places the Church has never been more than an ill-equipped, no, I should say, poorly-staffed, hospital for the sick human race, where the doctors were few, and few the patients who ever made it to health, while the rest were satisfied to remain mere patients, satisfied to let death be the cure for their miserable lives.

This is not the life which is the cure for our miserable death, that Jesus Christ the Physician of our souls, won for us on Calvary. He walks among the seven golden lampstands (cf. Revelation 2:1) as John the Revelator saw in his visions, He walks among them unceasingly from the beginning to the end, seeking those to whom He will present all the prizes of victory described in His letters to the seven churches.

This is not dead letter of a forbidden and mysterious book, but living words that will fall on our ears if we are among those of whom the Book itself declares, "He who has ears, let him listen, to what the Spirit is saying to the churches." (Revelation 2:7, et al.)

Courage, brothers! Either our lives in Christ are afire, or they are nothing. What do we want, whom do we want, what do we answer when Christ asks us, "Do you want to be well?" (John 5:6)

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Office life

The art of invisibility, the practice of vacancy, define the life of the modern corporate office. If Christians find themselves working there, they are more terrified of revealing their identity as Christians, even to each other, than the early Christians were of being discovered by the Roman authorities. And if you make the mistake of calling them out, they look stunned and are struck with speechlessness. If they hear a particle of the Word of God spoken in their presence, they race to fill its aftermath with mysterious giggling laughter or guffaws and references to some movie they have just watched. Anything to avoid coming into contact with the living Christ, anything to acknowledge the One they say they have given their lives to, or at least been baptized into as infants.

This morning I found myself walking into the lunch area in the upper offices for a cup of coffee. Coming right at me at a furious pace, our new CMO, a young man with typically piercing eyes that nonetheless emit a vacuous look, looked right at me, unsmiling as a corpse, saying nothing. I knew my “good morning” would go unheeded, so this morning for the first time I didn’t say it. The last time I greeted him and he walked past looking right at me and saying nothing, later that day he asked me why I was so grouchy, was I having a difficult day? So, after several attempts, I learned my lesson. Not everyone is looking when they’re seeing, or listening when they’re hearing.

So, I gave my usual cheery “good morning” to my buddy, our in-house salesman, as he sat in his cubicle. No need to worry about him responding. Like me, he’s a born and bred mid-westerner transplanted out here to the land of the uttermost west. Like me, he was brought up a Catholic, but unlike me, he was fortunate enough to accept it as his religious heritage, and he remains so. We often share interesting discussions and reminiscences, and even sometimes a joke or two. He’s almost a generation younger, but sometimes I’m just too “cutting edge” for him. He’s a conservative; I have no secular affiliations.

Jokingly, I ragged on how the CMO seems to be robotic and oblivious to me and anyone from whom he does not require something right now. My Catholic co-worker generously defended him, “He’s just on a mission,” and then chuckled, as you see, he had been making a bee-line for the men’s room when I saw him. “But surely,” I responded, “people are more important than that. It takes half a second to flash a greeting to someone as you pass them.” My friend and I then walked over to the coffee machine, for our morning grog.

Continuing my probe, I asked him, “If you were heading one way, and you met a funeral procession carrying the dead only son of a widow going the other way, wouldn’t you take a moment to stop and raise the dead?” (cf. Luke 7:11-17) This is the way I am used to talking, bringing the Word of God into a conversation, whenever it enters my mind to do so—in this case, an extreme example of the willingness to be interrupted, even when you’re ‘on a mission.’ I knew that my friend was knowledgeable in the bible, as he is a faithful church-going Catholic and hears it read at mass, though he rarely reads it himself.

As I was saying this to him, another co-worker came out of his cubicle, sensing the approach of a possible moment of jest. He is a very young man, a twenty-something, and I know by some of his behaviors (he sometimes says grace before eating when we are at a company feed) that he must be a Christian. When I have tried to openly fellowship with him, he shies away. We’ve noticed he does not celebrate birthdays, so we’re sure he belongs to the JW’s. Anyway, so he came out and heard me alluding to the scripture where Jesus and the disciples meet a funeral procession, and He stops to raise a dead young man.

Suddenly, from both my colleagues, hilarious laughter bellowed and some other little sounds I cannot identify, like hoots or whistles. Confused, I asked, “What are you laughing at?” thinking, it couldn’t possibly be my reference to the bible story. My younger friend responded that it was something from a popular film that they were laughing about, but I’d never heard of it, and the joke was entirely lost on me.

I brought us back to the topic—that people could be friendly and aware of each other, instead of walking around like robots in a vacuum—that I was talking to my Catholic friend about, when the other joined us. “Both of you know this scripture. You’re a Catholic, and you’re a Christian, and both of you must have heard this story. Wouldn’t you stop, even if you were on a ‘mission,’ to do an act of kindness for, or even greet, someone coming toward you?”

The laughter subsided, replaced by two faces that looked as if they had just seen or heard something shocking, and then utter silence for the space of four or five seconds. “We have to be awake, brothers. We have to be aware of each other. We can’t just let our minds be vacant.” Then, I filled my coffee cup, and my two friends walked off to finish their common jest, laughing and chortling as they went.

This is office life where I work.

Zeal for Your House…

Zeal within religious communities we seem to have no lack of, whether non-Christian or Christian, whether Orthodox or non-Orthodox, but how often is this zeal just a form of self-love veneered with a thin layer of religious confession? How often is it a cover up for an agenda, a headhunter's mentality, or simply a perverse and sulky disposition to sabotage?

Jesus Christ rarely acted in such a way that could label Him a zealot, and nowhere in scripture is He described as such, except in His act of "cleansing the Temple" whereupon His action is explained as a fulfillment of the prophetic utterance in psalm 69, ο ζηλος του οικου σου καταφαγεται με, "zeal for Your house eats me up" (John 2:17). Strangely, in John's first letter, the same chapter and verse number seems to give a commentary on the application, for us, of true zeal, και ο κοσμος παραγεται και η επιθυμια, ο δε ποιων το θελημα του θεου μενει εις τον αιωνα, "The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:17).

The man who does the will of God...

Brother Pandeli has posted at his blog FOCUS a wonderful article in which he offers the following quote from our father among the saints, Nektarios of Aegina,

“The zealot according to knowledge, motivated by the love of God and his neighbor, does all things with charity and self-effacement; he does nothing that might bring sorrow to his neighbor; such a zealot is enlightened by knowledge and nothing prompts him to deviate from what is morally right (see Self-Knowledge, pp. 135-136).

Nothing prompts him to deviate from what is morally right...

I have been privileged to know people like this, and have been blessed to call one of them my best friend. With a friend like that, it is easy to follow Jesus and to choose the right. Somehow we escape, as did Jesus, the accusation of being zealots. The world doesn't quite know what to call us, because as soon as it chooses a name for us or throws an accusation against us, our course of action seems to have changed again. That's because they cannot see, they do not know, the One we are following, and so our ways are an enigma to them, as are His. They simply cannot track us.

I invite you to read the rest of Pandeli's post, entitled Zeal and Love: St Nektarios. It is well worth reading.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A coffeehouse testimony revisited

There, in a coffeehouse in old Portland, we met together, and our invisible Lord was in our midst, teaching us His precious and all-powerful Word through our discourses with each other, helping us to understand that our lives, which we three had given to Him, really are now in His mighty and yet tender hands. There, a few hours of chrónos time were plucked out of this plummeting age and, transformed into kairós time, were laid up for us in the “city not made with hands.”

One of us, a man I know in Christ, spoke at one point with such calm passion and Christ-like simplicity and order, about the lives we have been given back by Jesus, lives of willingness to suffer for His name, all I could say, over and over, after each pause in his voice, was "Ameen" but softly, so as not to interrupt him. He spoke like the Evángelos, the “good angel” I know him to be. Almost never have I heard such a discourse from a priest, and certainly never from anyone, except in the writings of the Fathers, expressed with such God-imploring humility.

Kept coming to my mind the remembrance of the new martyrs of Russia who, though young in years like my brother, like him too were wise like the ancient Fathers. They struggled against an atheistic Christ-hating state, refusing to take the “mark of the beast” in any form. They suffered for the Truth, and the wonder-working faith that was the fruit of their endurance, fed each other as they were, one by one, led as Christ's innocent lambs to the slaughter. Two of the young men pictured met this fate, one came through it alive. Yet their three-fold unity mirrored the three-fold radiance of the all-holy God, the Almighty, the Deathless, the unearthly Triad, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I cannot evade testifying that there is Truth on earth, even now.
Defying the barking dogs in their mangers who do not go into the Kingdom of Heaven themselves yet prevent those who want to from going in, Jesus walking among us still casts the money-changers from His Father's house, crying out, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, for to such as them belongs the Kingdom of God!”

What is different and perhaps even more cruel than an atheistic Christ-hating state is what we have to face now, in America… I cannot even say it, but you know what it is, because you have already seen in your young lives what the divine, God-breathed scriptures was telling us of, when Jesus said, “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or Me. I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you” (John 16:2-4 NIV).

The time is now very close. “O gar kairós engýs” (Revelation 1:3). That is why we are reading the Apokálypsis more and more, even in Greek, to understand its message intimately and spiritually—not like the expounders of end times theoretica—but as men and women of faith, “who follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Revelation 14:4).

How can we know that the time is very close? We can see what is happening to the churches. Though we do not abandon our institutional churches, we cannot let ourselves be trapped in them. The time is now very close. We do the work we see our Father doing and, following Jesus, in company with Him, we know and accept His great commission, to go forth with Him to seek that which was lost. And where Jesus is, there is the Holy Spirit, there is the Church. “With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us…”
(Hebrews 12:1 JB).

“It is all clear to me now, either Christianity is fire,
or there is no such thing.
I just want to wander through the world, calling,
‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.’
And to accept it if people revile me
and say all manner of evil against me.”

Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945)

Living in the Word

This is a comment I just left on the blog of a Christian seminarian that I've known for a number of years. His post was an explanation of why he finds Christian girls boring. The topic interests me because other young men I have known have also expressed the same complaint. In my comment I dissect to some level a few of the ideas he expressed.

Brother, if I may comment, I would like to say that in general you find women who are stereotyping themselves as “Christians” to be boring and, of course, so do I. Authentic life in either sex is what attracts, life lived “as you are” and, if Christ is your life, well, what can I say? You will not probably fit the cookie cutter pattern of the modern Christian. Instead, you will be like someone out of a science fiction or fantasy novel, or from the pages of the Bible itself. Why? Because the inauthentic has become the majority environment of the world in these final days, and only fiction (written to give some relief, though it is not permanent or lasting) or the Word of God (the eternal, the always fresh, revelation of the mind of God our maker and deliverer), challenges this environment, and presents us with an alternative.

I find that most of your criticisms are not coming from a scriptural mindset, but from one which is really quite secular. This surprises me, as you have put forth yourself as one who is a follower of Jesus, who is the Word of God in human form, and who said, “If you make My Word your home, you will be My disciples.” That home comes fully furnished with everything we need, and He has arranged everything so wisely for us. People say they are moving in to live there, but usually they only visit and try to rearrange His furniture to suit themselves. Brother, do not be that kind of habitant!

You say that you don’t like this in Christian women, that they think their biological clock is ticking very quickly, that they must get married and make babies as soon as possible, no matter what. You challenge this, saying, “It costs A LOT of money to support oneself, but to bring in another life and be dependent on it is another ordeal altogether, how many can say they're financially secure right after school? I mean, unless you married someone who's an oil baron who doesn't need a spouse to work, you and the guy you're married to will BOTH need to work to support each other, bringing kids into the world while not being somewhat financially secure is bad idea in my opinion. You will have plenty of time to make some kids, don't worry, until then get on some form of birth control.” I challenge you to take up the biblical faith, starting with not seating yourself on the throne of your life and tailoring the commandments to suit what you think is reasonable.

The truth is that no one is ever ready to have children once they are married, no one, not even the rich. It is a scary proposition, not however for the reasons you state, financial inadequacy and such, but rather, because God has given us a commandment, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”, in which He partners with us in the most intimate way imaginable, making us in our act of procreation co-creators with Him of other human lives and fashioners of the history of the world. As followers of Jesus—I am not saying, as “Christians”, because anyone can say they are that—as followers of the Living One, the Holy One of Israel, the only God, who risked all to enter the womb of an unwedded bride and become Man, as followers of That Man, we run the way of the commandments, because we have been set free.

Set free from what? Set free from fear, ultimately the fear of death, but intimately the fear of submitting our day to day lives to Him, to letting Him, the Faithful and the True, hold us in the palm of His hand. The first commandment is the easiest, but only if we obey it without hedging it in with restrictions. Yes, your young body and the young body of your wife, are prepared for the begetting, bearing and raising of children. We let ourselves be guided by biblically informed reason, according to the conditions at hand. If you are caught in the midst of a raging battle, your land is being pillaged and raped and denuded of its inhabitants, this is not the time to procreate, but to pray for deliverance. We aren’t there yet, brother. But if you make ease the measuring stick of how and when to fulfill the commandments, you will lose all.

Everything that our good and loving God commands in holy and divine scripture is true. It doesn’t need adjustment from us. The Holy Spirit in fact interprets for us in every situation how to apply it, if we will listen to Him and not take refuge in our own calculated reason. He can enlighten reason in us, but only when we have yielded all to Him.

You seem to have a problem with God’s order of Man and Woman that is provided for us in His Word. Out of context, you say, people have stressed the “wives submit to your husbands” and suppressed the “husbands submit to your wives.” There is no such verse, other than to “submit yourselves to one another, in love.” The word submission can mean many things, and you have a lot to learn, not from modern philosophy or your own thoughts fashioned by the world system, but from living the commandments that have been revealed in the Word, instead of just talking about them. At one time you identified yourself as Greek Orthodox, and I don’t know if you still do. Orthodoxy does not bend to the world system or its philosophy, and those who are Orthodox live already in another world, in another house, and that house is the one that Jesus speaks of when He says, “If you make My Word your home…”

People are afraid—there’s that word “fear” again!—to submit themselves body, mind and soul to what the Word of God decrees for mankind, that is, the divine economy, the plan of salvation. They always want to tailor it to what they think is their current condition or status. That’s why we see hundreds of different editions of the bible for every kind of person. But this, brother, is blatant blasphemy, yet the world-conditioned Christians see it as God’s gentle and accepting way with them. C. S. Lewis was right when he described this kind of man-made “God” as a Grandfather in heaven, who is happy when he knows that everyone has had a great day and enjoyed themselves.

You say that you are not one of those who box reality up into secular and spiritual categories. You say that “everything is spiritual, all truth is God’s truth.” Easy to say this, brother, but difficult to live it, don’t you think? You say, “No need to complicate things and make laws that aren't of God.” Again, easy to say, but then whose laws are of God, and whose aren’t, and who is to judge?

There is a divinely established order of Man and Woman, and it is what the Word of God declares. Only those who intend to live according to that order can speak about it, can describe what it is like, but most importantly, even without speaking of it, we can see the effect that following the order that God has established has on their lives. Their marriages and their families become ikons of life in the Holy Triad, ikons even of Paradise, as the Orthodox wedding service proclaims.

Not only in the married life, but in everything—for He has ordered even our society—we live according to the mind of Christ, which is One mind, and which He gives to us, when we come to Him without defense or excuse, and allow Him to reveal to us what and who He made us to be, and gives us that white stone on which our new names are written, which only the one who receives it can read.

It’s time to grow up for real, and leave behind the world’s false assurances and decrees.
The decree of Yahweh Sabaoth awaits us all, who have ears to hear.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The irony of believing

Fr Stephen's blog is always a rich source of reliable and honest truth about Christian faith, and the Orthodox in particular, and so for any who might not have visited his blog Glory to God for All Things, I want to introduce it again, and give you a sample of what he writes about, from his most recent post entitled The Irony of Believing...

There is a deep need for the appreciation of irony to sustain a Christian life. Our world is filled with contradiction. Hypocrisy is ever present even within our own heart. The failures of Church and those who are most closely associated with it can easily crush the hearts of the young and break the hearts of those who are older.

I can think of at least two times in my life that the failures of Church, or its hierarchy, drove me from the ranks of the Church, or what passed for Church at the time. As years have gone by I haven’t seen less that would disappoint or break the heart – indeed the things that troubled me as a young man barely compare with revelations we all have seen in recent years.

No hands are clean. Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, the failures and coverups are in no way the special province of any. The question of truth remains – but in a contest of the pure, everyone loses. The irony remains. Our failures would not be so poignant if the Kingdom were not so pure. Judas’ betrayal is darkened all the more by the fact that his victim is God Himself.

All of which brings us back to the irony that remains. The greatest irony of all is the God who forgives and remains ever faithful to us despite the contradictions.

These are questions that any follower of Christ, or anyone for that matter, has a right to ask. Some very famous non-Christians have asserted that they respect and admire Jesus Christ, but it's His followers that they can't stand. They're talking about the Church... well, actually, they're not talking about the Church (capital C) but about what they (and even we sometimes) call church. That's another discussion. But Fr Stephen examines this well, and his entire post is worth reading. It's all right HERE.


I don’t want to entertain,
I want to communicate.
Meaning and relationship are
what is
most important to me.
I am a Greek Orthodox Christian,
but not Orthodoxy,
only Christ matters.

Church has its place,
but it cannot be substituted for
one’s personal response
to the call of Jesus Christ.

The above has been my summary ‘statement’, written back in 2006 when I first started blogging. These words, combined with my choice of “Cost of Discipleship” and a quotation from this book by its author, Protestant hieromartyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the name of my blog has kept it off the ‘Orthodox’ blog rolls of most other bloggers who confess this faith. A handful of other Orthodox have listed me as an Orthodox blogger, including two priests, one Antiochian and one Serbian. They must have seen through whatever it is that keeps me ‘off limits’ to all the others. Truthfully, I do not promote Orthodox Christianity as a church or religion. My intention is to confess Christ and to be His witness, sharing with others what He shares with me, and following Him with my whole being, not just with my words, by doing what I see Him doing, saying what I hear Him saying. It doesn’t seem honest, prudent or safe to do anything other than this.

But thinking about my ‘statement’ I can see that it could easily be misunderstood. It is vague enough that my enemies, if I have any, can say that I am a pseudo-Orthodox, or worse. After all, I seem to be saying that Orthodoxy isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter, that only Christ matters. And actually, starting in reverse order, that is what I confess—only Christ matters. But if that were true for me without qualification, why even mention Orthodoxy at all? Anyone who knows me personally, who goes to church with me, knows that I am a practicing Greek Orthodox, that I participate in regular worship and have at various times held responsible positions in this church.

What I mean when I say that Orthodoxy doesn’t matter, or that “Church has its place, but it cannot be substituted for one’s personal response to the call of Jesus Christ,” is that in every context, our individual response to the living Christ is incomparable in importance to anything else we might think about or do. Everything about Holy Orthodoxy springs from the reality of that response to the living Christ, the resurrected Lord, everything! Yet, we can have an ‘Orthodoxy’ that is the work of man, not the work of God which is what Holy Orthodoxy is.

The Orthodox Church is everything that it claims to be, nothing more and nothing less, but Orthodoxy itself is an inexhaustible reality that overfills and overflows the visible Church. Wherever Christ is truly welcomed, followed and confessed, there is the Church, there is Orthodoxy. I do not promote Orthodoxy as a church or religion, because it is neither. It is a living reality that is the work of God, not man-made, and it is not something I can lure people to. I simply witness for Christ, as I can do nothing else, and He does all the work, as a homely saying runs, “We catch the fish, He cleans them and sorts them.”

So do I recant? Does Orthodoxy matter or not?
Of course it does, but it’s not something I can give you. It is the work of God, and to Him alone it belongs. It is a humble work, I know, to simply witness for Christ, but by our lives and actions, not by our words alone, are people drawn to the One we follow and, if they truly want Him, they will, like the two disciples, ask, “Rabbi, where do you live?” and He will always answer, “Come, and see!” (John 1:38-39).

We witness for Christ, we never argue.
We read the Word aloud and speak it to people without adding anything or taking anything away, and by so doing disarm our detractors. It is “not ourselves that we preach” (2 Corinthians 4:5) and promote, only Christ, and who can argue with Him? They may try, but Christ Himself never argues, He simply is who He is. Sometimes His sheep even “recognize His voice” (John 10:27) long before they know it is He, and when they finally do know who is calling them, to Him they run. He leads them “to graze close by the shepherds’ tents” (Song of Songs 1:8).

I was reading some passages in the book Hymn of Entry, by Archimandrite Vasileios, and it made me stop and think the foregoing thoughts. I really just wanted to quote more of the wise words of this modern church father, rather than write anything of my own, but that’s not what happened. Sometimes the end of our motivation is different than what we supposed. But let me, brethren, quote at least a little bit of what I was reading, as these words will be more edifying than mine...

How frequently the Lord would stop people who wanted to start a “theological” conversation with Him. They ask, “Will those who are saved be few?” and the Lord replies, “Strive to enter by the narrow door” (Luke 13:23-24). Again, with the Samaritan woman who is surprised when the Lord asks her for water, and explains her surprise, “For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9), Jesus cuts short her comments on the relations between the religious communities with the command, “Go, call your husband” (John 4:16). In a moment He leads the conversation into the field of personal life, of true theology. In every case He is interested in the person, not in theological discussion as an isolated occupation remaining out of touch with life and with the very person who is speaking. “I seek not what is yours, but you” (2 Corinthians 12:14), says Paul; I seek the person and his salvation.

Therefore, while the Jews of Christ’s day were so eager for theological discussions, He let them go unanswered; “But He was silent.” For He did not come to discuss, He came to seek out and save the one that had gone astray
(Matthew 18:11). He came and took on our whole nature. He entered into us, into the shadow of death where we are, and drew us to the light. We passed into His life: we live in Him.

Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry, pp. 32-33 passim

The passage quoted above is the commentary on and explanation of what I mean in my ‘statement’ when I say, “Meaning and relationship are what is most important to me.” Even, and especially, in Orthodoxy is that personal response to the call of Jesus Christ the most important thing, that “which will not be taken from” us
(Luke 10:42).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The unchanging Change

What the [Church] Fathers require and give is the change which comes from the Spirit. If we want to approach them outside this reality, they will remain for us incomprehensible as writers, and scorned as persons.

Communication of the patristic word, the word of the Holy Fathers, is not a matter of applying their sayings to this or that topic with the help of a concordance. [The Kingdom of God is not a Talmud, nor is it a mechanical collection of scriptural or patristic quotations outside our being and our lives. ibid., p. 34.] It is a process whereby nourishment is taken up by living organisms, assimilated by them and turned into blood, life and strength. And, subsequently, it means passing on the joy and proclaiming the miracle through the very fact of being brought to life, an experience we apprehend in a way that defies doubt or discussion.

Thus the living patristic word is not conveyed mechanically, nor preserved archaeologically, nor approached through excursions into history. It is conveyed whole, full of life, as it passes from generation to generation through living organisms, altering them, creating “fathers” who make it their personal word, a new possession, a miracle, a wealth which increases as it is given away.

This is the unchanging change wrought by the power that changes corruption into incorruption. It is the motionless perpetual motion of the Word of God, and its ever-living immutability. Every day the Word seems different and new, and is the same. This is the mystery of life which has entered deep into our dead nature and raises it up from within, breaking the bars of Hell.

How beautiful it is for a man to become theology. Then whatever he does, and above all what he does spontaneously, since only what is spontaneous is true, bears witness and speaks of the fact that the Son and Word of God was incarnate, that He was made man through the Holy Spirit and the ever-virgin Mary. It speaks silently about the ineffable mysteries which have been revealed in the last times.

Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry, pp. 35-36 passim

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Today in your hearing

Thus says Yahweh,
“Let the sage boast no more of his wisdom,
nor the valiant of his valour,
nor the rich man of his riches!
But if anyone wants to boast, let him boast of this:
of understanding and knowing Me.
For I am Yahweh, I rule with kindness,
justice and integrity on earth;
yes, these are what please Me
—it is Yahweh who speaks.
Jeremiah 9:22-23

See, then, that the days are coming—it is Yahweh who speaks—when people will no longer say, “As Yahweh lives who brought the sons of Israel out of the land of Egypt!” but, “As Yahweh lives who brought the sons of Israel out of the land of the North and back from all the countries to which He had dispersed them”. I will bring them back to the very soil I gave their ancestors.
Jeremiah 16:14-15

Doom for the shepherds who allow the flock of My pasture to be destroyed and scattered—it is Yahweh who speaks! This, therefore, is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says about the shepherds in charge of My people: You have let My flock be scattered and go wandering and have not taken care of them. Right, I will take care of you for your misdeeds—it is Yahweh who speaks! But the remnant of My flock I Myself will gather from all the countries where I have dispersed them, and will bring them back to their pastures: they shall be fruitful and increase in numbers. I will raise up shepherds to look after them and pasture them; no fear, no terror for them anymore; not one shall be lost—it is Yahweh who speaks!
Jeremiah 23:1-4

Yahweh says this:
Now I will restore the tents of Jacob,
and take pity on his dwellings:
the city shall be rebuilt on its ruins,
the citadel restored on its site.
From them will come thanksgiving
and shouts of joy.
I will make them increase, and not diminish them,
make them honoured and not disdained.
Their sons shall be as once they were,
their community fixed firm in My presence,
and I will punish all their oppressors.
Their princes will be one of their own,
their Ruler come from their own people.
I will let Him come freely into My presence
and He can come close to Me;
Who else, indeed, would risk His life
by coming close to Me?—it is Yahweh who speaks!
And you shall be My people and I will be your God.
Now a storm of Yahweh breaks,
a tempest whirls,
it bursts over the head of the wicked;
the anger of Yahweh will not turn aside
until He has performed and carried out
the decision of His heart.
You will understand this in the days to come.
Jeremiah 30:18-24

Every believer is called

Every believer is called to live theologically, and the whole body of the Church is creating theology in its life and its struggle. Thus the ex cathedra of Orthodoxy, the way in which it expresses itself infallibly, is from the Cross. The responsibility that is spread over the whole body of people is a cross. Apophatic theology is an ascent to Golgotha. The spiritual life of each believer which provides the overall balance is a cross. On the Cross, the Lord “stretched out His hands and united what had previously been sundered.”

From all this we see why every term has a different meaning in the mouth of a saint, a different weight and force; it is because he is born and lives in another world. What commands his enthusiasm and concern is something altogether non-essential and unimportant to the present age, which comes and sees it, and passes by on the other side. That which is the life, the joy and the certainty of the Orthodox, does not exist for the world: “The world will see Me no more, but you will see Me” (John 14:19).

We are bound together by the common faith which, in accordance with tradition, each of us has found and finds personally through the exercise of his own responsibility—so each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12)—and through the communion of the Holy Spirit. The Church leaves the believer free to feel Christ dwelling within him; free to live in fear on the sea of this present age; free to be crushed by his responsibility; free to cry out to the Lord, “Master, we perish,” and to see Him in the night of the present age, walking on the waters for him personally and for the whole Church; and free to hear the Lord say to him, “It is I.”

Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry, pp. 50-52 passim

This is the Orthodoxy that we adhere to, this is the Orthodoxy that is the foundation of the world, as we proclaim on Orthodoxy Sunday. This is the unchanging Orthodoxy of Jesus Christ, the holy apostles, the fathers, the martyrs and all the saints, of former ages, in this present time, and in the age to come.

Glory to You, our God, and our hope,
glory to You who have shown us the Light!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The descent into Hades

The Apostles’ Creed, an ancient Western baptismal confession of faith, not actually authored by any of the holy apostles but rather believed to contain their teaching, includes the phrase, “He descended into hell.” As a young child in a Polish-American family, I learned this creed by heart in preparation for my first holy communion. All I could picture when saying the phrase and thinking about it was a fiery horizontal with dozens of hands and heads bobbing up and down in it, to the din of screams and moans. “Do they mean Jesus went down into that?” I thought to myself, “Ugh!” No further explanation was thought necessary. Somehow, there was also a notion that the hell that was being talked about was actually a place called purgatory, because no one ever got out of hell, but you could get out of purgatory if you knew how. It had something to do with having your living relatives say hundreds and hundreds of Hail Mary’s and naming you as the beneficiary. Again I thought, “Ugh!” But on first holy communion day, I was dressed up like a little bridegroom, given a black prayerbook and a black rosary, and marched into church side by side with a buck-toothed girl dressed up like a little bride carrying a white prayerbook and white rosary. Her parents and mine thought we made a cute couple, and made sure we would receive the sacrament side-by-side, like little newly-weds. And yes, now that we had come of age, we had the tools of our trade and expected to be little prayer warriors. I liked to read my prayerbook because it was written in Polish, and I was already becoming a linguist. The rosary got some half-hearted, dutiful use, and then used to hang on the crucifix above my bed till I went off to college, draped across the nailed hands of Jesus.

The foregoing ramble was conjured by my reading of Fr Stephen’s post Metaphors of the Atonement, in which he compares the Western Christian beliefs about Christ’s descent into Hades to those held by Eastern Christians, that is, the Orthodox. In my passage from the Episcopal Church to Greek Orthodoxy twenty-two years ago, those odd beliefs surrounding “He descended into hell” somehow disappeared unnoticed, along with many other facets of my childhood ‘faith.’ The richly-colored, mysterious ikons inundated my bewildered imagination as I attempted to adapt my mind to the Eastern Church as quickly as possible. The phrase “He descended into hell” disappeared, never to return, and so did all those poor souls tormented in the fire.

As an Orthodox catechumen, I discovered that faith was not formulated in creeds, but in the Σύμβολον της Πίστεως, the Symbol of the Faith (of Nicæa), in which the holy apostles and their successors, with fear and trembling, defined in human words the deposit of the Faith in a statement called The Symbol, from the Greek σύμβολον, sýmvolon, from the root words συν-, meaning ‘together,’ and βολή, a ‘throw’ or ‘volley,’ thus having the approximate meaning of ‘thrown together.’

“Thrown together?” I thought, and asked my catechist, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

The answer was unexpected but convincing. The Symbol was the bringing back into unity the tongues that were divided and the peoples that were scattered at the destruction of the Tower of Babel. The opposite of The Symbol was the Diabol, the splitter, that which divides, the root phoneme of words such as diabolic and devil. The opposite event in scripture to the dividing of the tongues at Babel is the unification of the tongues that happened when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the holy apostles on the day of Pentecost. “Does that mean that we’re overriding God’s human containment policy?” I wondered. Not really. The people who received the Spirit of the living God were so changed that though they spoke a multitude of languages, they all could be understood to mean the same thing. “Everything begins to speak with strange dogmas, strange words and the strange teachings of the Holy Trinity” (lauds and vespers of Pentecost). What was received by the holy apostles in their anointing by the Spirit on Pentecost was handed over to their successors who handed it over to us. The Church therefore, I was told, does not teach this or that, as if it had teachings of its own. It only hands over the teaching that it has received from Christ and the apostles. To me, brought up as a Western Christian, these certainly were “strange dogmas, strange words and the strange teachings of the Holy Trinity,” and yet I was very glad to know them.

Returning to the topic, the descent into Hades, Fr Stephen writes,

The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades occupies an essential place in the works of Cyril of Alexandria. In his Paschal Homilies, he repeatedly mentions that as a consequence of the descent of Christ into Hades, the devil was left all alone, while hell was devastated: ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely.’ This imagery is also found in John Chrysostom’s famous Catechetical Homily: “And not one dead is left in the grave.”

...[Contrast] this with the Descent into Hades’ development in Western Christianity:

The general conclusion can now be drawn from a comparative analysis of Eastern and Western understandings of the descent into Hades. In the first three centuries of the Christian Church, there was considerable similarity between the interpretation of this doctrine by theologians in East and West. However, already by the fourth to fifth centuries, substantial differences can be identified. In the West, a juridical understanding of the doctrine prevailed. It gave increasingly more weight to notions of predestination (Christ delivered from hell those who were predestined for salvation from the beginning) and original sin (salvation given by Christ was deliverance from the general original sin, not from the ‘personal’ sins of individuals). The range of those to whom the saving action of the descent into hell is extended becomes ever more narrow. First, it excludes sinners doomed to eternal torment, then those in purgatory and finally unbaptized infants.

This kind of legalism was alien to the Orthodox East, where the descent into Hades continued to be perceived in the spirit in which it is expressed in the liturgical texts of Great Friday and Easter, i.e., as an event significant not only for all people, but also for the entire cosmos, for all created life.

During the Portland Greek Festival, the first weekend of October every year, as a church tour guide people are always asking me, “What’s the difference between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism? They’re pretty much the same, aren’t they?” They often look startled when I tell them, “No, they are really very, very different.” They won’t let go, “But you guys look like Roman Catholics, you’ve got holy pictures and candles and statues and the mass, and all that stuff, don’t you?”

I blow the whistle (metaphorically), CUT! No statues, no masses, yes ikons, yes candles and incense, yes ceremonial, but look more closely, please. There is no meaningless detail in Orthodoxy. Everything teaches, and more than just teaching, everything preserves us in the true following of Jesus, in true faith. When Jesus suffered for us, He descended into Hades, and emptied it of its captives, opening Paradise for them through the open gateway of His pure body, while trampling death by His death. Devil, here’s mud in your eye!

This is the way I talk to them. Hmm, maybe that’s why I only get to give the tour by default, when no clergy show up on occasion.

A final thought on the descent into Hades.

Many Christians have never even heard of this act of God in Christ, being ignorant of the Symbol of the Faith and also of the scriptures’ foundational testimony. The first Christians knew and believed the fact of the resurrection of Jesus on the third day. They knew and believed the testimony of the holy apostles, with whom the resurrected Lord physically sojourned for forty days after His victory over death, teaching them all that they in turn handed over to us.
The Orthodox ikon usually called The Resurrection is actually an ikon of the descent into Hades. Notice, there is no fire anywhere. Just the poor old devil lying there in the dark with his hands and feet bound, surrounded by broken locks and chains and severed gates.
What a relief!

Christ is risen from the dead. By death trampling down death, and to those in the tombs, bestowing life.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Word is for you

For we do not write you anything you cannot read or understand.
2 Corinthians 1:13 NIV

This verse has always strengthened me, and it is from the epistle that most closely reflects my own life, 2 Corinthians, though I best not call it my favorite... every word of God is my favorite!

I knew a Baptist pastor once, who wrote that John's gospel should not be given to new Christians to read, because it takes years and years of study, even seminary training, to understand it.

On the other hand, it is John's gospel, his three letters, and his startling book, Revelation, that I give to new Christians, indeed all Christians, to read, and in teaching evangelical Greek, our lessons are always drawn from John's writings.

Not only that Baptist pastor, but many others, warn us against reading the bible on our own, unaided. They tell that the Word of God is too high and holy, too full of mysteries for the layman to grasp.

Read the church fathers (Orthodox), read imprimatured authors (Catholics), read so-and-so's commentaries (Protestants), or run the risk of personal heresy. Such are the warnings I have heard.

My general educational background, my life experience, my adherence to the norms of Orthodox Christianity, and my ongoing participation in the life of the Church, these are what qualify me to read the Word, understand and interpret it, on the human side.

The Word itself promises, “But you have not lost the anointing that He gave you, and you do not need anyone to teach you, the anointing He gave teaches you everything; you are anointed with truth, not a lie, and as it has taught you, so you must stay in Him.” (1 John 2:27 Jerusalem Bible)

Whatever depths there are to be learned and understood in the Word of God, these the Spirit in us will teach us, nothing contrary to what the fathers have taught through the world and the ages. In fact, we will be confirmed in our faith, as we see our understanding and theirs agree, since there is only one Spirit.

Brethren, read the Word, live in it, do what it tells you and do not let yourselves be deceived by false humility in yourself or false authority outside. Christ has not left us orphans. He has left us the anointing that teaches us everything. He is with us. Do not be afraid.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The origins of the Church at Rome

An interesting history from The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church ...

Shortly after the ascension of our Lord and after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Mary Magdalene received the strong desire to go to Rome to expose the unjust actions of the Governor Pilate and the High Priests Annas and Caiaphas. She obtained permission from the Theotokos [the Mother of Jesus] and booked a sailing vessel for Rome. Once in Rome she went immediately to the palace of Caesar. There she was initially refused but as she was about to depart up came a high ranking official Puplius who was very familiar with the situation. He showed her a letter that he wrote to Caesar. In part it read,

"The truth be told, there are some astonishing things concerning this Christ. Miracles abound. He raises the dead and heals the sick with but a word. He is a man of average height, handsome of countenance with an air of majesty. Those that encounter him are enjoined either to love him or fear him. His hair is the color of walnut, which extends to his shoulders and glistens. He belongs to the group known as Nazarenes. His forehead is smooth and calm. His face is without wrinkles or blemishes. His nose and lips are regular. His beard is dense and the same color as his hair. It is not long, but it separates in two at the middle. He has a serious look that can excite fear. He possesses a power like a ray of the sun...
His manner of addressing is pleasing... He often walks barefooted and without a head covering. Some laugh at him, while others tremble in his presence from their astonishment. He never preaches anything to promote himself in the world...
This Christ has never urged anyone to do anything displeasing, but rather he exhorts the people to perform good deeds…"

His knowledge of the situation led Mary to tears. He told her that Caesar had received his letter and that even Caesar respected Jesus.
After hearing Mary’s plea for justice in this matter Puplius committed to have Caesar to issue an order to call Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas to Rome for a trial. He asked her to give him two months to recall them. Mary thanked him and took up residence in Rome establishing the first house church there where they gathered almost every night praying and discoursing.

Three months after her first arrival the trial was set to begin. It was known that Caesar was incensed with the three who had been recalled because they killed a wonderful man who worked many miracles to benefit the people. As the trial began Mary appeared marvelous as she walked in the midst of the court toward the autocrat. She was clad in a brown tunic, with a leather belt. She wore a long orange-colored veil the inner kerchief was a deep orange. Her whole appearance created a marvelous impression.

Orthodox tradition and iconography also maintains that when Saint Mary appeared before Tiberius Caesar Augustus, she presented him with an egg dyed red, greeting him with the words: Christ is risen! This is a custom that has since spread among Orthodox Christians throughout the world. The prayer read at the blessing of the eggs says near the end, "Thus have we received from the holy fathers, who preserved this custom from the very time of the holy apostles; therefore the holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene first showed believers the example of this joyful offering."

The trial proceeded and Mary clearly explained how Pilate had conducted the trial in Jerusalem against Jesus Christ. On hearing the case Caesar said, "Those who are guilty will be punished." Caesar asked for advice from his counsel Claudius who confirmed that he (Pilate ) "acted not only in an irregular manner but even unlawfully by condemning to death this man whom he found no reason in our penal code that deserved death."

Mary then gave further testimony about the tortures that took place. She said, "When they arrested my Teacher in the garden on the mount of Olives, they brought him bound to Annas, and then to Caiaphas... They thrashed Jesus pitilessly and inhumanely throughout His holy body. They brought him to the Praetorium, to the Roman Governor Pilate…"
She continued, "The instruments of torture, O Caesar, they used to scourge my Teacher was a bull-whip, rods with knots, and ropes with iron stars and hooks positioned at a short distance from each other. These lacerated His flesh to the bones. Sixty soldiers struck again and again. The virginal and noble flesh of the God-Man was shred to pieces… when they saw His bones and blood running like a river from His veins, they were rejoicing and laughing among themselves with inexplicable satisfaction... The executioners were as dogs, bulls, tigers, and wild animals."
And she went describing the horrible treatment He had received. As she finished, the crowd at the trial began to chant, "Death! Death to the god-slayers! Death!"

Caiaphas never made it to the trial as he died on the trip to Rome. Tiberius Caesar sentenced Annas to a tortuous death and imprisoned Pilate who was eventually killed. Mary Magdalene remained in Rome for several years until the death of Pilate. She then returned to Jerusalem after having established an energetic church in Rome.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

I still believe

I've been in a cave for 40 days
only a spark to light my way
I want to give out, I want to give in
This is our crime, this is our sin
I still believe, I still believe
Through the pain, and through the grief
Through the lies, through the storms
Through the cries, and through the wars
I still believe

I'm flat on my back out at sea
hoping these waves don't cover me
I'm turned and tossed upon the waves
When the darkness comes I feel the grave
But I still believe, I still believe
Through the cold, and through the heat
Through the rain, and through the tears,
Through the crowds, and through the cheers
I still believe

I'll march this road, I'll climb this hill
Upon my knees if I have to
I'll take my place upon this stage
I'll wait until the end of time for you
I'm out on my own walking these streets
Look at the faces that I meet
I feel like I want to go home
What do I feel? What do I know?
But I still believe, I still believe
Through the shame, and through the grief
Through the heartache, through the tears
Through the waiting, through the years
For people like us in places like this
We need all the hope we can get
Oh, I still believe!

The Call, Reconciled