Monday, May 31, 2010

Only One is worthy

I wrote the following few words to a brother in a private letter, but someone else needs to hear this, so here it is...

Only One is worthy,
and we know it,
and we know Him.

So as we go suffering as He suffers,
rejoicing as He rejoices,
let's keep following Him,
and decide to do now and always
exactly what He asks,
no matter what it looks like,
no matter whom it may offend,
no matter what it feels like,
but without malice,
without superiority,
without resentment.

People sometimes say that Orthodoxy is the hardest form of Christianity. I bet those same people are going to start out the Apostles' Fast with a barbecue, and finish it with another one, and then party in between for all they're worth, and then to show their devotion, pack the church to the doors. They don't know what they're saying or what they're doing.

Orthodoxy is the hardest because it is the Cross,
and it is the lightest because it is Jesus.

And to be at His side,
no matter what happens to us by day or night,
is why we live.

Who pleads for you?

My hope is the Father,
my refuge is the Son,
my protection is the Holy Spirit:
O Holy Trinity, glory to Thee.
from the service of Compline

One is Holy,
One is Lord,
Jesus Christ
to the glory of God the Father.
Amen.
from the Divine Liturgy

Lord, God Almighty, You alone are holy. You accept a sacrifice of praise from those who call upon You with their whole heart. Receive also the prayer of us sinners and let it reach Your holy altar. Enable us to bring before You gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the transgressions of the people. Make us worthy to find grace in Your presence so that our sacrifice may be pleasing to You and that Your good and gracious Spirit may abide with us, with the gifts here presented, and with all Your people. Through the mercies of Your only begotten Son with whom You are blessed, together with Your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.
from the Divine Liturgy, prayer of the Proskomidí

With God on our side, who can be against us? Since God did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up to benefit us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that He will not refuse anything He can give. Could anyone accuse those that God has chosen? When God acquits, could anyone condemn? Could Christ Jesus? No! He not only died for us—He rose from the dead, and there at God’s right hand He stands and pleads for us.
Romans 8:31-34 Jerusalem Bible

He… has offered one single sacrifice for sins, and then taken His place for ever, at the right hand of God, where He is now waiting until His enemies are made into a footstool for Him. By virtue of that one single offering, He has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom He is sanctifying.
Hebrews 10:12-14 JB

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The art of things unsaid

One of the pieces of family history that my dad handed over to me when I visited him in Florida last April was a wonderful black and white photo of my favorite ‘aunt and uncle,’ as we say, that is, Uncle Hank and Aunt Irene (we reverse the order when calling them by name). That's the young couple in the photograph above. On the back of the photograph is neatly handwritten ‘April 16, 1950’ and my guess is, it was taken on the back porch of the second or third floor of a flat in Chicago.

What strikes me instantly and deeply is the look on my aunt's face, her beautiful face, a look that cannot be put into words, yet I can read it, full of things unsaid. My uncle looks off to his right with his characteristic ‘you can't pull a fast one on me’ face, or maybe it was just the look of ‘no matter what you say or do, I'm here.’ A look of somewhat light-hearted but matter-of-fact faithfulness. But it's Aunt Irene's look that holds me, I can't get away from it. She really loved Hank, and he really loved her. Till death do us part.
(Click the image to enlarge the photograph for a closer look.)

Uncle Hank was 38 and Aunt Irene was half a year from her 39th birthday. They had been married 15 years less one month. They were dairy farmers, running their southern Wisconsin farm at Slades Corners near Genoa City single-handed most of the time. That meant they almost never got away. We had to go and see them. Their farm was where I spent some of my boyhood summers. Aunt Irene was never able to bear children. Uncle Hank never let his disappointment ‘mount as far as his throat’ as the Desert Fathers say. He simply loved his wife and never let anything get in the way of that, not even their childlessness. And what wonderful parents they would have made. Yet, that's not what the Lord wanted for them.

As they had no children, my dad became the inheritor of their few memorabilia, and now he has turned them over to me. I still use Uncle Hank's bulky cast aluminum electric drill—with two handles to hold onto for dear life—probably from the first generation of power tools. But other than a few small artefacts, and some photos, I have little else… except for their official documents, birth, baptism and marriage certificates. It is their marriage certificate in its dusty grey slipcover that I found most interesting when I first inherited it after Aunt Irene reposed (Uncle Hank had pre-deceased her by ten years or so).

Behind the certificate in its tassled cover was another document, titled “How to Perpetuate The Honeymoon.” The credits under the title read, ‘From Home and Health, by permission of W. H. DuPuy, A. M., D. D.’ In that document are given twelve pieces of good advice for keeping a good marriage. Perhaps in another post I will list them all, but the tenth bit of advice caught my attention and I remembered it, and when I first saw the photograph that I've posted above, I thought of it.
This is the advice…

Do not allow yourself ever to come to an open rupture.
Things unsaid need less repentance.

The first sentence is boldfaced as the header for what follows, in this case only one more sentence (some of the others have a short paragraph). What follows is the instruction for achieving what the header advises. In only five words, it describes a truth of unlimited application. Another version of the same but less pointed might be an even shorter saying, ‘Silence is golden.’ All of these, of course, come from the bible, but in 1935, official documents were already trying to avoid bringing that up. Christianity was on its way to being put in the archives. The modern age was about to begin.

Things unsaid need less repentance. I want to keep thinking about this some more. Father Stephen has just posted for All Saints Day some similar thoughts. He also writes about things unsaid, “We live in a voyeuristic culture that reveals what should never be revealed and finds itself morbidly fascinated by hidden things. The hiddenness of the heart is part of modesty and humility…” His application is slightly different, but in the main I think we're both contemplating the same thing—the value of leaving certain things unsaid.
The longer I live, the more value I see in leaving things unsaid.

Why?
Not to keep people guessing, not as leverage in a situation, but simply because some things cannot be explained or reported using language. This is where other forms of communication come in, like my aunt's look.

And not everything unsaid that can be passed to others by non-verbal means is meant for everyone in the first place, but like that white stone Jesus promises in the book of Revelation (2:17), it's only readable by the one to whom it is given.

As it is the feast of All Saints, I want to commemorate my aunt and uncle, two unsung saints that I was blessed to know, and to hold high their love and faithfulness to each other and to those whom the Lord sent them. Eternal be your memory, beloved Hank and Irene, for you are worthy of blessedness and life in the world to come.
Αιωνία η μνήμη.

The light of Your face

Something I read in at Pandeli’s blog, which didn’t grab my attention when I first read it, keeps coming back to me. He was expanding upon the thoughts of Home that I had written recently, and he added several more points. The point about nostalgia, longing for home, was the one that caught my first attention, probably because I have read this in the writings of C. S. Lewis and was familiar with it. We are born longing for our true home, and that is not this world, but the world to come.

What is persistently tugging at my soul right now is what Pandeli wrote about the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor…

Home is the place where we feel most safe, where no-one and nothing can hurt us. The three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration felt like they were home and thus Peter said to Christ, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here...’. We are not always close to home, but it will always have a special place in our hearts. Christ asks us to let Him into our home and into our hearts, so that we may enter His home.

“The three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration felt like they were home and thus Peter said to Christ, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here...’.”

People speak of ‘mountain top experiences,’ and I think what they are really referring to is what happened on Mount Tabor, but now in this biblically illiterate culture what usually comes to mind is a photograph of someone standing on a mountain top and saying ‘Aaaah…’ while looking at the world laid out below. Though nature can be beautiful, super-nature is awesome, the only awesome.

But the experiences we have with God—even secular people are starting to call any ‘over the top’ experience or thought a ‘theophany’—are events that we wish could continue, that we want to be permanent, as Peter did when he said, ‘Let us make three tents, one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ We notice that not Jesus, but the Father responded, ‘This is My Son, the Beloved. Listen to Him.’ (Mark 9:5-8 passim) And the tents were not made—how could they have been?

This is yet another aspect of the idea of Home, one that I experience sometimes even every day, in fact anytime I can spend some time with a precious friend: I want it to last. But on and on time must go, and we have things to do, and so we part and go back to our lives in this world. And this is part of God’s plan, His divine οικονομία, ikonomía, for us: To never let us become so at home in this world that we forget the world to come, where we will be with Him, seeing Him and speaking with Him face to face, because we will have proved victorious.

Lord, have mercy on us and let us see the light of Your face, here in this present world when we are together, and in the day without night of the world to come.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Δικαιοσύνη

The word Δικαιοσύνη (dhikaiosýni), justice, is a translation of the Hebraic word צְדָקָה (tsedakáh). This word means the divine energy which accomplishes man's salvation. It is parallel and almost synonymous to the other Hebraic word, חֶסֶד (chèsed) which means mercy, compassion, love, and to the word, אֱמֶת (emèt) which means fidelity, truth. This, as you see, gives a completely other dimension to what we usually conceive as justice.

This is how the Church understood God's justice. This is what the Fathers of the Church taught of it. "How can you call God just," writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, "when you read the passage on the wage given to the workers? 'Friend, I do thee no wrong; I will give unto this last even as unto thee who worked for me from the first hour. Is thine eye evil, because I am good?'"

"How can a man call God just," continues Saint Isaac, "when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son, who wasted his wealth in riotous living, and yet only for the contrition which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck, and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him lest we doubt it, and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God's justice, for whilst we were sinners, Christ died for us!"

So we see that God is not just, with the human meaning of this word, but we see that His justice means His goodness and love, which are given in an unjust manner, that is, God always gives without taking anything in return, and He gives to persons like us who are not worthy of receiving. That is why Saint Isaac teaches us: "Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. 'He is good,' He says, 'to the evil and impious.'"

God is good, loving, and kind toward those who disregard, disobey, and ignore Him. He never returns evil for evil, He never takes vengeance. His punishments are loving means of correction, as long as anything can be corrected and healed in this life. They never extend to eternity. He created everything good. The wild beasts recognize as their master the Christian who through humility has gained the likeness of God. They draw near to him, not with fear, but with joy, in grateful and loving submission; they wag their heads and lick his hands and serve him with gratitude. The irrational beasts know that their Master and God is not evil and wicked and vengeful, but rather full of love. He protected and saved us when we fell. The eternally evil has nothing to do with God. It comes rather from the will of His free, logical creatures, and this will He respects.

Death was not inflicted upon us by God. We fell into it by our revolt. God is Life and Life is God. We revolted against God, we closed our gates to His life-giving grace. "For as much as he departed from life," wrote Saint Basil, "by so much did he draw nearer to death. For God is Life, deprivation of life is death."

"God did not create death," continues Saint Basil, "but we brought it upon ourselves… Not at all, however, did He hinder the dissolution… so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us."

As Saint Irenaeus puts it, "Separation from God is death, separation from light is darkness… and it is not the light which brings upon them the punishment of blindness."

"Death," says Saint Maximus the Confessor, "is principally the separation from God, from which followed necessarily the death of the body. Life is principally He who said, 'I am the Life.'"

And why did death come upon the whole of humanity?
Why did those who did not sin with Adam die as did Adam?


Here is the reply of Saint Anastasius the Sinaite, "We became the inheritors of the curse in Adam. We were not punished as if we had disobeyed that divine commandment along with Adam; but because Adam became mortal, he transmitted sin to his posterity. We became mortal since we were born from a mortal."

And Saint Gregory Palamas makes this point, "[God] did not say to Adam: return to whence thou wast taken; but He said to him: Earth thou art and unto the earth thou shall return… He did not say: 'in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, die!' but, 'in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, ye shall surely die.' Nor did He afterwards say: 'return now unto the earth,' but He said, 'thou shalt return,' in this manner forewarning, justly permitting and not obstructing what shall come to pass." We see that death did not come at the behest of God but as a consequence of Adam's severing his relations with the source of Life, by his disobedience; and God in His kindness did only warn him of it.

"The tree of knowledge itself," says Theophilus of Antic, "was good, and its fruit was good. For it was not the tree, as some think, that had death in it, but the disobedience which had death in it; for there was nothing else in the fruit but knowledge alone, and knowledge is good when one uses it properly."

The Fathers teach us that the prohibition to taste the tree of knowledge was not absolute but temporary. Adam was a spiritual infant. Not all foods are good for infants. Some foods may even kill them although adults would find them wholesome. The tree of knowledge was planted by God for man. It was good and nourishing. But it was solid food, while Adam was able to digest only milk.

So in the language of the Holy Scriptures Δικαιοσύνη, just, means good and loving.

— Alexandre Kalomiras, The River of Fire

Friday, May 28, 2010

Safe inside His wounds

We know ourselves to be always unworthy, and it is no mere negative boast, but the truth about us, making it doubly more shameful. Yet the deeper we fall in whatever way, we keep finding the Lord already there, waiting for us. He has become sin for us, He has become our unworthiness, He has exchanged His righteousness for our filthy rags, and yet we do not know how it is we can wear them, wear Him, be clothed in His very flesh.

We only know that He has opened wide His wounds to let us inside, and there, if nowhere else, we are safe.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Once again, the real triumph of Orthodoxy

I am going to selectively quote some words written and posted by Fr Stephen on his blog Glory to God for All Things. You can read his entire post if you like, by clicking on this linked title, The Church at a Crossroads. I am not so much interested in the details of what he writes, nor do I gainsay them; they are just not what is important to me about Orthodoxy, particularly my Orthodoxy as I live it. Let me apologise, if I must, for being so individualistic in tone, but I think I am not the only follower of Jesus in the canonical Orthodox Church to whom the passages I am about to quote would be important—and not only important, but the reasons why I count myself an Orthodox Christian. These reasons amount to what I believe is the real triumph of Orthodoxy, as I have blogged before.

Here is what Fr Stephen writes...

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36)

We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way. If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology
[what we think the Church is] …

I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ.
Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be.
I need to die.


The Orthodox Church, as Fr Stephen points out elsewhere in his post, is not perfect in the way that humans judge perfection. It may not even be right on everything it believes, says and does. It's difficult to say this without being judged as a heretic or worse, but I'm not worried. I can depend on the forgiveness of God for my errors and sins in the first instance, and then, in the second, I can depend on the forgiveness of the brethren, from patriarchs who let themselves be called "his All-Holiness" right down to the average believer next to whom I stand in prayer and worship. All the presbyters and bishops who ever spoke the truth in my ears have said these same things, laying aside the pomp, glory, even the arrogance, which some who are Orthodox tend to flaunt and use as weapons or scorn against those who have not yet "seen the light."
(I thank you, beloved Adamantios.)

I am confident that true Orthodoxy, which has a single source, Only Christ, has triumphed, is triumphant now, and will always be triumphant, precisely because it is, as Fr Stephen writes, weak and humble, following its Lord to Golgotha, willing rather to suffer personal crucifixion and death than to hurt its neighbor in any way. This is the Orthodoxy I have joined myself to, and from which nothing can ever separate me.

"Where I am, there My servant will also be."
John 12:26

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stand your ground

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’ ”
Matthew 13:24–30, NIV


As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:1-16 NIV


As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
1 Peter 2:4-10 NIV


His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
Matthew 13:36–43, NIV


Brethren, beloved friends, I implore you, “Stand your ground.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

Searching for... Love

I want to publish this poem by our young friend and brother in Indonesia. It moves me deeply whenever I read it. Many lines are whole poems of theology in themselves. Out of the mouths of babes might be a title for this post, but I have decided to use Yudhie's post title Searching for… and then adding Love, which he so ecstatically sings in this song.

O humans, how hungry and thirsty are you!
You seek, you weep and you well up,
Just right after the fall, O Adam,
You lost the priceless treasure you have.
What a lament you bring within you, O sons and grandsons!

In tears and sweat, in turmoil and drought
seeking your food among the thorns,
pain, pain, pain everywhere,
you meet even in the sweetest honey and brightest sun
you meet them there:
Hunger and thirst.

Where do they drive you, O sons and daughters?
You have that hunger and hurriedly satisfy it,
you even search for yourself in deceitfulness of this darkness,
or even in some kind of spiritual bliss you make up,
the temporary comfort zones.

Love, love!
Love conquers, Love fears not,
He heals, he restores.
Love has entered this world,
he is mighty and does never tire.

He is the source of the genuineness,
He transforms the bestial thirst into the compassion,
He tramples down the carnal desires into the sacred hunger of Love.

Love, love!
Comes in the true man and true God, in Christ,
Love in Triune, from eternity to eternity.
Come ye all nations and people, O Adam's race,
Let The King of Glory in.

Comfort is in the hands of Him,
and of course our hearts yearn for such comfort (Sergei wrote).

Seek ye first His Kingdom
and this will belong to you,
Whatever, wherever it brings.

—Yudi Kristanto

Whether Blind

Today in the brightness of Pentecost's Monday, sacred to the Unearthly Triad, my heart needs to honor my brethren and co-combattants in the unseen warfare, and so again I raise up what should be seen and heard...


Whether Blind
by David Dickens

If I pluck out these eyes, then I’ll not see
Crush the bones of my legs and I’ll not walk
Whether crushed or blind, what do these impair?

Better off blind than hating the sunlight
But better lame than no reason to rise
To a broken heart, they do not compare.

Light a candle, pray vigil through the night
Remember to breathe, cast your eyes ahead
I know no other answer to despair.

And my response to this noetic chant...

I wouldn’t call them beautiful exactly,
but these few lines inscribe my life,
a life that it’s easy to hate;
but then I heard it said to me,
‘the man who hates his life in this world
will keep it for eternal life.’


‘Remember to breathe,’
I tell myself each morning;
‘Cast your eyes ahead,’
that voice within me calls,
and like you, brother,
though I light no candles,
my vigils take the place of sleep.

Lying flat on my face,
no pillow drenched with tears,
I watch for dawn’s hint of light,
and then pray I expire
before the sun rises;
no other answer to despair,
except a kiss whispered in my ear,
‘keep my commandments.’

Outside the world

This is the life we live outside the world.

We still have to live in this world, but that world to come is for us so fully present that we feel its breezes blowing on us, even while we walk in this world.

That world to come is for us so fully tangible that we sometimes scrape ourselves on the door jambs of that narrow gate as we pass through it, going in and out.

That world to come is for us so fully real that we feel truly at peace and at home only when we are together, following the Lord, in this world strangers in a strange land.

Heaven is no more a pious dream for us than God Himself is, who is our Father, Friend and Guide, who welcomes us into His presence beyond all worlds, and sets our feet down in heavenly places.

This is the life we live outside the world, which is so rich that we are willing to leave all behind even before death’s door, to inherit the world to come, prepared for us before the foundation of the world.

Glory to You, Christ our God, for You have made mere fisherman wise by sending upon them the rain of fire of Your Spirit, as You said,
‘I have come to bring fire to earth! O, that it were ablaze!’

We follow You, Jesus, in this world, and You refresh us in the world to come, even now.

Barukh ha-ba ba-shem Adonay.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Barukh ha-olam ha-ba.
Blessed is the world to come.

Brethren,
this is the life we live outside the world.

Unspoilt Mind

A monk’s certainty comes from his experience. For us, this is harder to grasp, but the same experience is there if we avail ourselves of it.

The modern world has reduced faith to an ascent to a trivial intellectual proposition. When we doubt (for it is not if, but when) we seem estranged from the divine. But for those of deeper traditions, faith is a life lived which makes the confession of that life a much more certain thing.

I am no monk, but I know some.

David Dickens, Nothing Hypothetical

And now, his poem...

Unspoilt Mind
by David Dickens

A boy rides his bike down the alley
But sees a horse and canyon deep.
A stick in hand and pot on his head
In his young mind flourishes a knight.
Each long lonely walk in the woods
Conjures friends from far away places.

A young man sits at his school desk
But journeys oft to distant stars,
Spots a young woman cross the room
As Venus rises out the foam of the sea.
Later upon the sport field of grass
A mirage of the wars of men long ago.

An old monk stands silent in prayer
His thoughts clear as spring rain,
Kisses images of his fathers and mothers
Hung round the walls of the Nave.
What he knows of them in person
Is no distraction of a spoilt mind.


And now, my response...

I cannot believe the beauty and fragrance of this poem,
evocative of realities to the seventh power,
of visions that launch the mind beyond its power to see.

And incense I smell, more like the resin of weeping trees,
or the aroma of the freshly cut grass of graves,
heavy with the dew of the morning of the age to come.

I should not say I cannot believe,
but that belief is merged into knowing,
and knowing into being, and being into —
can it be Him I see there standing,
supporting all that is and is not,
seen and unseen, through pierced flesh,
whether mine or yours, still His?
Brother and co-sufferer, I salute you!

Axios!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The risk of salvation

“But there’s got to be something screwy about all this,” he argued with his naïve friend. “Who ever heard of a perfect stranger coming along and handing over to you all this wealth? There has to be an ulterior motive. What is he after?”

. . .

This could be a snippet of a conversation overheard in any time or place. In a world where it is confidently declared “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” we still encounter examples of real generosity among human beings. In fact, if we’re looking for it, it’s happening all around us. It’s only when we shut ourselves off from the possibility that it eludes us. If we look hard enough, we sometimes find we’re involved in it ourselves, either as the giver or the receiver.

It makes most people just as uncomfortable to be put in a position where they have to receive as it does for them to be where they may be called upon to give. After all, who wants the stigma of being a taker of ‘charity’? And then again, who wants to be forced into giving when they would rather not, just for the sake of keeping up appearances? It is a fragile illusion that covers the world upon which most human beings build their lives.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Matthew 7:24-27 NIV

Giving and receiving, which is harder? I wonder.

What a strange world we live in, where absolute poverty disdains to receive absolute wealth, fearing the risk, fearing the hidden costs. What risk is there in accepting a gift freely given?

There is such a gift freely offered every day and every moment of every day, yet very few takers.

What good can a man enjoy who is certain that he is going to a place of absolute evil, and what evil can a man suffer who is certain that he is going to a place of absolute good? Even knowing this, it is still too much for most men to take the risk of salvation, and many haven’t even come to the point of counting the cost.

Can we really be so naïve as to entrust ourselves to one so much richer than we are? Isn’t it better to remain in our poverty, in blindness, deafness and nakedness than to exchange all these for that free gift? We were made for poverty, and the wealth that is being offered would end all that, all that we have been and known.

. . .

“Salvation is just too great a risk. It’s all just too easy. Find someone else to give your bleeding charity to. I’ll have none of it,” he declared as he walked away.

“But you, son, ‘Hook freely on to someone’s charity. Look really when there’s something there to see,’ ” said the father gently to his obedient child.

The risk of salvation is worth taking.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Τετέλεσται

ὅτε οὖν ἔλαβε τὸ ὄξος ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπε• Τετέλεσται, καὶ κλίνας τὴν κεφαλὴν παρέδωκε τὸ πνεῦμα.

When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
John 19:30 NIV

“It is finished,” or as Fr John, our beloved senior pastor paraphrased it in his sermon last Sunday, “Mission accomplished.”

The word ‘mission’ reminded me of an incident early in my working career.

My first reliable job in Portland’s woodworking industry (I was trained as a furniture-maker, my family trade) was in a European-style frameless cabinet shop. I did double duty as the night shift lead man supervising a crew of mostly teenage boys assembling carcases, and was also the panel saw operator, with an off-bearer assisting me. Larry was 19 and I was 29 years old. He was a tousle-haired artist, and two of his younger brothers worked the assembly crew.

One night, when we were filling out tracking tickets (this was before the days of computer generated labels), Larry started thinking out loud to me. “I wonder what Spencer meant when he told me to watch out for you.”

“Huh?” I said. “Yeah, he said, Watch out for Norman. He’s on a mission,” responded Larry. (Norman is my English name, the only one I had at the time.) So, I guess my reputation as an evangelical criminal started early and had already attracted the attention of my new boss. I never thought of my life as a mission, but since giving my life to Christ at the age of 24 years, it hadn’t occurred to me to leave Him out of my daily conversation and activities. He was and is always there, with me. What could I say?

Back to Fr John’s sermon. It was the Sunday between Análypsis (Ascension Day) and Pendikostí (Pentecost). Of all the priests I’ve ever known, Fr John is closest to the evangelical simplicity of the apostles and early Christian fathers. He always starts out by addressing us, “Fellow Christians and friends,” and continues speaking, never above our heads nor below what the Word has spoken, never watering down or gussying up. This Sunday was no different. His theme and message was simply, Jesus Christ came of His own free will to earth, to live among us, to tell us and show us what the Father is like, to teach us how to live according to what is right in God’s eyes, and finally, to do what no one else had the power to do, to die for us as one of us, and to descend into Hades and empty it of its captives, taking them as tribute to His Father. Only He could do these things, because He is the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God, ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός (John 1:18) και λόγος του θεού
(John 1:1).

Jesus Christ had a goal, a mission, that which He voluntarily undertook for the salvation of mankind. Ordinary human beings, but particularly Christians, used to have goals, used to have a mission in life, but now, this is largely a thing of the past. Instead, the world harnesses us into worldly schemes denominated by what it calls ‘mission statements,’ but which are usually just jargon covering up nothing or worse, camouflaging dangerous and dehumanizing goals. After all, the enemies of man are still there: the world, the flesh, and the devil, in no particular order. The world has robbed us, he said, of our goals, our mission in life, leaving us our freedom to do little more than run around in circles.

What the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, does with us is much different. He reveals to us, brings to our minds, all that Jesus said, all that the scriptures hold out for us, so that we can have goals, so that we too can have a mission. How else can we expect to hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” if we had no mission in life, but wandered and meandered, circling like an airplane trying to land where there is no airfield... or simply nothing?


And what of my mission? What do I have to present to the Lord when I come to face Him? Will He forgive my failed life, even though I tried to make up for it in my later years? Will I be one of those who say, “Lord, Lord,” but don’t do and didn’t do what He commands? I know that I am unworthy of salvation and have been an unprofitable servant, but I still trust Him, saying, “Jesus, I am Yours. Save me,” (cf. Psalm 119:94 Jerusalem Bible) and, “I have faith, even when I say, I am completely crushed” (Psalm 116:10 JB).

Is my mission accomplished, or is there still more that I have to do before I too can say, “Tetélestai”?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Home

Home...
What’s that supposed to mean?
Isn’t it supposed to be a place where you go after a long, hard day in the world, to relax, to restore yourself, to feel welcome in the company of family and friends?

That’s what I’ve always thought it was supposed to be, but that’s not what it has always been, for me.

What we find is that, unless we live alone, home is often none of these things.

Instead, for some, home is a place to throw down your things, dump yourself into a comfortable chair, and try to blot out the memories of the day by immersion in television or a computer game. For some, it’s a place where there may be food laid out on a table, or left sitting on the stove, where you might hear somebody call out, “Supper’s on the table if anybody wants it!”

It may be a place where you’re afraid to come home, because the criticism you encounter there is a 24/7 experience, where you feel disapproved of, pushed around, and in general made to feel less worthy than you’re made to feel even in the world. “Don’t do that! Don’t touch this! Hey, that’s mine, hands off! You’re messing up my kitchen (or bathroom, or livingroom)!”

Sometimes it’s even a place where the people you live with are always on the edge of hinting, by gestures if not by words, “Are you still here? Why aren’t you out on your own already?” It seems like they just can’t wait to get you out. And why? Can being alone really be that much fun? Always an unwanted guest, sometimes even in your own house. That’s what it can be like for some people, even for Christians.

What do we want? What do we expect? Does the golden rule not apply here? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” or even its silver equivalent “Do not unto others what you would not want done to you.” As C. S. Lewis says, there’s been no shortage of good advice around since the beginning of human history, yet we never seem to take it. And the golden rule is no mere advice, it’s the words of Jesus Himself.

The holy Apostles teach us to give way to one another, just as we give way to Christ” (cf. Ephesians 5:21). What do we think this means? It’s not another legalism, though we might want to make it one. It’s a word of encouragement to us, to be humble, welcoming and supportive of others, in whom Christ lives, and for whom Christ died, to love others as we love ourselves—something we can only do if we really do love ourselves, because a friend is another self.

A perfect example of making “home” a reality is shown in the ikon called “the hospitality of Abraham.” He and Sarah were camped out at the oak of Mamre. He was sitting in front of the tent.
Out on the horizon of that desolate landscape he saw three figures approaching.
Did he wait for them to come closer?
Did he pick up his blanket, go back into his tent and pull the flap over the opening, pretending to not be at home?

No, he didn’t.

He went running towards the three figures and when close, he bowed before them, much as the Japanese do today, and offered to make them comfortable, to let them rest, refresh themselves, and be fed in his humble home. He called them, “my Lord,” and then made good his offer, with Sarah’s help, to welcome them “home,” be it ever so humble. He never thought of himself, only of his guests.

Even before Christ came in the flesh, here was a man on the lookout for God coming to visit him, and He did, and in a manner that suggested something more than we could have guessed. Even though God is One, He is also Love and therefore must be more than One. Abraham made his guests feel at home, made them feel as though they belonged there, as we sometimes say without really meaning it, “Mi casa es su casa.”

I want where I live to be home, not just for me, but for anyone who knocks at my door.

Home, because the door is never locked.
Home, because anyone can take off
his shoes and coat
and sit down anywhere.
Home, because whatever is in the kitchen is to be eaten.
Home, because there’s always a spare pillow, blanket and bed.
Home, because your thoughts
and feelings are as much respected
as my own.
Home, because you are safe here, just as I am,
from the world’s guile.
Home, because Jesus lives here with us.
Home, because you know that I want to be with you.

How can we make home a reality for ourselves and for others?
How can we make Christ welcome, since He is in our midst?

Christ is ascended but has not left us orphans!
Let us love one another, and glorify Him!


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Real Orthodoxy as testified by Lutheran martyr Richard Wurmbrand

Throughout the era of the Communist domination of Eastern Europe, there were many heroes who suffered and died in prison for trying to help Christians behind the Iron Curtain. One of the most well-known of these heroes is Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, a Jewish convert to Christ and a Lutheran minister who started an underground ministry in Romania in 1945. Of the next twenty years, he spent fourteen in prison. Finally ransomed out of Romania in 1965, he established a ministry to smuggle Bibles and practical aid to the families of Romanian martyrs. He died in February of 2001, suffering to the end from the maltreatment he had received at the hands of the Communists. Pastor Wurmbrand himself and those whose stories he relates are shining examples of how faithful Christians can not only survive, but be illuminated through the dreadful sufferings of imprisonment.

A Lutheran Pastor’s Firsthand Account
of Prison Life
by Pastor Richard Wurmbrand

I am a Christian from an Orthodox country — the country of Romania. Having been in prison for fourteen years for my faith, it is now my missionary work to help persecuted Christians in Communist countries. I would like to tell you the stories of several Orthodox Christians with whom I was privileged to come into contact during my time in prison. Their examples and their deeds have been a constant source of encouragement to me throughout the years.

Always Rejoice

The first man was a priest who was put in jail at the age of seventy. His name was Surioanu. When he was brought in with his big white beard and white pate, some officers at the gate of the jail mocked him. One asked, “Why did they bring this old priest here?” And another replied with a jeer, “Probably to take the confessions of everybody.” Those were his exact words.

This priest had a son who had died in a Soviet jail. His daughter was sentenced to twenty years. Two of his sons-in-law were with him in jail — one with him in the same cell. His grandchildren had no food, they were forced to eat from the garbage. His whole family was destroyed. He had lost his church. But this man had such a shining face — there was always a beautiful smile on his lips. He never greeted anyone with “Good morning” or “Good evening,” but instead with the words, “Always rejoice.”

One day we asked him, “Father, how can you say ‘always rejoice’ — you who passed through such a terrible tragedy?”

He said, “Rejoicing is very easy. If we fulfill at least one word from the Bible, it is written, ‘Rejoice with all those who rejoice.’ Now if one rejoices with all those who rejoice, he always has plenty of motivation for rejoicing. I sit in jail, and I rejoice that so many are free. I don’t go to church, but I rejoice with all those who are in church. I can’t take Holy Communion, but I rejoice about all those who take. I can’t read the Bible or any other holy book, but I rejoice with those who do. I can’t see flowers [we never saw a tree or a flower during those years. We were under the earth, in a subterranean prison. We never saw the sun, the moon, stars — many times we forgot that these things existed. We never saw a color, only the gray walls of the cell and our gray uniforms. But we knew that such a world existed, a world with multicolored butterflies and with rainbows], but I can rejoice with those who see the rainbows and who see the multicolored butterflies.”

In prison, the smell was not very good. But the priest said, “Others have the perfume of flowers around them, and girls wearing perfume. And others have picnics and others have their families of children around them. I cannot see my children but others have children. And he who can rejoice with all those who rejoice can always rejoice. I can always be glad.” That is why he had such a beautiful expression on his face.

Heaven’s Smile

Let me interrupt to tell you about another Orthodox Christian. He was not a priest, but a simple farmer. In our country, farmers are almost always illiterate, or nearly so. He had read his Bible well, but other than that he had never read a book. Now he was in the same cell with professors, academicians, and other men of high culture who had been put in jail by the Communists. And this poor farmer tried to bring to Christ a member of the Academy of Science. But in return, he received only mockery.

“Sir, I can’t explain much to you, but I walk with Jesus, I talk with Him, I see Him.”

“Go away. Don’t tell me fairy tales that you see Jesus. How do you see Jesus?”

“Well, I cannot tell you how I see Him. I just see Him. There are many kinds of seeing. In dreams, for instance, you see many things. It’s enough for me to close my eyes. Now I see my son before me, now I see my daughter-in-law, now I see my granddaughter. Everybody can see. There is another sight. I see Jesus.”

“You see Jesus?”

“Yes, I see Jesus.”

“What does He look like? How does He look to you? Does He look restful, angry, bored, annoyed, happy to see you? Does He smile sometimes?”

He said, “You guessed it! He smiles at me.”

“Gentlemen, come hear what this man says to us. He mocks us. He says Jesus smiles at him. Show me, how does He smile?”

That was one of the grandest moments of my life. The farmer became very, very earnest. His face began to shine. In the Church today there are pastors and theologians who can’t believe the whole Bible. They believe half of it, a quarter of it. Somehow they can’t believe the miracles. I can believe the whole of it because I have seen miracles. I have seen transfigurations — not like that of Jesus, but something apart. I have seen faces shining.

A smile appeared on the face of that farmer. I would like to be a painter to be able to paint that smile. There was a streak of sadness in it because of the lost soul of the scientist. But there was so much hope in that smile. And there was so much love and so much compassion, and a yearning that this soul should be saved. The whole beauty of heaven was in the smile on that face. The face was dirty and unwashed, but it held the beautiful smile of heaven.

The professor bowed his head and said, “Sir, you are right. You have seen Jesus. He has smiled at you.”

Pure Orthodoxy

Now, to come back to this priest, Surioanu. He was always such a happy being. When we were taken out for walks, in a yard where there was never a flower, a piece of herb, or grass, he would put his hand on the shoulder of some Christian and ask, “Tell me your story.”

Usually the men would talk about how bad the Communists were. “They’ve beaten me and they’ve tortured me and they’ve done terrible things.”

He would listen attentively; then he would say, “You’ve said plenty about the Communists; now tell me about yourself. When did you confess last?”

“Well, some forty years ago.”

“Let us sit down and forget the Communists and forget the Nazis. For you are also a sinner. And tell me your sins.”

Everybody confessed to him — I confessed to him, too, and I remember that as I confessed to him, and the more I told him sins, the more beautiful and loving became his face. I feared in the beginning that when he heard about such things he would loathe me. But the more I said bad things about myself, the more he sat near to me. And in the end he said, “Son, you really have committed plenty of sins, but I can tell you one thing. Despite all of these sins, God still loves you and forgives you. Remember that He has given His Son to die for you, and try one day a little bit, and another day a little bit, just to improve your character so it should be pleasant to God.”

My experiences with this priest were among the most beautiful encounters of my life. He is no longer on this earth. He was an example of what real Orthodoxy is all about. There exists such Orthodoxy. I don’t see much point in becoming an Orthodox from a Lutheran background or from a Baptist background or from any other background unless one desires that kind of Orthodoxy. His was an excellent Orthodoxy, a pure Orthodoxy. May God help us all to be truly Orthodox, after the example of so many saints who are depicted on the icons, and after the example of so many saints alive today.

This is the mug shot of Pastor Wurmbrand taken in 1947. It clearly shows that he is of the people of Israel, and so I want to share these photos also, as it is an evidence of his martyrdom. As I have said and written many times in this blog, Orthodoxy is the heritage of all followers of Jesus, but there is a man-made kind of Orthodoxy which saves no one, and an Orthodoxy which is of the Spirit of God, where men worship the Father in spirit and truth and are thereby transformed by Him and taken up into the life of the Holy Triad, even while they live on earth. It is the second kind of Orthodoxy that I want, because only that kind is real.

When Pastor Wurmbrand was dying, he confessed to Romanian Orthodox presbyter Fr George Calciu that, in his heart, he loved Orthodoxy, but considered he was not worthy of it, and because of this he did not succeed in becoming fully Orthodox. This was his own opinion of himself, and it held him back, but surely not in the eyes of the Lord whom he served, of whom he witnessed, and for whom he suffered. As I have written elsewhere, true Orthodoxy cannot be contained in its vessel, but continually overfills and overflows it.

Glory to You, O God, glory to You!


So what does one do to enter the Orthodox Church seeking this kind of Orthodoxy?

One may not meet there the kind of Christians we think we are, or hope to be, only religionists and ceremonial spectators. One may not find priests like Fr Surioanu or Fr Calciu, only businessmen dressed in clerical collars or fancy robes. One may be annoyed or scandalized by what seems unorthodox or superfluous, nationalistic or impious, or, as one woman put it to me recently, "It's just wrong!" My response is the only one I have a right to give, because I did it myself.

You just go forward as to an altar call. You enter and lay down your life, trusting in the Lord whom you serve now and whom you want to serve better, trusting that He will always be your Lord, that no one can ever change that or stand between you and Him, and that what the Church is, who it is, will be revealed to your eyes, as you begin to find your place in it, keeping your eyes on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of your faith. The Lord will send to you, or send you to, people like yourself, with whom you can work out your salvation, serving Him together, according to your call. No fear that anyone will take this from you, and never mind those people or things that would have kept you out.

As I said to myself, putting on my tie in front of a mirror on the morning I was going to be received into the Orthodox Church by chrismation, and as Pastor Wurmbrand thought of himself, "How can I do this, I'm not worthy," you too will hear the words spoken to you as you are baptised or chrismated, "Axios! Worthy!"

Now, the new life really begins. Go where He sends you, and always say, "Yes," when He calls.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Because every moment together is real



Courage

Many people want to tell you the way,
But few will stay, invest in your success.
I mean not to embarrass you my friends,
But to warn you that they are using you.

The work of being, is a living thing
A work of hands, not of words or screeds
No ideal realm, but persons enduring:
Our humanity is filthy to them.

Our hunger offends, our thirst enrages;
That our bodies need clothing, they revile.
Though beaten and homeless we are priceless,
Because every moment together is real.

Made myself a spectacle to the world
So you may see that though I am weak,
You are strong. Though I remain a fool,
You become wise beyond these naive years.

Angels ashamed of me, but God listens.
I’ll know if you listen, when I don’t speak.
If I spoke as others do, they would hear,
But I’m not allowed to give this away.

Time to speak plain, taken by bold spirit,
But it will be useless still for closed ears.
No dark night stands against the waking light.
Before illumination dark is not.

Courage! The enemy is death and is dead!
Nothing born of the pit can stand the sun.
Beloved ones, heed not the fear of heart,
Leave self-hate vanish and know I love you.

David Dickens, Nothing Hypothetical

Waiting is

The phrase “waiting is” is about the only thing that has stayed with me all these years from my reading of the science fiction cult novel Stranger in a Strange Land, by Heinlein. It was a favorite saying of Valentine Michael Smith, the main character in that book, a human who had been raised as an orphaned child on Mars by the inhabitants of that planet. When he is returned to earth, he causes a sensation because his mindset is totally Martian in every respect, as are all of his habits. He ends up becoming a messiah figure who starts a new religion, the Church of All Worlds. I dug up these details from the internet because, as I admit, the only thing that stuck in my mind was the phrase, “waiting is.”

Why did the phrase stick? Well, to be blunt, I have spent most of my life waiting for something or someone. Was my intrinsic attitude somehow an unconscious result of reading the novel, or just my heredity expressing itself, the last in a long line of men who have been very, very patient with everyone?

I have had a good apprenticeship at waiting most of my life, but only in these last years has the object of my waiting shifted. Before, I waited only on human beings and their needs; now I wait primarily for Christ. He is the only one worth waiting for, because He brings not only His gifts, He brings Himself.

Books of science fiction, especially from the 1960’s and ’70’s, tend to wander into fantasy about alternative religions, as they are mirrors of the real world in which they arise, where any religion is superior to the simple truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why is that? Because mankind is a religious animal, and we are by nature shocked and offended by a God who becomes one of us precisely to put religion to death.

And so, these novels tend to promote religions, many of which resemble those we already know on earth, especially Buddhism, which seems to be a favorite. But religion is always only man’s best shot at escaping the horrible mess we find ourselves in, because we can’t accept that to escape our predicament—sin—means death to us, death to the world as we know it. So we take our best shot at whatever it is we’re searching for.

Buddhism is man’s best shot at achieving some kind of personal inner peace, if not salvation, given that there is either no God, or He is far too big and busy to deal with us.

Hinduism is man’s best shot at achieving some kind of personal safety, now and possibly in future lives, by satisfying the need for worship of the myriad hypersomatic beings, devas, that invisibly infest the human world.

Islam is man’s best shot at achieving some level of moralistic order in society for the masses, and justification for the immoral excesses of a select few, at the cost of a total denial of human freedom, while promising an otherworldly reward for the surrendered, and threatening thisworldly punishment for the unsurrendered.

Judaism is man’s best shot at achieving some kind of personal salvation, and a sense of righteousness, given that the only God has chosen the people of a certain lineage, to which they belong, to bring everyone to a knowledge of Him, while remaining outside His promises.

Christianity is man’s best shot at achieving some kind of personal salvation, with the least possible commitment to righteous living or self-sacrifice, by formal adherence to or membership in religious associations, while trampling on the call of the one they call Lord.

In the wasteland that is this world, I have waited, and been fortunate to have met two or three followers of Jesus who stand firmly on the Word of God, keep their lamps lit, remain vigilant, wait on the voice of Jesus at every moment and desire to do what He commands, and are willing to suffer for the sake of His name. I didn’t look for them.
I waited, and He sent them.

And I too can only hope to be one of them, by continuing to open my door when He knocks and to welcome Him into my house, which I want to be His.

Help me, Lord, to seek not my own, but Your will alone, and to be willing to accept everything that happens to me at Your hands, for You alone are the lover of mankind, and Your Word is truth.

I bless You, Lord, at the assemblies.
Psalm 26:12

From Thanksgiving Day three years ago

A post, originally titled He makes us look, from November, 2007.
Holy Apostle Paul was very right when he compared the marriage relationship between a man and woman to the relationship of Christ and the Church, yet in these last days both these relationships are ravaged with bold-faced affrontery and unashamed hypocrisy. It all begins with the manhandling of the Word of God, ruling over the Word insteading of letting it rule over you. This misbehavior shares at least one important characteristic with lying—once you start lying, you can never stop, because you have to bury each lie with another. The same is true with manhandling the Word, which in a sense is also a form of lying—once you start twisting the Word, well, you see where this is leading? "What is twisted cannot be straightened, what is not there cannot be counted." (Ecclesiastes 1:15 Jerusalem Bible)

The man is, as the scriptures teach, the head of the woman, and Christ is the Head of the Church. When this order is not respected, true community breaks down rapidly, and tyranny replaces it. Worse yet, prayer is corrupted, because it cannot be honest. It becomes a formality, even if it is not a written prayer. If people can lie to one another without reading the lies out of a book, so also can people "pray" dishonestly without reading prayers out of a book. It's not whether a truth or a prayer is read from something written down. Everything hangs on the disposition of man's heart.

Why am I thinking about this? Because I have witnessed blasphemous prayers today being offered in rebellion against the Truth, futile prayers spoken for show, for the sake of keeping up appearances. And I ask the Lord, "Why do You let this continue? When will you show everyone up for what we are? How long, Lord, how long?"

Perhaps I've shared this already, but Sergei Fudel writes in his little book Light in the Darkness,

Prayer is born of love. Is it not the same as to say, "Prayer is born of tears?" I realized this quite recently when I heard a young girl answer a question addressed to her. "How can I learn to pray?" The question did not puzzle her and she said unhesitatingly, "Go and learn to weep and you'll learn to pray." She completed the words of the Fathers.

This is me again. The psalms for the 22nd day were Psalms 107~109. I didn't offer them in prayer today, but I have prayed a verse here, a verse there. These are the psalms of my wife's birthday, so I know them quite well. Psalm 107 is all about how we go and do foolish things, following our vain desires, and then get into trouble or danger, and… God to the rescue! And then we thank Him, profusely and, we hope, honestly. Here's a sample that speaks to me…

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

Then they called to Yahweh in their trouble
and He rescued them from their sufferings;
releasing them from gloom and darkness,
shattering their chains.

Let these thank Yahweh for His love,
for His marvels on behalf of men;
breaking bronze gates open,
He smashes iron bars.
Psalm 107:10-16 JB

A verse in Psalm 108 expresses something I've been asking the Lord many a day "God, can You really have rejected us? …Help us in this hour of crisis!" (Psalm 108:11-12 JB) It isn't as though I think that He has rejected us, no, but that our free wills prevent Him from acting, and so I just keep pleading, "Help!"

The third psalm for this day, Psalm 109, is King David's plea for help against his enemies. Aside from everything else he prays, my spirit trembles when I pray these words "In return for my friendship, they denounce me, though all I had done was pray for them." (Psalm 109:4 JB) Things like this have happened to me and are happening still. We'd like to just turn a deaf ear to them, turn our backs on them, the people who trouble us. We might be able to do this, if we stayed away from God's Word. But if we turn to the Word of God, whether to the Psalms, or to any other part of it, He makes us look, makes us face the enemy in ourselves and in others. Maybe that's why we'd rather read anything else. We can read what people say about Him, and not listen to what He says about us.

God save us, and help us to be thankful for Your friendship, Your willingness to receive us.

Help me, Yahweh my God,
save me since You love me!
And let them know that You have done it,
that it was You, Yahweh, who did it!
Psalm 109:26-27 JB

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Eyewitnesses

Today was the feast-day of John the Theologian, that is, Christ’s youngest disciple, called ‘the beloved,’ who also sealed his life not with a martyrdom of blood as did all the other holy Apostles, but with a martyrdom of an entire life—his life.

When we commemorate a saint on his or her feast-day, we include in the worship service hymns and chants that tell of their exploits and suffering, and often there will be an ikon set out for veneration (to kiss the ikon acknowledges that we affirm the life and faith of the person depicted). The focus of the worship service is then, as always, only God, but we bring to mind the saint or the event commemorated — we bring them to our mind, and also to God’s, presenting them to Him in thanksgiving and praise. “Christ, You are the life of your saints, and we bless and thank You for Your faithfulness in saving them and changing them into beings like Yourself, who are capable, and who want to, live forever, with You.”

I wanted to worship on this day for two reasons: to honor the sabbath, and to honor the saint whose writings have been so pivotal in my life. The gospel according to John, his three letters, and the book of Revelation, all have left a deep impression on my life, and formed me in my witness.

After the divine liturgy, Fr John came out and stood in the nave, and talked to us a little about John the Theologian, and what his example means for us as Christians today. “Fellow Christians and friends,” he always starts out, respecting the mystery that not everyone who comes to church is a Christian yet, “John, the beloved disciple of our Lord, is very important for this reason, he is an eyewitness of the resurrection, and not only that, but of all that happened to the Lord. He was there, watching, with the mother of Jesus and the other women, at the foot of the cross, when our Lord suffered and died. It was to him, that our Lord said, ‘Behold your mother,’ and to His mother, ‘Behold your son,’ thus handing over to John the care of his mother, as there was no one else He could trust.” Forgive me, Fr John, if you happen to read this, as I am putting words in quotation marks that you said, not exactly, but essentially. I hope I was hearing you right.

Fr John continued, pointing out that our faith is deliberately and strictly based on eyewitness accounts, not on myths, not on legends, not on fantasy, but on what really happened, in human history, that was reported by reliable eyewitnesses. Except for Judaism, no other faith can make this claim. Our faith is based on what men described as eyewitnesses, and it is sustained to this very day by eyewitnesses. Eyewitnesses of what?

As the song goes, “Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?”
A beautiful and moving song it is, and the question it asks begs to be answered in the positive, “Yes.”

Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). To many, this seems to describe the state of blind faith, and in a strict sense it does. No one alive today has witnessed the resurrected Jesus of the forty days’ sojourn, but yet there are people alive today, and there have been in every generation since the first, who are eyewitnesses of the resurrection. How can that be?

Fr John described the apostolic succession, generation after generation, bishops laying hands on their successors and handing over to them their office and guardianship of the holy tradition, but wait, there is more.

The apostolic succession also means the handing over of that life in faith, that eyewitness faith of the resurrection. In every generation, Fr John said, there are people whose lives prove that they are eyewitnesses, that they see the resurrected Jesus and follow Him, not as blind men but as those who have received their sight, and their witness is irrefutable and invincible. We have known people like this. Some of us actually are these eyewitnesses. It is the presence of such eyewitnesses in the Church that preserves her from one generation to the next. As the saying goes, ‘there’s more here than meets the eye.’

It was appointed to me to go to the service today to honor my saint, and to worship the Lord and pray with the brethren, for yet another reason: to be an eyewitness of something that I had never even heard of, let alone seen, before.

After the liturgy, Fr John told us that there would be a 40-day memorial, followed by a 40-day blessing. I could see the mound of white kollyva on a small table in front of the ikon of Christ enthroned at His second coming. I knew that was for a memorial service. The mound had a cross on it and two initials, M and G. I couldn’t remember anyone reposing 40 days before today, so I had to wait for the explanation.

The 40-day blessing in the Orthodox Church is the service where a woman comes back 40 days after childbirth to thank God for safe delivery, and to present her child for its dedication to the Lord. After giving birth she doesn’t come to church until the fortieth day. This custom is based on the Hebrew 40 day blessing, as are many Orthodox traditions. Our faith is closest to that of the family of Jesus and His apostles, all of whom were Jews. We are the ‘new Jews’ by faith in Jesus Christ, Y’shúa ha-Mashíach in Hebrew.

The memorial service began. There was something different about it. Fr John was chanting prayers for the repose of the... child of God, Maria! What? I listened more closely. Yes, the prayers were in a different form and were based on passages of scripture where Jesus speaks of letting the children come to Him. The service continued.
At the place where we normally sing Aionia i mnimi (Eternal be his/her/their memory) instead we sang Christos anesti (Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life). This was probably the tradition when memorial services are sung during the forty days of Pascha.

After the memorial service was finished, Fr John turned to us and addressed us. This little Maria was baptised by her godmother. She is now in the presence of God and lives with the saints who worship God unceasingly. (Fr John made reference to the vision of heavenly worship in the book of Isaiah, whence the inspiration for the painting at the top of this post.) Her twin sister, Alexa, would now be presented to the Church in the service of 40-day blessing. Little Alexa will someday understand that her twin sister is alive and praying for her, for her life and salvation, but right now she’s too little to understand.

How truly awesome our God is, that of all things that can happen, He can yet turn sorrow to joy, curse to blessing, and death to life! The members of the family of little Maria and Alexa filled the narthex of the temple as we departed, sharing the kollyva that had been made to commemorate the entrance of their little one into paradise, while they waited for the 40-day blessing to begin, where Fr John would carry Alexa in his arms, praying the psalms and prophets, while walking through the nave, up the steps of the soléa and into the sanctuary, walking with her around the holy altar, and then emerging to give her back to her mother and father, dedicated.

We see with our natural eyes, a priest of God carrying an infant into the earthly copy of the Holy Place, and we also see, by our spiritual eyes, the great High Priest Jesus Christ carrying her twin sister into the real Holy Place on high.
Glory to You, O God, glory to You!

We are indeed, eyewitnesses.