Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Praying the Psalms

Orthodox Christians have a lot of standard prayers that we can use when we pray, and many of us use them. If we're not careful, we can let addressing God this way become something like a personalized but still impersonal prayer wheel, spinning off words yet feeling justified because we've ‘said our prayers.’ Having a relationship with the living God can be bypassed this way, exchanged for something like a business agreement with a heavenly accounting firm.

If I make this sound like written prayers are to be avoided, that's not my intent. Formal prayers are there to launch us into the life of prayer. If we stop and linger with them, then we have no one but ourselves to blame. What I want to share with you today is some reflections on the Psalms, God's own ‘prayer book’ which He has given us to teach us how to pray, what to pray for, when to pray, and by which He speaks back to us when we pray them faithfully.

The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England established a very easy and consistent way to pray the Psalms. They arranged them in a 30 day cycle, dividing them up into morning and evening portions for each day. (I know some months have 31 days. See the note at the end of this post.) Rather than making things complicated by following the Lectionary or grouping psalms by content, they just started with Psalm 1 and divided them up as they come, ending with Psalm 150. No flipping back and forth of pages, that would only be a distraction. Just simple, Psalm 1, 2 and 3, and so on.

The first day of the month has eight psalms, but depending on length, some days have more or fewer. When you get to the longest psalm (and longest chapter of the Bible), we find that it takes two and a half days to pray it! But the first day has eight. Not too many, not too few.

To pray the Psalms, just make a point of going aside to a quiet and secluded place, your ‘prayer closet’ as the Lord says, and that can be anywhere. Just don't take anything with you into that place but your Bible. Open it reverently. Kiss the Book if you dare and then, open it to the first psalm of the day. Today is January 1st, so it's Psalm 1. Read this psalm, standing before the Father and in His presence. Though it may not seem like you're praying or asking the Lord for anything, in fact you are. Your very act of standing in His presence and reading His Word is the fact of prayer.
Go ahead, read it…

Happy the man
who never follows the advice of the wicked,
or loiters on the way that sinners take,
or sits about with scoffers,
but finds his pleasure in the Law of Yahweh,
and murmurs his law day and night!
He is like a tree that is planted
by water streams,
yielding its fruit in season,
its leaves never fading;
success attends all he does.
It is nothing like this with the wicked, nothing like this!
No, these are like chaff
blown away by the wind.
The wicked will not stand firm when Judgment comes,
nor sinners when the virtuous assemble.
For Yahweh takes care of the way the virtuous go,
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

Then, just say ‘Amen!’ to seal the praying of this psalm with your will and testimony. And continue to the next one, Psalm 2. Read it the same way, clearly, and listening to the words with your heart as well as your inner ear. This too is a prayer. Do you sense His presence with you in the room? While you're reading, praying, don't pay attention to anything outside yourself or any mental distractions. Pause if you want to pause, reread a line if you want to reread it. Pray the psalm through more than once, if you need to, before going on to the next one. Most of all, don't rush, don't put a worry about finishing by a certain time on yourself. You're standing in His presence, you're in His kairós (acceptable time) and have, in act, left the world.

Go ahead, continue with Psalm 2…

Why this uproar among the nations?
Why this impotent muttering of pagans—
kings on earth rising in revolt,
princes plotting against Yahweh and his Anointed,
‘Now let us break their fetters!
Now let us throw off their yoke!’
The One whose throne is in heaven
sits laughing, Yahweh derides them.
Then angrily he addresses them,
in a rage he strikes them with panic,
‘This is my king, installed by me
on Zion, my holy mountain.’
Let me proclaim Yahweh’s decree;
he has told me, ‘You are my son,
today I have become your father.
Ask and I will give you the nations for your heritage,
the ends of the earth for your domain.
With iron sceptre you will break them,
shatter them like potter’s ware.’
So now, you kings, learn wisdom,
earthly rulers be warned:
serve Yahweh, fear him,
tremble and kiss his feet,
or he will be angry and you will perish,
for his anger is very quick to blaze.
Happy all who take shelter in him.

Again, say ‘Amen!’ at the end of this psalm. You have only six more to go. By the time you get to Psalm 8, you'll not want to leave. Also, beginning with Psalm 3, you will find yourself standing in King David's place, sharing his prayer, noticing little by little how you can pray these words as coming from your very self! The first time this happens isn't the last. If you persevere in praying the Psalms, you will enter into the Biblical world, being taught how to address the living God, understanding more and more of His will for your life.

Soon enough, between reading each psalm, your personal prayers will begin lodging themselves, at first by words maybe, but then gradually by spiritual groanings (I can't find a better word, but I don't mean something negative by ‘groan’). It's impossible to explain, but as you faithfully pray the Psalms, not only does your personal prayer and dialog with the Lord become more real, more lasting, but soon, you will find that the Lord has been speaking to you more constantly and clearly than you had ever realized. This is what the Orthodox mean by practicing theology rather than studying it. This is where a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ becomes more than just an expression.

Praying the Psalms has been my main personal prayer life since I accepted the Lord at the age of 24. I have not been faithful or consistent with it, but it is the place I always return to whenever I notice I've been drifting. And why is this? Because the Lord is there, He's the faithful and the true, the only lover of mankind, the merciful Father, and I can always depend on Him to save me, and enfolded in His psalms I can come and stand before Him, with Jesus.

There are two thirty-day cycles. The one I have used most of my life is found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. I have marked my Jerusalem Bible with the day numbers of that cycle. The other thirty-day cycle is found in the Hebrew Tehillim, the book of Psalms.

Thirty day months—a perfect match!

Thirty-one day months?—Two psalms taken from the Torah, the Song of victory (Exodus 15), and The Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32). Or instead, pray the psalms for the day of the month you were born. Or again, if you're praying for someone in particular, offer the psalms for their birthday on that ‘extra’ day.

What to do with February?—I was afraid you'd ask that! Well, take it as it comes—on the last day of February either read just the psalms for that day, or just finish the book of Psalms right to the end, whatever you have strength for.

One other encouraging word. Don't fret yourself over not being able to pray all the psalms. Do your best with the time you have. Many days you won't finish them all, and you shouldn't have to. ‘It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life’ (John 6:63).

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Chaneyni, Adonay, chaneyni!

Chaneyni, Adonay, chaneyni!
Have mercy on me, Lord, have mercy!

The cry goes up from all of God’s people,
from the most high king, David,
to the lowliest of his subjects,
from the fearsome prophet Elijah
to the honorable forerunner of the Ever-King of Israel,
from our first forefathers Adam and Eve,
down to the mother of our last Forefather
the New Adam,

all of them—except the New Adam
all of them hating the net in which they are caught,
all of them looking with unwearying eyes
for the redemption,
for the Redeemer,
not knowing, but only hoping,
in what they believe,
waiting and crying out,
endlessly falling like ripe wheat before the reaper, 

‘Chaneyni, Adonay, chaneyni! 
Have mercy on me, Lord, have mercy!’

And the Voice finds a body
and speaks the Answer to their cries: 
‘Blessed are the merciful, 
for mercy shall be shown to them!’

All generations waited for the mercy of the Being
and only the last,
and only a very few of them,
heard the Voice proclaim, ‘mercy is within your grasp, 
it has always been in your hands, 
what you asked for was always with you, 
not judgment and condemnation, but mercy. 
Blessed are the merciful…’

He has come to give back to us what we lost
by our betrayals,
by our unfaithfulness,
by our unmercy,
by our sins,
to give back to those who not only ask for it
but who also give it,

All the islands have awaited His true Law,
and all generations,
and here we are,
we hear it from the ends of the earth,
His eternal gospel, angel-borne,
yet from His own lips,

We hear it, and we know it, 
but do we have hope, 
will He find faith on earth?

No question of right or righteousness,
for only One is without sin,
His righteousness is an everlasting righteousness,
and His Word is Truth.

But will He find faith on earth 
among those who hear the Word awaited for ages, 
who speaks for ever now?

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

Matthew 5:3-12

Chaneyni, Adonay, chaneyni!

Have mercy on me, Lord, have mercy!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Searching for…

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

Joy, joy

Joy, joy, amidst suffering, 
blending what cannot be with what is,
and all held in fragile friendship in the hands of God,

who for the love of His suffering siblings
joined them to prove on the battlefield of His body
that victory is at the bottom of defeat,
and that redemption can be purchased
only at a price beyond our paying,

and that of all worlds this one is the best and only,
because our Beloved has pierced our defenses
and shown us the way out,
to perfect freedom,
fearless, radiant, unfleshly
and immortal.

He is glorified by the piping of a solitary bird
that now sings, again and again, the threefold call,
‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’
out of the wooded depths.

Your day, O Lord,
Your day that You have bestowed on us,
grant us to behold Your face in every moment,
and feel Your touch.

Savior, come, and do not delay.

— Romanós

Love the thirst and tears

A stone laid by the river say,
‘Friend, love the poverty and you be rich
for what for if I'm rich but then I forget the poor

‘Love the powerlessness and you be strong
let others be strong and I'm weak
let them run and I crawl
but never be lazy in your exhaustion

‘Love the lowliness and you be you
It is not in the peak of the hill you found orchid
it is in the cool slope near the glimmering spring
for the sooner you get, the sooner you forget

‘Love the hunger and sorrow, and you be filled,
for in greediness, there is nothing can satisfy
even the whole world given you it is nothing
Love and embrace it,
then the compassion greets you
and everything becomes gladsome

‘Love the thirst and tears, and you be joyful
for he who fears to bow is dreaming
peace never touches his heart unless he bow
to the suffering

‘Love the lowest ground and you be still
the least place is the place where pure water loves
the water never be satisfied until it sits on the lowest spot
and as a mother she takes care of little grass and sweet lilies

‘Release the captives,
for so long as they are there, they made you captive
unload the burden, and a new burden will come

‘Walk with the lame
talk with the mute
weep with refugees
eat with the poor
stand up with the paralyzed
they're beautiful.’

— Yudi Kristanto

One only is worthy

One only 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.      

This way 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.      
— Romanós


 Home on a kite we fly,
 Home on a breeze we blow
 Eyeing the folks below and
 Watching everybody run,
 Each one heading for a different place
 Watching everybody hide,
 Each behind a different face

 Home where the days are long
 Back where the people are free,
 Home where all sides agree and,
 Everybody has a friend, oh
 And no one ever has to grab
 Everybody shares the love,
 Giving everything they have.

    Forever, forever your lamp will burn
    Forever, home forever, would that you'd learn
    That you came with nothing
    So with nothing you'll return

 You know you're not alone
 It’s only ’cause you’re not at home
 That you feel so out of place.

    Forever, forever your lamp will burn
    Forever, home forever, would that you'd learn
    That you came with nothing
    So with nothing you'll return

 Home where all the mums can sing,
 Back where the children don’t cry,
 Home where you never ask why, and
 Everybody has enough, and y’don’t have to put on clothes
 Nobody has to hide ’cause everyone already knows.

Cutting the strings

                        There now, they've all gone
                        Almost as if they never had been
                        I turn my eyes backwards
                        I gaze into my own gaze
                        I turn my eyes inwards
                        I gaze into my own face

                        I built my prison stone by stone
                        How many useless knots I tied
                        I dug the pitfalls in my path
                        How many useless tears I cried
                            Here to build in worlds of beauty
                            No-one made a joy a duty
                            No-one, no-one but me

                        I saw the birds that flew so free
                        I envied them their grace divine
                        I saw the dancers’ airy steps
                        Theirs was a different world than mine
                            Here to build in worlds of glory
                            No-one made my sad, sad story
                            No-one, no-one but me

                        When useless walls come tumbling down
                        Sparrows will sing on the fallen stones
                        Adam will pull the knife from his brow
                        Eve will lick the salt from his wounds
                            Free to make my own tomorrow
                            Free to free my heart from sorrow
                            Free to hear and smell and see
                            Free to be me, free to be free

Clean Monday

                    The sound of the tide
                    woke me.

                    Any day
                    can be clean Monday.

                    Any day
                    not too early
                    nor too late,
                    I follow You, Lord,
                    as You walk along the sea.

                    Your foot steps leave no trace,
                    but mine,
                    heavy with the weight of sins,
                    mar the smoothness
                    of the sand of time.

                    Cannot erase them,
                    cannot hide them,
                    the path they trace,
                    where I walked without You,

                    but Your mercy, Lord,
                    Your mercy,
                    blows them away.
                    They vanish
                    in Your wind.
                    Following You,
                    like You
                    I leave no trace.

                    The sea washes away,
                    the wind clears the sand,
                    the wind carries them away,
                    the sun shines softly,
                    lights the beach
                    invisibly through the mists,
                    the roar of the waves
                    carries them away,
                    far as east is
                    from the west.

                    Alone with You,
                    I walk with You
                    along the sea, Lord,
                    and in silence
                    You unburden me.

                    You release me, Lord,
                    and so
                    I follow You.

— Romanós

First Hour of Turning

                  In the days of the Judah kings
                  Heavens and the earth watched
                  As rebel children spat out manna

                  What a brood of disease and filth!
                  A backward people laden with sin
                  Even good grain, they corrupted

                  We also gnaw the gentle breast
                  Heads grow rotten with gluttony
                  While hearts remain unnourished

                  What mockery made us believe
                  We could bribe the king of heaven
                  Or hide in myrrh’s thick smoke?

                  Light candle, say a prayer rote
                  Sing the appointed hymn loudly
                  Bow and scrape, kiss the cross

                  What are these to a dark heart?
                  Empty delusions, death by lies
                  Futile efforts He will not endure

                  But if we wash one another
                  Returning again with thanksgiving
                  Learn and grow, give and love

                  Pound the sword into plowshare;
                  Eat of the fields the Lord has given
                  Or, ungrateful, be eaten yourself!

                  This is the first hour of turning
                  The river is at hand for washing
                  Clean eyes will cry tears of joy.

— David Dickens, Nothing Hypothetical

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Already dead

True, this is not the feast of Pascha,
but when is it not the Day of Resurrection?

It is the Day of Resurrection!
Let us be radiant, O people!
It is the Passover, the Passover of the Lord!
From death to life, and from earth to heaven
Christ our God has passed us
who sing the hymn of victory—

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling death by death,
And bestowing life
To those in the tombs.

…when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.
John 19:33-34 NASB

A man who is alive hears, sees and experiences things in one way, and a man who is already dead hears, sees and experiences things in another.

The robbers were burly men, hardy from their lives of hardship, and could withstand much abuse, having bodies that dealt out harsh punishments to their victims, they were also trained to receive harsh punishments. Hence, though nailed to their crosses, they did not die very quickly. The evening of the holy Day was approaching, and they had to be dead before sundown, so as not to cause any further defilement. Their legs had to be mashed with mallets to hasten their dying. Even so, they outlasted the Lord who was nailed to the stake between them.

The young rabbi, though a carpenter, had a body delicate in comparison to theirs. Why He died so quickly, whether it was because His scourging and the pressing down into the flesh of His skull the circlet of thorny twigs had caused Him to shed more of His blood than the robbers had, or whether the gentleness of His physique were enough, is unknown. So quickly did He die, that Pilate was amazed. He sent a message to the guards, “Just make sure he’s really dead…”

Those who don’t die quickly have their legs broken. They feel it. It’s excruciating, literally, it crosses them out. They’re finished, and fast, but they still feel the pain, and they don’t die willingly, but by force.

Him who dies quickly, the world is aghast at.
It can’t believe he gave up so easily, and got off so lightly. It can’t really believe he’s dead, so even though he is already dead, it has to make sure. A lance is thrust into his side. He doesn’t feel it, because he is already dead. What exudes from the puncture—it can’t be called a wound anymore, because he is now beyond all suffering; it’s just a gash in the side of a corpse—is not a fountain of live blood gushing out, but a mixture now of blood and water that is at rest, and only the relief of pressure causes it to spurt a little and then pour out in a steady stream onto the rocky soil.

…You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Psalm 23: 5 NIV

What table in the presence of my enemies? What anointing, Lord, and what cup to drink that overflows? The same table upon which You were offered up? The same anointing of sweat and blood mingled that ran down…

…like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes?
Psalm 133:2 NIV

Yes, Lord, this death is as it is written,

It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.
Psalm 133:3 NIV

A man who is alive hears, sees and experiences things in one way, and a man who is already dead hears, sees and experiences things in another.

Lord, let me be the second kind of man, that doesn’t feel the spear thrust into his side because, like You, he is already dead. Let me, like You, trample death by death that, with You, I may also bring life to those in the tombs.

It is the Day of Resurrection!
Let us then make ourselves
resplendent for the festival
and embrace one another.
Let us say, brethren,
even to those who do not love us:
“Let all be forgiven in the Resurrection,”
and so exclaim—

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling death by death,
And bestowing life
To those in the tombs.

Happy Forgiveness Sunday to all the brethren, 
both friends and enemies.
I humbly ask you to forgive me if I have offended you.
And if you have offended me, I forgive you.
— Romanós

Cast out

Today was the last Lord's Day before the beginning of the Great Fast (Sarakostí, ‘Lent’), beginning tomorrow, Monday (Kathará Dheftéra, ‘Clean Monday’). As the day begins at sundown according to the scriptures, the first service of Sunday (Kyriakí, ‘the Lord's [day]’) was the vesper service on Saturday night. I want to invite my readers and visitors to join us on the journey to Pascha. To start on this pilgrim way, I would like to share with you some of the spiritual poetry that comprised our worship for this day.

The Lord, my Creator, took me as dust from the earth,
and with the breath of life He gave me a soul
and made me a living creature.
He honoured me as ruler on earth over all things visible
and as a companion of the Angels.

But Satan the deceiver, using the serpent as his instrument,
enticed me by food,
separated me from the glory of God and gave me over to the earth
and to the lowest depths of death.

But as Master and compassionate, call me back again.

Wretch that I am, I have cast off the robe woven by God,
disobeying Your divine command, Lord, at the counsel of the enemy,
and I am clothed now in fig leaves and in garments of skin.

I am condemned to eat the bread of toil in the sweat of my brow,
and the earth has been cursed
so that it bears thorns and thistles for me.

But, Lord, who in the last times were made flesh of a Virgin,
call me back and bring me into Paradise again.

O precious Paradise, unsurpassed beauty,

tabernacle built by God, unending gladness and delight,
glory of the just, joy of prophets, and dwelling place of saints,
with the sound of your leaves implore to the Maker of all
to open for me the gates which I closed by my transgression,
and may count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life,
and of the joy in which I delighted when I dwelt in you
before Adam was banished from Paradise through disobedience
and cast out from delight, beguiled by the words of a woman.

Naked he sat opposite the place,
lamenting, Woe is me!

Therefore let us all make haste
to accept the season of the Fast
and obey the traditions of the Gospel,
that through them we may become
well-pleasing to Christ
and once more receive Paradise as our dwelling.

Adam sat opposite Paradise and, lamenting his nakedness, he wept,

Woe is me! By evil deceit was I persuaded and robbed,
and exiled far from glory.

Woe is me! Once naked in my simplicity, now I am in want.

But, Paradise, no longer shall I enjoy your delight;
no more shall I look upon the Lord my God and Maker,
for I shall return to the earth whence I was taken.

Merciful and compassionate Lord, I cry to you,
Have mercy on me who am fallen.

Through eating Adam was cast out of Paradise.

And so, as he sat in front of it, he wept,
lamenting with a pitiful voice and saying,

Woe is me, what have I suffered, wretch that I am!

I transgressed one commandment of the Master,
and now I am deprived of every good thing.

Most holy Paradise, planted because of me
and shut because of Eve,
pray to him who made you and fashioned me,
that once more I be filled with your flowers.
Then the Saviour said to him,

I do not want the creature which I fashioned to perish,
but to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth,
because the one who comes to me
I will in no way cast out. 

(John 6:37)
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"John 11:25-26 NIV

מִזְמוֹר קיט

Psalms for the 26th Day (English)
119: 105-176 (Nûn~Tav)
Psalms for the 26th Day (Hebrew)
119: 97-176 (Mém~Tav)

Psalms, the heart of the scriptures and of the soul of man, the cry of the soul of kings, and of priests, painting them prophets—what a blessing to have this gateway to the throne room of the Most High!

I reach for my copy of Tehillim, the Hebrew psalm book, on this cool, cloudy morning. All my windows have been open all night, and the sun hasn't warmed the air yet. The air is still, and the sound of birds opening their songs is all to be heard.

“26th Day of the Month” proclaims the header.
The reading begins at verse 97, so I have to turn back a few pages to find the psalm number, to call it out in Hebrew…
Mizmor Qoph Yod Tét, Psalm 119
Then, I return to my place, and see, what a perfect verse to begin the day!

מָה-אָהַבְתִּי תוֹרָתֶךָ: כָּל-הַיּוֹם, הִיא שִׂיחָתִי
Máh ahávti toratèkha, kol hayyóm hi sichatí…
O how I love Your Torah! All day long it is my conversation…

I try to complete the reading, but as I take it into me, verse by verse, my spirit takes seláh, pause, my eyes close and I am lost in wonder, as the Word reminds me of all God's wonderful works. I never quite reach my destination, the end of the psalm. But the day is freshened by this beginning. I will return to it later in the day, and by nightfall, the whole psalm portion will have been read and prayed. God is good.

In the English 30-day psalm cycle, Psalm 119 begins at the end of the 24th day, taking in the first four stanzas, numbered by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, Bét, Gímel, Dálet. Then, stanzas through Mém follow as the psalm portion for the 25th day. And on the 26th Day, the remainder of Psalm 119, beginning at stanza Nûn, verse 105 by our reckoning, is to be read and prayed.

Psalm 119 has become for me a kind of favorite, almost a statement and rehearsal of my personal faith and life in Christ, and also something akin to an owner's manual—I am the apparatus, He is the Owner, but in the case of this apparatus, the apparatus needs to read the instructions, not the Owner!

In my original Jerusalem Bible, the book will almost always automatically fall open at the page where Psalm 119 for the 26th day is marked, so it probably has been read more than any other page in the book. I almost always start any bible reading by reciting verse 105, “Now Your Word is a lamp to my feet, a light on my path.” I find the minor difference between the English and the Hebrew psalm portion for this day interesting: The Hebrew starts with, “O how I love Your Torah…” while the English commences with, “Now Your Word is a lamp to my feet…” Really, two ways of saying the same thing, how valuable, how indispensable, is God's Torah, God's Word, in the life of the disciple!

Tehillim, praises, Psalms, songs, truly the heart of the scriptures and of the soul of man!

Now I know why they used to be included in every edition of the New Testament, though nowadays it is possible to find them omitted. Not only do they present in condensed form the main truths of the Old Testament, providing the prophetic background for the New, but they also teach the disciple to pray, and form his inner man. You can read the New Testament alone all you want, but without prayer, it is impossible to enter into the life described there, you remain a spectator or philosopher only. Psalm 119 concludes,

Yahweh, may my cry approach Your Presence;
let Your Word endow me with perception!
May my entreaty reach Your Presence;
rescue me as You have promised.
May my lips proclaim Your praise,
since You teach me Your statutes.
May my tongue recite Your promise,
since all Your commandments are righteous.
May Your hand be there to help me,
since I have chosen Your precepts.
I long for You, Yahweh, my Saviour,
Your Law is my delight.
Long may my soul live to praise You,
long be Your rulings my help!
I am wandering like a lost sheep:
Come and look for Your servant.

No, I have never forgotten Your commandments.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Had she said ‘No’

The Sunday of the Last Judgment has come and gone. Will I sleep through the Event it represents just as I slept through the services of that day? God knows I’m a sinner and deserve death, but it seems He’s gone out of His way to save me somehow. ‘If anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him…’ (Matthew 5:41). It seems He’s taken His own advice. I suppose that gives Him the right to tell us to do the same. And as for ‘turning the other cheek,’ well, what more can I say?

I keep asking myself the obvious. What is it that makes some of us ‘die, and go to heaven,’ and the rest of us ‘die, and go to hell’? This is not just kidding around. This is an important question. Apparently wars have been fought over it, people dying on both sides and expecting to be included in the first group. Ask any number of church authorities, or read their writings, and maybe find the answer. What? You’ve tried, and you’re just as confused as ever?
That makes two of us…

Being great students of the Bible, we have cleverly discovered the scheme of salvation. Which scheme, of course, depends on ‘where we go to church’ or even whether we go to church at all. If you are a churchable, like I am, you already know that the scheme of salvation is a done deal. There’s nothing you can do to find out any more about it than your church is willing to tell you, and according to them, you needn’t try. Why not? Isn’t it obvious? ‘It’s all writ down…’

We’re so used to being told ‘that’s how it is’ that most of us don’t even come anywhere close to the edge of asking, ‘Is it so?’ That’s what makes people unchurchable, and we must not let that happen to us. What would the neighbors think?

If anyone reading this thinks that next, I’m going to launch out on a diatribe of questioning every teaching handed over to us by Holy Church, you can rest at ease. If this is what you wanted me to do, you may leave now. If any of you want to stay with me and push against the veil of the Temple to see whether or not it’s still attached, and to sneak behind it through the rip made by the Son of God when He entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the Mercy Seat with His own blood
(see Hebrews 9), then stay with me…

Beyond the protocols of Zion, those rules and regulations, formulas and declarations made by the Church, following her Master, to show us ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ (John 14:6), since by ourselves we could not find it, we still can read for ourselves the statements that Christ Himself makes in our hearing, that ‘no one comes to the Father except through Me’, and ask Him ourselves, what does He mean? He is not an historical person only, smart but dead like Socrates. He is the living God.
The only place I can think of where Christ tells us openly what is the criterion for our eternal happiness or our everlasting grief is precisely in that parable that was read in the gospel of the Sunday of the Last Judgment. But is it really a parable only, or is it the refining fire set before us, that we might meet the Day as creatures of the day and not of the night? That we might not be sent to the left, but to the right? If so, it’s strange that the Lord doesn’t ask any of the questions we ask each other, to make sure we’re ‘saved.’

Instead, it seems He doesn’t pay attention, or maybe just doesn’t hear, when those He is sending into eternal darkness call Him ‘Lord’ and protest, ‘when did we see You… and not come to Your help?’ (see Matthew 25:31-46). Perhaps they didn’t pay attention, or maybe just didn’t hear Him, when He says, ‘It is not those who say to me, “Lord, Lord,” who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of My Father in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). Could it really have been that difficult?

But He does say things like this to us: He tells us, not only the sister of Lazarus, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life. If anyone believes in Me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die,’ and then He asks, ‘Do you believe this?’ (John 11:25-26). We can read her answer for ourselves, and we can make her answer ours, realizing that it is this confession that produces the promise in us, and really, nothing else. She said ‘Yes, Lord.’ What then, had she said, ‘No’?

This we shall never find out, just as we shall never know ‘what would’ve happened’ had another woman said, ‘No,’ when met with the first words of the Good News that, when first spoken, seemed like anything but good news, ‘You are to conceive and bear a son, and you must name him…’ (Luke 1:31). Why anything but good news? She was a bride unwedded, a virgin. This conception would come about without the agency of a man. Her response? ‘Let what you have said be done to me’
(Luke 1:38).

But salvation, not the life of salvation as it’s called, which means merely ‘Christian life’ whatever that is, but salvation, what Jesus keeps referring to when He says, ‘I am the Gate. Anyone who enters through Me will be safe: he will go freely in and out and be sure of finding pasture’ (John 10:9). Or when He says, ‘I am the living Bread which comes down from heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live forever; and the Bread that I shall give is My flesh, for the life of the world’ (John 6:51).

Holy Church has already told us, over and over, what all this means, has converted it, nuts and bolts, into the system of Christianity that has existed from the beginning until now, so that we can be invited, welcomed, accepted, initiated, integrated, instructed, assigned our places, and guaranteed our salvation. Leaving nothing to chance may be the strategy of the Church, a reflection of what Christ Himself does, but where does it all really start, for me, for you, if not with our own ‘Yes, Lord’?

Thorn in the flesh

The best that is in us, and the worst that is in us—thank God!—are both hidden from the world. This is both a condition of the natural order of things, and also a work of grace. What defines and divides the good man from the wicked is the desire to tamper with this condition, to override it, to glory in the best we have and are, and to conceal the worst in us. Though we are all guilty of tampering in this way, when we obsess over it, we paint ourselves into a corner from which there seems to be no escape.

Everyone has a signal obstacle to happiness, or what he thinks will make him happy, in this world. It is something he cannot, or should not, have or be or do. It is God’s answer to original sin, His firewall against total infection, His preventative medicine against our final dissolution and death. It is called by Paul a ‘thorn in the flesh.’ Some people think this is a punishment from God, or something bad, but it is actually the opposite. Medicine can taste bad, but if it is the right medicine it can cure whatever ails you.

God is faithful. He also grants our requests before we ask. He knows all about us, and He has no need to wait for the right moment in time. Just as He was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world for the sake of sinners who had not yet been created or fallen into sin, so His tender care, so watchful, so sheltering and healing, is prepared for us even before we ask for it. When I discovered what my signal obstacle was, I prayed to the Lord, asking Him to never let me be in a time and place where I could be felled by it.

I am still standing, though lesser things have felled me, because He remembers my prayer, He hears me before I asked, He knows me before I was born, He follows me in my wanderings, He surrounds me with songs of deliverance even before my ear was opened, He is the faithful and the true Witness of my every thought, word and deed, He is my just but merciful Judge, He is there with me when I will close my eyes in my last sleep, and He removes forever from ‘this body of death’ the fortuitous thorn that nailed down my flesh.

Glory to You, O God, glory to You!
Draw me in your footsteps, let us run… (Song of Songs 1:4).

Sharers of the Divine Nature

I am not a religious syncretist.
I don’t believe in combining religions, or that all religions lead to God, and so on. But I am not afraid of experiencing religions other than my own, learning about them, even seeing the world through their eyes, either. And why should I?
I know for sure that not only do all religions not lead to God, but that none does, not even my own. I am a Christian, yes, and that is the religion I adhere to, but that is only a technicality.

Technically, I am a Christian. I confess the Orthodox faith. I am very happy with that faith, and sometimes very unhappy about the community that espouses it. But I know for sure that religion does not lead to God. Only God leads to God. He comes down from heaven to seek us, find us, forgive, heal and remake us, yes, remake us into the beings He intended us to be, capable of living in eternity as He does, and wanting that kind of life.

And what or who is this God that I say I know is the only thing or being that leads to God? Well, as a Christian I have only one answer: Jesus Christ. Yes, an historically verifiable man who lived about two thousand years ago in a small country where Asia and Africa meet, the land of Israel.
He was an Orthodox Jew with a very unorthodox lifestyle, and a teaching that went with it. He irritated the religious establishment, and was executed.

His life didn’t end there, however, and you all know what I am going to say next. He didn’t stay dead, but came alive again, remained on earth for forty days teaching His disciples the last few things He couldn’t tell them before, and then He was taken up into heaven, where ‘He sits at the right hand of the Father’ until He comes back to earth someday. If you’re a Christian, you know this story. If you’re not a Christian, you may still have heard about it. Makes sense?
No, not really.

Not until you go past the story and enter into the Reality that spawned it. And what is that Reality, or rather, Who is it? Are we back to ‘Jesus Christ’ again? Well, yes, and—for the non-Christian, for those of other ‘religions’—no. Sorry, Christian brothers, but though I claim to not be a religious syncretist, I am also not a liar. Yes, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the single historical blending of the Divine Nature with the human nature, He is the ‘God that leads to God.’ But there’s only One God, right?

Yes, and no.
The Jews and the Muslims are right. ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One,’ and ‘There is no God but Allah, and He has no partner.’

But human experience, whether it can be theoretically acknowledged or not, confesses that the Divine Nature, though One, can only be made known to us, and can only validate, redeem, save and transform us, by somehow being a Triad.
The Divine Nature, God, is so utterly One, that His Oneness is not compromised by being Three.

This cannot be admitted by those who consider themselves monotheists, believers in One God, except for the Christians, who without claiming to understand it, say He is One and Three at the same moment. But Hindus also confess something very much like it. So did the ancient Egyptians. Even my ancient, pre-Christian ancestors, the Slavs of Baltic Europe, knew of Triglav, a three-headed god. Yes, a monstrosity if you saw his statue. The real God couldn’t possibly resemble that idol, could He?

Back to my topic. I am not a religious syncretist. I don’t believe that all religions lead to God. In fact, I don’t believe that any religions lead to God. Only God leads to God. What are the practical implications of this? Well, I can tell you first what are not the practical implications. Actually, let me ask a question. If only God leads to God, then by what right or feeling of superiority do the adherents of formally monotheistic religions subjugate and triumph over the others, calling them ‘infidels’?

Pagans they may be, in that they are ‘the nations’ as opposed to the worshippers of the biblical God. Even idol-worshippers they may be if they believe that a god resides in a stone, but is this as idolatrous as believing that God resides in personal power? Infidels they are not, because to whom are they unfaithful as they carry their offerings to strange shrines and altars? How can they worship a God they don’t know? Like humans everywhere, they worship the best they know. And ours is better?

But there is no good, better and best when it comes to the Divine Nature, to the living God, the God ‘who saves us and bears our burdens’ (Psalm 69:19). We can speak of religions in these terms of comparison, but not of Him. And though a people or religion or race may not know the facts of the living God, they recognize His acts, what He does for them, and even to them. They have recorded this in scriptures without number, though their books may be myths, yet Truth is One.

And what or who is this Truth? Again, I am a Christian. I confess the living God in the God-man Jesus Christ, yet I know that the Divine Logos, the Word and Son of God, even wearing His humanity in eternity, because of that Divine Fact is present among us, from the Day of His disappearance right up to the very last Day, and that He hasn’t ceased walking among us, living among us, not just in us Christians, but among us human beings, ‘from every nation, race, tribe and language’ (Revelation 6:9).

That’s why I think, when I go to Bali, an island of the sea in which a form of Hinduism is practiced, that we who know the ‘God who leads to God’ have only to show these people Him who has been walking among them, who has been present in their shrines, at their altars and in their offerings, for two thousand years. We have only to show these people, and all who worship What they do not know, His face, His wounded head, His pierced hands and feet, His gashed side, from which we come.

Not crushing, not demanding, not punishing, lying or stealing, not ruling and not forcing ourselves on the nations, not doing what Caesar does, but doing what Jesus does: loving the people and sacrificing Himself for them, in us, in our witness, in our meekness, our willingness to meet all men as brothers, as sharers of the Divine Nature, ‘Who was, Who is, Who is to come,’ coming to them as beloved John came to them, ‘I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom, and all you endure’ (Revelation 1:9).

Not being offended by the religions and gods of the nations, nor offending them, but showing to them Who it is that is asleep in the boat with them, Who it is that impresses on their hearts all devotion to goodness, to beauty, to light, touching that One in the willingness to share with them in their sufferings, bringing them to the knowledge of the Kingdom by what we endure for them, being ourselves men just as they are, in need of mercy, in need of affirmation, in need of Truth.

This is what I mean when I sometimes say, we are not post-Christian but post-Church, yet even this saying doesn’t meet the Truth where He stands, but falls short, as does everything I say and do. We are still dealing in truths, second-hand, still not meeting Him where He walks today and every day and everywhere, still using our religion to cover us and to hide us from Him, instead of letting Him cover us and reveal Himself in us, to us, and to the world. Still not understanding our own words, ‘God is with us.’

Again I plead, for myself the lowest of sinners, that I see Christ in my neighbor, coming to meet me where I stand, or even where I fall, coming to raise me up; that I not give offense to Him hidden or asleep in my neighbor who, like myself, seeks the good, the bright, the beautiful, the true; that I hide myself that Christ be revealed in me, that I let sleep my pride that Christ awake in him, even that I die to myself that my neighbor live. Yes, brothers, for ‘the only purpose of this instruction is that there should be love…’ (1 Timothy 1:5).

Keep Me Awake

In the dawn...
keep me awake, O Lord
keep me awake
I want to see You
and sing to You a hymn of praise and honor

Lord, our Good Shepherd,
may You find me
because I am lost and weak
but I really long for You and Your Love
Cleanse me O Lord and grant me Your mercy
to come near, closer to You

My sin is ever before me
and I am ashamed
Lord, heal me and restore me
so that I might gaze upon Your Beauty in awe
and Your faithfulness and deliverance
shall be in my heart and mouth

Lord, how great and trembling it is
to follow behind You
in the steps of Your Holy Feet
Joy! Joy! Joy!
even the way is narrow
and the thorn bushes along the side
but gazing upon Your Humility and Love,
strengthens us and comforts us

in the day light...
May Your blessing be upon us
teach us and guide us with Your commandments
to walk patiently in the rocky, stony roads

Lead me in the Beautiful path among the loving brothers and sisters,
Your rational flock
those through whom You also manifest Your Love
may we be united in one voice, mind and spirit
to glorify You, our Master!
and to love our neighbors

In the night...
let us rest and take shelter in You
because You are our Only Joy!

Keep me awake,
keep me awake O Lord,
that I may sing to You
in fervent Joy that comes from You!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ikons, ikons!

Seeing that naturalistic ikon of the Mother of God holding the Child Jesus in the platytera of the Kiev cathedral of St Vladimir made me think of another image that is deeply etched in my memory, and it has to do with the way the Savior's arms and hands are portrayed in the ikon by Vasnetsov.

The infant Christ isn't doing with His hands any of things we normally see Him doing: He's not holding an open or closed evangelion in one arm and blessing with the fingers of the other. No mystic spelling of the Divine Name with those tiny fingers.

Instead, He's doing what any child being held like that is likely to do: He's all arms, and His gaze is direct, lively and true. With them He speaks greater blessing and desire for us than anything else He could have done. He's here, and He's one of us. He even has a mother. Yes, He is the Son of God, but even His heavenly Father needed a daughter to become His Mother.

What the ikon made me remember is a scene in Franco Zeffirelli's film of the life and passion of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Everything about that film is, to me, ikonic, and it is obvious that the casting and the costumes were done with reference to Orthodox ikons. When Christ stands before the tomb of Lazarus about to call him forth into life, He suddenly and abruptly raises His arms in the same way as He does in the ikon. I was hoping the arms would be in exactly the same position as in the ikon but, alas, they are in mirror image. Yet, the enigma of why He holds up His arms like that, resembling the hands on the face of a clock—what is He trying to tell us? Do Zeffirelli and Vasnetsov know something we don't? Or am I just being captured by an odd visuality?

Back to the ikon. In most images of the Theotokos with the Child Jesus, the focus seems to be on the Mother, even when by her hand gestures and her look she is supposed to be inviting us to worship her Divine Son. The same is true of most Western art renditions of ‘the Madonna.’ But in Vasnetsov's work, the Divine Child practically leaps out at us, and the look on the Mother's face is something like, ‘Don't say I didn't warn you!’ I just love this image, it's so real.

Although Zeffirelli's film Jesus of Nazareth is now somewhat dated, it's still a very powerful film about Christ. In the same scene, the raising of Lazarus (which is one of my favorites) as Christ approaches the moment when He will call Lazarus forth from the tomb, there is a gradual movement of the camera toward His face, as He is praying to His Father, thanking Him beforehand for letting Lazarus be raised, confirming His authority as the Resurrection and the Life. In this frame taken from the film, we can see the resemblance to the face of Christ as depicted in the traditional ikon, ‘Holy Face.’

Yes, Zeffirelli was thinking of ikons when he directed this film. And why shouldn't he have? They have passed into the human psyche and so deeply that most people don't even notice they are there. We all know what Jesus looks like in our hearts, even though our minds may deny it.

Ikons, ikons! Where would we be without them? And the more closely we look at God's world and our own, the more ikons we find, until we finally discover, it is all ikon, and all pointing to the Artist.

Running along behind you

          Running along behind Your followers
          I dare call myself Your disciple.

          Hiding among the baggage
          of Your Prophets and Holy Ones
          I dare say I am a pilgrim.

          Of all that is best in me, Lord,
          I am ashamed, and I am hushed
          In Your Presence.

          My thoughts, words and deeds
          Condemn me for my inaction,
          For only Your thoughts, Your words,
          Are worthy, and Your deeds.

          Look for me, Mother of Christ,
          Among the pilgrim host,
          And finding me not there,
          Seek me again in Jerusalem.

          Even if only in the shadows
          Of the Temple’s copper gates,
          I want to be found hanging
          On your Son’s fruitful words.

          Found hanging, Saints of God,
          With you who hear the call and run
          To the place of your crowning
          And your everlasting new birth.

          To steal the word of your call
          I have been brazen,
          But once stolen, let me keep it.
          Forgive me, commend me to your Lord.

          Running along behind you,
          I dare call myself His disciple.

          Lord, I trust in Your mercy.
          I am Yours, so save me.

— Romanós
Version française par Claude Lopez-Ginisty