Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In His arms

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, the sinner.

The fast of Christ’s holy Mother’s repose draws near, reminding us that we must prepare, we must repent of the sin which clings so closely, that we may, like her, be received in His arms and carried as a newborn infant to Paradise. For all that Christ did for her He has promised to do for His disciples and lovers, whom He declares to be His very own relations, saying, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). Let’s not only hear His words, but do what He commands and so stay near Him, following behind Him closely. Christ goes on before, clearing the path ahead endlessly, preparing a place for His disciples. Have mercy on me, Lord, and let me be counted among them, even as the least.

Some words, brethren, to start us on the path of illumination which has only one destination, the holy death which is life immortal. First, a word on prayer…

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

We can recite endless litanies, we can endlessly finger our prayer ropes, but unless we have love, unless we have learned to grieve for others, we have not even begun to pray. We can thus go through all our life without having begun to pray. That’s why Abba Antony said, “Let’s learn to love sorrow in order to find God!” He did not say, “Let’s look for sorrow,” but “Let’s love it,” because sorrow is a cup offered us by Christ, and drinking it, we begin to partake of prayer.

Unless we are truly sympathetic to human suffering, we are merely carrying out a “prayer rule,” not really praying. To carry out a prayer rule is good and necessary, but only when we realise it is a means, not an end in itself. We must realise that it is only a spur to encourage our efforts.

Imagine a man peacefully fishing from the shore. Everything is fine, everything is according to fishing rules, the brightly colored float bobs on the surface. The man does not realise that there is no baited hook attached to the line. The float is just a pretence, and actually there is no fishing taking place. To many people their prayer rule is such a baitless float. Only the hook of suffering can catch real love.

And now, just a few more words, this time on fasting…

Fasting means trying to overcome that which is “too human” in us. It means trying to overcome the limitations of our nature and to introduce it to limitlessness, to make it breathe eternity.

Fasting must be understood, in the first place, as abstention from non-love, not from butter. Then it will become a time of light, a “joyous time of Lent.”

Non-love, animosity, is the most terrible form of indulgence, a gluttony and intoxication with the self. It is the very first, the original offense against the Holy Spirit of God. “I appeal to you by the love of the Holy Spirit,” writes Saint Paul (Romans 15:30).

Love is the opposite of pride and hatred. In our evening prayers, we ask forgiveness for those sins which are a breach of love.
…if I have reproached anyone, or become angered by something; or slandered anyone in my anger; or have lied or slept unnecessarily; or a beggar has come to me and I have despised him; or have saddened my brother and quarreled with him; or have judged someone or have allowed myself to be haughty, proud or angry …or have laughed at my brother’s sin…
It seems to me that I have been found out. It’s all written down in the prayer book, all the things I’ve done! And before I was halfway through the prayer, my internal advocate was already reasoning my defense, making excuses for me. Why is that advocate so silent in me when it comes to defending others and overlooking their sins, not just my own?

Lest this post devolve into an academic exercise, I want to bring it to a close by returning to the theme of the time we are about to enter.

Someone is coming for us. Someone who loves us more than our parents, our spouses, our kids, our friends. Someone is coming for us and in His arms we will be gently carried into the land of all joy, into Paradise. Actually, in His arms we find Paradise, because it is all in Him. The New Adam is Paradise, and just as His earthly Mother was made all-holy by being His chosen dwelling-place, so each of us is transfigured to the degree we let Him live in us while we live in this world. And as her repose prefigures the rapture of all who “will be taken up in the clouds,” we can look forward with confidence to our own repose, because like her “we shall stay with the Lord forever”
(1 Thessalonians 4:17).

With such thoughts as these you should comfort one another.
1 Thessalonians 4:18 Jerusalem Bible

Ωστε παρακαλειτε αλλήλους εν τοις λόγοις τούτοις.

Monday, July 30, 2012

God in America

An American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, ‘whose theological writings occasionally veer into the area of paleo-orthodoxy,’ has pronounced some strong criticisms of Christianity in the United States which I read first at Fr Milovan's blog Again and Again, and then where it first appeared online at The Living Church News Service, ‘reaching out to Anglicans everywhere.’ It is a very long article, longer than I am willing to post, but here are two of many interesting passages (in the first paragraph Hauerwas is actually quoting another author and then amplifying)…

In an era of Western ascendancy, the triumph of Christianity clearly meant the triumph of the states of Christianity, among them the most powerful of modern states, the United States. Though religions have survived and flourished in persecution and powerlessness, supplicants nevertheless take manifestations of power as blessed evidence of the truth of faith. Still, in the religiously plural society of the United States, sectarian faith is optional for citizens, as everyone knows. Americans have rarely bled, sacrificed or died for Christianity or any other sectarian faith. Americans have often bled, sacrificed and died for their country. This fact is an important clue to its religious power. Though denominations are permitted to exist in the United States, they are not permitted to kill, for their beliefs are not officially true. What is really true in any society is what is worth killing for, and what citizens may be compelled to sacrifice their lives for.

America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death. Freedom names the attempt to live as though we will not die. Lives lived as though death is only a theoretical possibility, moreover, can only be sustained by a wealth otherwise unimaginable. But America is an extraordinarily wealthy society, determined to remain so even if it requires our domination of the rest of the world. We are told that others hate us because they despise our freedoms, but it may be that others sense that what Americans call freedom is bought at the expense of the lives of others.

Much of what Hauerwas says in his address (for that's how it was originally presented) made me uncomfortable. I left a comment on Fr Milovan's post, and I want to share it along with the article with those who are interested in such things. Here's my comment…

Very, very heady stuff here, lots to think about.

Stanley Hauerwas, the author, says a lot of seemingly very true things here. I felt a little bit self-defensive for America as I read his words, even while I suspected his observations could very well be correct. I still feel somewhat defensive of "Americanism," at least what I mean by it, even when his criticisms seem accurate. I also have had the experience of hearing a speaker (for example a clergyman) say a lot of true things in a sermon while still not speaking the Truth. I don't think that's what Hauerwas is doing here, but I still feel a little uncomfortable with his overall assessment of religious America.

As a Christian who does not believe in denominations ("there is only one Church and it cannot be and never has been divided") I tend not to accept most of the nit-picky naming and dividing of Christians and especially of theologians into this or that category. Having researched Hauerwas, I see that he is considered a "paleo-orthodox" as opposed to a "neo-orthodox" theologian, but I feel that such naming and categorizing is misleading. It is this kind of thing that all Christians need to forego, need to abandon, and turn not to systems with human philosophical boundaries into which they can divide themselves, but instead return to that heartland of faith whose borders have been defined not by themselves, but by the non-Christian world around them, and which reveal their essential unity rather than their ephemeral differences.

I don’t know if I have expressed myself very clearly here, but these are things I feel very strongly about, which I have written up in many different ways in my own blog, trying to visualize for myself and others how one Orthodoxy, even a nameless Orthodoxy, is the heritage of all believers and followers of Christ, and how this can be achieved by a deliberate effort on the part of all to cut through the spiritual materialism of appearances and grab hold of the undoubtable, living tradition of Christ and His holy apostles, available to us through a divine icon accessible to all, the holy scriptures.

The modern ‘schools’ of Christian thought and what many think of as ‘theology’ are tools rather of further division and controversy, and more than mere tools, weapons actually, that must be cast aside, so that not only ‘theologians’ and ‘thinkers’ can become reconciled in the unity of the Mind of Christ, but the whole Christian people as well, many of whom
are very close to it, maybe even holding to it, in spite of what their bellwethers want to believe.

A reason to believe

A Christian brother posted this observation on his blog,

We have loads of apologetics books, websites and speakers out there, many of whom try to prove that the Bible is the Word of God. Calvin says this is essentially a waste of time: ‘But it is foolish to attempt to prove to infidels that the Scripture is the Word of God. This it cannot be known to be, except by faith.’

This short post provoked a comment,

As usual, I disagree with Calvin. Honest doubts deserve intelligent answers. Not everyone is looking for an excuse not to believe; some are actually looking for a reason to believe.

Now, I don’t deal in ‘agree or disagree’ but I have experienced Calvin’s observation, and it is true. I also think I understand what the commentator is saying. But if I have an honest doubt, it is this:
I am not sure there is such a thing as ‘honest doubt,’ at least when it comes to matters pertaining to God.

In my case I never dared call my lack of faith ‘honest doubt’ because I knew it was an amalgam of laziness and prejudice. The world we are all born into encourages diligence when it comes to earthly things, and sloth when it comes to heavenly. It also presents us with the most unfavorable opinion of divine things at almost every turn, so much so that we are little aware of how prejudiced we are. We call this taking the easy way out ‘having an open mind,’ but as with all drastic inversions, the claim is so forceful that we’d feel ashamed to challenge it, so we just go along.

I also have an honest doubt that most people are looking for a reason to believe. In my limited experience of sixty-plus years, thirty-seven of them as a follower of Jesus, I would say that it seems much more plausible that most people are looking for reasons not to believe. Down to this very day, people I talk to at my job who claim they have been terrorized by ‘church’ and disgusted by ‘Christians’ never tire of telling me why they can’t or won’t believe in God.

I always think back to a dialog I read once, where after his death an unbeliever faces Jesus who asks him, ‘What kept you from believing in Me?’ The recently reposed says, ‘It really wasn’t my fault. All those Christians behaved so badly, and their church was just a club where they could play games and feel superior.’ And Jesus replies, ‘So that’s what has kept you out of heaven?’

That dialog always brings to mind the saying of brother Giles of Assisi, ‘To lose heaven is not to lose a shoe string.’

I have a saying of my own. ‘God is looking not for a reason to condemn us, but for a reason to save us.’

By that, what I think I mean to say is, God isn’t a cosmic policeman watching our every move so He can cast us into the outer darkness at our slightest slip up. Instead, He is a loving gardener who goes back to look carefully and persistently (and very patiently) at His little patch of earth to see if any of the seeds He’s planted have come up yet. He is looking diligently for our souls, no matter how small they are, so that He can pour His love over us lavishly, tending us carefully in the hope that He will have children with whom He can share the splendor of His Divine Nature.

If that isn’t a reason to believe, I don’t know what is.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Prayer of a hunted man

Psalms for the 29th Day
139 140 141 142 143

Psalm 142
Prayer of a hunted man

To Yahweh, my cry! I plead.
To Yahweh, my cry! I entreat.
I pour out my supplications,
I unfold all my troubles;
my spirit fails me,
but You, You know my path.

On the path I follow
they have concealed a trap.
Look on my right and see,
there is no one to befriend me.
All help is denied me,
no one cares about me.

I invoke You, Yahweh,
I affirm that You are my refuge,
my heritage in the land of the living.
Listen to my cries for help,
I can hardly be crushed lower.

Rescue me from persecutors
stronger than I am!
Free me from this imprisonment,
and I will thank Your Name once more
in the assembly of the virtuous,
for the goodness You show me.

(Yes, Lord, You know my path!)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A place of mercy

Speaking of priests and ministers, a sister said,

‘Some of them, unlike Chrysostom, cannot even preach a good sermon but tell little stories which, I guess, they think the average person can relate to. Sometimes, I wish I could go home and read the Bible....’

A few years ago, we had a priest who was very eloquent but actually almost never said anything at all useful or edifying, just a vague mixture of story-telling and New Age philosophy. I always brought my Jerusalem Bible with me to church, and whenever he would start his sermon I would listen until I saw where he was going. Then, I would open my bible and bury my face in it as I read it, sort of dropping out of sight.

Once, after the service, the deacon came over to me in the fellowship hall and scolded me for reading my bible during the sermon instead of paying attention. He said it was disrespectful and giving the people around me a bad example. I told him that I listen to the sermon as long as what I hear is the voice of the Shepherd, but when I hear the hireling, I turn away and read the Bible to stay safe. As for the people, I said, well, I am a sign to them too, because they know me better and longer than they've known this priest. If they see me reading the Bible, they know why.

That priest is no longer with us, nor is he still a priest. The deacon who scolded me and told me I should support this priest even if I didn't agree with him, whenever the ex-priest is remembered in conversation, speaks of him with thinly veiled contempt. He knew the man was a fraud, not even a Christian let alone being Orthodox and a priest as well, yet he supported and even promoted him out of churchly protocol.

This is why the Church must be a place of mercy at all times, because we are all deceived, even all hypocrites, at one time or another. We are God's work, though an unfinished work, and it helps no one to be confrontationally judgmental. All we can do when faced with evil within the Church enclosure is to try to get even closer to Jesus, stay with Him, and do what we see Him doing.

Yes, love covers many offenses.

To become His disciples

The problem is not that the Church is bad or wrong or needs reform. The problem is that we think, speak and act as if there were moments in our lives when we are not the Church. We think of Church as this or that—it’s the institution, or it’s the building, or it’s the worship service, or it’s the altar call, or it’s the bible study, or it’s the prayer group, or it’s the social functions, or it’s the fund raising, or any number of other ‘its.’

The reality is first and foremost that we are in Christ. That fact alone establishes the Church, not only in every time and place, but in every one of us, alone or in a crowd. Yet we fail to see that, and continue living as though church were something to do, and to do only at specific times, in specific places.

This is not to say that there ought not to be ‘sacred spaces,’ sanctuaries, churches, but that these tangibles are not to become an external focus, supplanting in us the knowledge and experience of our being in Christ. When this happens in any age or place, the Church suffers loss, the members of Christ’s Body become the prey of wolves.

For us as Christians, there is nothing in this human life that is not infused with God, with His presence, and so there is nothing that cannot be infused with our acknowledgment of Him in everything we think, speak and do. That acknowledgment is worship: we recognize God by acknowledging Him in all our relationships with people, events and things, and we testify that He alone is worthy, and that is worship.

This is not to say that worship is not or cannot occur in church services, but when there is no actual worship going on there, it becomes a hollow ritual, evidence against us that we have forgotten who we are, not necessarily who God is. When this happens, it’s not time to reform churches, redesign services, deploy different ministry methods, or hire a marketing team.

When this happens, it’s time to repent our apostasy, to return to God and to live in His House all the days, all the moments, of our lives, in His presence, in His Word.

It’s time to become His disciples.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation;
the world of the past has gone…

2 Corinthians 5:17

Wake up from your sleep, rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.

Ephesians 5:14 Jerusalem Bible

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Word is for you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you want to be well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 26, 2012

At His great mercy

I have said that doctrines don't matter at all when it comes right down to the salvation of the human race, giving some the impression that I have given up all notion of correct belief. This is not the case, otherwise I would not be an Orthodox Christian.

Of course, it is better to be correct than incorrect, and yes, the correct answers are to be found in scripture, but that is exactly where sectarians and makers of religions go to bolster their mistaken ideologies. If we are of the ancient faith, for us the orthodoxy of the historic Christian Church will keep us from wandering into lands from which there may be no return. I am not suggesting that doctrine doesn't matter, in spite of my use of rather strong language and what appear to be categorical imperatives. No, I am not speaking out of both corners of my mouth either. It's just that doctrinal belief or misbelief can in fact affect our relationship to God and our ultimate destiny with Him or without Him, and yet, His mercy can cover all offenses and in fact does, even taking to Himself those whose ideas about Him are either non-existent or very mistaken.

Our God is greater than anything we can say about Him, even greater than anything the Bible says about Him, and how can He not be? He is the author of all, and having written the only story that there is, He can direct its course, and ours, beyond anything we can do. Yes, we can be damned and separated from Him for ever, but only from our side. From His side, we are never out of His sight.

This is a very strange story He has written, our God, and we see neither the beginning or the end as we now are, mere characters on a page. But when the Lamb's book of life is finally open, we will find out whose names were written there from before the foundation of the world, and we will have cause to wonder at His great mercy, both to the saved, and to the lost.


Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

This short canto in Uncle Walt's marvelous epic poem always comes to mind whenever I turn aside from the cares of the world and go to meet my Lord in the pages of His verbal ikon, the Holy Bible. I start reading, and by the third or fourth verse, my spirit almost detaches from me and wants to "stop and loiter… to sing it in ecstatic songs."

I know the feeling, the experience he is describing in his poem, even in the study and contemplation of merely earthly things. I shouldn't say merely, because as Walt tells us on almost every page of his book Leaves of Grass, nothing is merely anything, and everything is, like the grass, "…the handkerchief of the Lord, a scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt, bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?"

Little did he know that he was saying, in effect, it is all ikon. I am not scandalized by the poetic ravings of this great unchristian soul, because I know that he is being elusive in an almost apophatic way. The greatness of his soul and the unqualified yearning for the love of the great Comrade, whom he knew as Christ, speaks to me at least, who also find it unconsoling to hug a statue of Christ to my breast. I want Christ, and only Him, for real.
Back to beginning my studies, as the psalmist chants, "even standing on the threshhold of God's house is better than…" (cf. Psalm 84:10) and you can put there anything you like. Nothing compares even remotely to the joy awaiting us in every verse and syllable of God's precious and living Word, from beginning to end. I never find any of it boring or tedious.

Not boring and tedious? What about the opening chapter of Matthew with all those begats? Don't I find, so they ask me, those repetitions monotonous?

Actually, no, I don't. In fact I love to read the genealogies. Reading them gives my tongue a chance to exercise (if I am reading them in Greek), my memory a chance to relive in brief the stories associated with many of the names, almost like watching a slide show.

And then there's the rhythm or cadence, especially in Greek you can almost dance to it with those lithe steps, arms all linked, gamboling first to the right and then abruptly left for a couple more, before being pulled to the right again, as if a wave of the sea had you by the legs and was dragging you into the deep.

Yes, even the names of the ancestors of God can pause me, "beginning my studies the first step pleased me so much…" How can they not? These are names that are aglow with life, the life of Him who said, "I am the Resurrection and the Life" (John 11:25), and "Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing My day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56).

So here am I, stopping and loitering in your sight "to sing it in ecstatic song." Well, not singing exactly, but "at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life" (Psalm 42:8). This is how it is for me. No sooner do I open the Book than I want to read it aloud and share it, for there is no other undying, divine scripture on earth.

I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

Ευχαριστησω Σε, Κυριε…
I thank You, Jesus.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Do you believe this?

The death of children is grievous. It always seems an intolerable injustice. Even the person of faith is challenged and asks, ‘Why, God?’ It gives those unwilling to believe occasion to taunt and mock, ‘If he is such a good god, why didn’t he…?’ If He would answer, might He not ask in return, ‘If you are such good people, why didn’t you…?’ But, alas, He remains silent, lets the warm, dark blanket of unknowing embrace and then cover the young soul whom He takes up in His arms, welcoming him to Himself.

Not only old people, but youths also, die, and daily, some of diseases or calamities, some as victims of abuse, their own or others’ or both, indeed, some even kill themselves. But no youth dies of old age. Even when the elderly die of old age, that is just a comfortable cover up for our neglect of them. Yes, people old and young sometimes make it impossible for others to love them, and so they die by rendering themselves incurable. All of us may push away exactly that which would heal us.

In the film, The Fountain, a young medical research scientist, overcome by grief at the death of his young wife, abruptly tears himself away during their friend’s graveside eulogy. When she goes after him to bring him back, through his tears he indignantly declares, ‘Death is a disease, it's like any other. And there's a cure. A cure, and I will find it.’ The scene is deeply planted with pathos, and it seems he can never recover or avail himself of his wife’s confidence in the goodness of bodily death. But is it good?

Not believing in her recovery, she becomes fascinated by Mayan myths about the underworld which, unlike the Hades of the Greeks, is in the remote heavens, not below the earth. Xibalba, the Mayan world of the dead, is located in the Orion Nebula—though this is only in the film: actually it is below the earth as in other cultures—but it provides the mystic backdrop for the theme of immortality that drives the story. Now movies, in ancient times myths, still feed our hopes, but in vain. We know something’s wrong.

Yes, the death of children, and not just infants, boys and girls, but young men and women, their lives cut short—we call it tragedy. I learned the meaning of tragedy in my high school English literature class, and I’ve never forgotten it: not being able to realize one’s potential. That may seem dry and academic, but not to the teenager that I was. Tragedy was always lurking around the next corner for me. One of my favorite poems in that class was, To An Athlete Dying Young.

What makes me ramble on these hard thoughts? A friend of a friend, a boy aged twenty-two, passed away a couple of days ago. What the circumstances were, I do not know. What I was told is that he was from a troubled family background and had come out West to get away from it. Trying to settle here, he met with even greater dangers, and in the end succumbed. I asked myself, ‘Where was his dad?’ knowing full well that though a dad may want to help, a son often doesn’t want him.

Sadness, and grievous silence, and aching hearts, these are our protection against fully realizing the finality of bodily death. We would prefer cremation, too, because no one wants to have to see a body: death is then too real for us, and bigger than life. If we are dust, we can wax poetic again, ‘Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.’ We dare not ask ourselves if this is really true. We dare not ask, because we do not really believe, we are made of dust, but that’s not what we are.

Christianity for some is a kind of comfort. For others, it’s reincarnation. For the young woman dying in The Fountain, it was a solace for her that the matter of which her body was made might live again in a tree, or take wing as part of a bird. The immortality of the poet Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass is a similar idea, ‘If you want me again look for me under your boot soles. You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, but I shall be good help to you nevertheless and filter and fiber your blood.’

But the resurrection of Jesus Christ means more than the reawakening of the earth’s green things in the spring. It even means more than the weekly celebration of it in the services of the Church. In times of grief, we let ourselves be lulled into religious euphoria to kill the pain. It takes time for the mist of our grief to burn off. But the truth is, Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life. ‘I am the Resurrection,’ He tells us, and asks, ‘Do you believe this?’

What have you to show us?

It's when the worst suddenly happens that we show how deep our following of Jesus goes, though not everyone who calls themselves a Christian has even the slightest intention of following Him: believing, yes, following, maybe when it's convenient. To some degree this is true of all of us.

So a church building gets lightly graffiti'd. Someone spray paints an inverted cross and places a numeral six beside three of the cross ends. This is a childish prank and uncalled for. People are up in arms, some blaming the perpetrators of such blasphemy, others sanctimoniously quoting 'pray for them.'

Graffiti happens every day, much of it far worse than what was scrawled on the wall of a church. I have helped neighbors who were Lesbians remove homophobic graffiti from their cedar fence. I've had to repaint the dark blue fence around my garden when some sidewalk tripper decorated it with delight.

What is at issue here is respect, respect for property, to be sure, but there are things even more worthy of respect than religious buildings. Of course, desecration by any means of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and graveyards, cuts more deeply, or at least it feels that way, but it's not what, but who, is being dissed.

Who is being dissed? Who disrespected? Is it really God? Tell me, in what way can He be injured by such mistaken actions? Isn't it really ourselves who are angered, because we had something 'nice' and someone has come and spoiled it? I know that's how I feel when things like that happen to me. It's not blasphemy, just stupidity.

Face it, our society is very screwed up, but whose isn't? When was human society ever perfect? People can pave over their sins all they want, but in time, what's been covered comes popping up through cracks that we're powerless to keep closed. Kids graffiti buildings, adults graffiti their bodies, and yes, their souls.

Made in the Divine image, we can't stand to look at ourselves, because we're not what we want to be, and even our best efforts to deceive others don't always work. What we want to be is rarely what God wants us to be, but most of us don't have the time or inclination to ask Him to find out. From our shadows we snipe at others.

Back to the graffiti'd church wall, I wonder not who marked it up, but who lives outside that wall. Is that temple the heart of a community that believes, or is it an island of Orthodoxy plopped down at the corner of Fifth and Vine, in a neighborhood inhabited by people indifferent to God, who don't know there is a message?

There is the rub. Can anyone apply graffiti to the wall of the City of God or disrespect its gates? Only those who do not know what they are looking at. And how are they to know, if we do not show them? The graffiti is only their attempt to attract our notice, as if to say, 'We're here! What have you to show us?'

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

All on the same side

I found this discourse today, written by my son Jacob, on my FaceBook home page, growing out of an initial discussion about ‘prayer cubes,’ something that I had never heard of before, but the discussion went far beyond them…

Someone just asked if we sold prayer cubes. A prayer cube is actually a prayer ‘die’ [plural: dice] with a prayer on each side that is ‘cast.’ It brings to mind the distinction made between hazard vs. chance. Since it is modeled on a game of hazard (a game that believes in distinctive randomness without significant attachments to context and environment) the folks who sell these items make a point of quoting the casting of lots to determined the new twelfth apostle—an act that is far closer to the cosmological view that views chance with optimism: where you have explicit local randomness, and shrouded universal significance, combined—the significance drawn from the context: time, tempo and timbre as it were.

Here is an interesting discussion of this idea of the different types of approaches to chance or gambling.

A caveat—the wisdom literature model extended what little physical observations were known, to create a distinct belief in a multi-dimensional space that kept the mechanical aspects of the universe intact, but provided a frightening option for the arbitrary, based on the personality that the universe had, and the sense that the universe had of its own self-preservation.

The shortest root to this is, if you are in the ancient world and you believe the sky is a crystalline dome holding back the waters of the flood, and that the sun is not a body but an opening through which life and light flow into this world as substances that feed the earth, and through which God ‘looks down’ upon the earth from a life-generating abode... well, the next abstraction is to believe this presence is brought to earth in the form of the temple, where the lights of the temple are symbolically serving the same purpose. Up until Aristotle you had a wide belief that the eye was associated with fire, and that a person saw because light was cast out from the eye, bounced off the object like sonar and returned.

And yet once you see the temple itself fail, you return to a deeper abstraction which states that there is a world that possessed the tree of life, and that from the rivers of this tree (could be water, or limbs, or both) you had the source of life and abode of God and that in violating the laws of this world one was cast out as a matter of self-preservation, the door once again guarded by Uriel the fiery sword (‘light of god’ as a very solar image). And that this world co-exists in a shrouded way with the one that we see. The hope being that in being found worthy of this world, one might be called to the door and enter.

On the flip side, this provided the ancient world with an arbitrary aspect to the universe that the 18th century lacked, in that there was nothing stopping this trans-dimensional world from spilling over into the unworthy outside world. This was that nature and notion of grace, and in many ways this world was seen as interactively participating and shaping the visible world. So for example, souls of children came from here. Love itself, as a source of regeneration, life, resurrection, etc., flowed from here. There is a lot more to this area of discussion obviously, and many of the ideas here are either outmoded or refined in the modern era—but the fear of ‘God as a distant entity,’ and the ‘plan of the almighty’ was not the source of fear for the ancient world—it was the secondary reality of the unseen that cut in and out of the world they experienced, in ways that they did not understand. In the dark ages, with all the disease and death, the confidence in the beneficial aspects of this unseen world gave way to the possibility that there was a far more sinister hidden element that had controlled the world.

This is when gambling became a sort of collusion with the dark invisible elements and witchcraft became more than merely worship of foreign deities or necromancy. Prior to this period, casting lots had a far more favorable view—yielding personal will to the invisible hand of the wider world—which, despite many losses, seemed to cradle those who were faithful to certain principles.

The collection of wisdom, in particular, was bent on gaming this system and finding the cradle—the bosom of Abraham, as it were—where one could experience the embrace of heaven while here on earth. The contribution of Jesus within this system was illustrating that the embrace of this world could overwhelm the chasm of death and allow one to leap back from that realm in an elevated physical state. The common notion of heaven, hell and death being on the same side of the universe is, from a scriptural point of view, thoroughly flawed. It is a selective reading that would be entirely nonsensical to the apostles—the modern notion suggests that death is a department store with heaven in the attic and hell in the basement.

The ancient notion is that heaven is present in this world, but hides from us in order to protect itself and its contents, opens itself to those who are worthy of entry, and waits for those who are resurrected for evaluation and entry. Hell is the result of the laws of the universe outside of heaven (and the energy required to sustain them) being withdrawn—all elements allowed to resume their natural chaotic state. The suggestion is that this retraction of natural laws will not occur until all the souls have been resurrected and judged.

The interesting thing about all of this—well, the Judahite obsession with death—because the kingdom of God, and Eden itself, was on this side of death, it meant that once you crossed into Hades you were effectively locked out of any possibility of communion with God—not to say you were in hell exactly, but you were in a completely different space from God.

So you have lots of kids, hoping that one day your lineage would experience the inheritance, etc., etc.

This is the nonsense to the Greeks (who had a very different view of the afterlife) and is also why Paul is very focused on ‘how the Exodus works.’ Based on the revelation he received, the exodus combined with Jesus' example taught how one was either trapped in death, or was able to resurrect and escape it. This was the hard part of the journey—once you were properly clothed (i.e., resurrected), entry into the kingdom was as easy as being able to love—‘love one another as I have loved you’ period.

In other words, when Paul talks about those who won’t enter into the kingdom of God, it is not because of the quality of their sins by themselves—it is the problems their sins will pose when the distractions experienced in death overwhelm the interest one has in the resurrection. This is why certain sins are grouped together—because each group of sins played on the same human vulnerability. People then got ‘stuck’ in death, while those who follow Christ and seek the resurrection are ‘unstuck’—and likewise, the stories of Christ ‘unsticking’ others from death are part of the whole crucifixion narrative.

If you do not believe that heaven and hell are on this side of the life/death barrier, then you want death—you strive towards it—you will fly airplanes into buildings to achieve it. That is how serious the cosmological difference is. But those who are drawn to life in its purist form will be drawn towards the source of life—regardless of their stated beliefs. And I have found them to be able allies—regardless of their stated affiliations. These are folks who avoid the taste of death, as it were. They don’t wait for death to build them a comfortable house, with a big easy chair, and lots of servants all over the place catering to their every whim, and then wonder when—all of a sudden if they actually want to get out—they cannot find the door where they came in. Pluto wasn’t the Greek god of wealth for nothing—this aspect of death being a source of wealth and therefore enticing the soul to transition from regular sleep to permanent death—was not just a Judahite notion.

Death is a bribe that you accept, from this point of view. This scene from The Matrix [1] illustrated the concept flawlessly—far too well to go into here.

Those who truly love life are all on the same side—they struggle together.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mary Magdalene

It's still the 22nd day of July (New Calendar), not too late to post something about Mary Magdalene, whose feast-day is today, even though it is already after sunset. I think it's worth remembering. Mary of Magdala is an ‘isapostolos,’ that is, ‘equal-to-the-apostles’, and well should she be called, since she is the first witness of the Resurrection. This post was originally written and published with the title The origins of the Church at Rome.

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

‘The truth be told, there are some astonishing things concerning this Christ. Miracles abound. He raises the dead and heals the sick with but a word. He is a man of average height, handsome of countenance with an air of majesty. Those that encounter him are enjoined either to love him or fear him. His hair is the color of walnut, which extends to his shoulders and glistens. He belongs to the group known as Nazarenes. His forehead is smooth and calm. His face is without wrinkles or blemishes. His nose and lips are regular. His beard is dense and the same color as his hair. It is not long, but it separates in two at the middle. He has a serious look that can excite fear. He possesses a power like a ray of the sun...

‘His manner of addressing is pleasing...

‘He often walks barefooted and without a head covering. Some laugh at him, while others tremble in his presence from their astonishment. He never preaches anything to promote himself in the world...

‘This Christ has never urged anyone to do anything displeasing, but rather he exhorts the people to perform good deeds…’

His knowledge of the situation led Mary to tears. He told her that Caesar had received his letter and that even Caesar respected Jesus.

After hearing Mary’s plea for justice in this matter Puplius committed to have Caesar to issue an order to call Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas to Rome for a trial. He asked her to give him two months to recall them. Mary thanked him and took up residence in Rome establishing the first house church there where they gathered almost every night praying and discoursing.

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

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

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

Mary then gave further testimony about the tortures that took place. She said, ‘When they arrested my Teacher in the garden on the mount of Olives, they brought him bound to Annas, and then to Caiaphas... They thrashed Jesus pitilessly and inhumanely throughout His holy body. They brought him to the Praetorium, to the Roman Governor Pilate…’

She continued,
The instruments of torture, O Caesar, they used to scourge my Teacher was a bull-whip, rods with knots, and ropes with iron stars and hooks positioned at a short distance from each other. These lacerated His flesh to the bones. Sixty soldiers struck again and again. The virginal and noble flesh of the God-Man was shred to pieces… when they saw His bones and blood running like a river from His veins, they were rejoicing and laughing among themselves with inexplicable satisfaction... The executioners were as dogs, bulls, tigers, and wild animals.’

And she went describing the horrible treatment He had received. As she finished, the crowd at the trial began to chant, ‘Death! Death to the god-slayers! Death!’

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

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The power of words

Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. 
I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
John 12:44-50 NIV

No matter how you cut it up, the fourth gospel is loaded with meaning, with truth, in each and every utterance of Christ which the evangelist records. We call him John the theologian because we can sense the presence of man’s struggle with God in every line, man wanting and not wanting to be what God has created him to be, and God firmly insisting that there’s no other option. Eternal life is open and free, but only to those who really want to live.

People call church teachings and philosophy ‘theology’ and they say that they go to school and ‘read theology’ eventually becoming ‘masters.’ Nothing could be further from the truth, but there is some value in learning the signs this way, so that when real theology happens to us, we will recognize it for what it is, and not shrug it off as ‘just what happens.’ Theology is struggle, and Christ came to persuade us to take it on and to show us its purpose.

The same words of Jesus can ignite the fires of theology and of hell. ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already’ (Luke 12:49 JB). This is no mythological Prometheus who will steal fire from the heaven of the gods and then be eternally tortured for it, though even in the myth the fire-thieving Titan is said to have created man from clay and then sacrificed himself for their benefit, for the divine fire is the agent of transformation both in myth and in reality.

Curious that the makers of religion can slip through the inferno that Christ provides, and erect towers of their own wisdom to raise them above the flames. All the while, far below them, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, those fire-sifters, the true theologians tread the flames with the Son of God, who cools the fires of their flesh and blows upon the fire of their spirits, transforming them into images of Himself and, like Him, trophy-bearers of the holy fire.

‘The Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. I know that his command leads to eternal life,’ says Jesus, who not only tells us exactly what is in the Father’s mind, but shows us even what the Father looks like. And, far from using threats or force, far from exalting himself over us as our judge—though as the Son of God He has every right—He tells us that not He, but the words He has spoken, will judge us on the last day, making us write our own sentences.

In the gospel, not just according to John but in all four gospels, we have been told and shown everything we need to know about ourselves, where we come from, where we are going. We are even released from religious bondage and fear, not as the atheist imagines himself free by denying Reason and its Source, but by acknowledging Reason in a form we can recognize, a man just like us, who came not once but comes forever, to bestow upon His race the power of words.

To become theology

True theology is not about doctrines, but doctrines can be a by-product of true theology. Doctrines can also be the product of human thinking, of philosophical speculation. But theology is not about doctrines. Theology is about struggle. It is the result of man struggling with God.

And what of ikons? For those unacquainted with struggle, they are merely pictures to be venerated, doctrinal statements in paint to be affirmed with a kiss. ‘The Bible says this and this, and we’ve painted a picture of it. Here it is. Prove you believe it. Kiss the picture.’

But ikons are images of true theology. They are images of struggle, of man’s encounter with the living God, of what happens when the finite meets the Infinite, the mortal meets the Immortal, the created meets the Uncreated. There is always struggle. There can be nothing else.

‘The hospitality of Abram’ is an example of this. Those depicted do not seem to be struggling, but the formula is there: Man woman and unearthly Triad, two serving Three as One. Where is the struggle? Invisible but not inaudible.
She laughed, He heard.
Doubt bears faith, but not without a fight.

An event so completely ikonic as the wrestling of Jacob with the angel of Yahweh, yet we rarely see it. And why not? Can theology so immediate be depicted visually? And if it could be, could we venerate the image without being drawn into its fiery heart? That would be a miraculous ikon.

There is always struggle. There can be nothing else. This is the meaning of our entire existence as humans, else there is no meaning.
The very thought only hints at the reality, but if we run from it, we voluntarily commit ourselves to annihilation. We either face Him—look Him in the eyes—or vanish into His shadow.

A poem I once had memorized but after many years have mostly forgotten ended with the line, ‘for I am man so I must fight, but You are God so You must win.’ The author of this poem, Orthodox presbyter Ihor Kutash, a few years my senior, was the first priest I ever met. I am sure that He wrote what he knew.

There is a single purpose for every man and woman ever created, and that is to become theology. No, I did not say ‘to become a theologian.’ Nobody becomes that, except in name. Go to school and study theology, add letters after your names, and you are no wiser unto God than you were before.

To become theology, to struggle, to fight as befits your nature, to observe the Passover not in word only but in complete and perfect act, to expend yourself, to be consumed in the heat of battle, to be crushed and buried deep underground, to be sacrificed: that is what man is, else he is nothing at all.

‘For I am man so I must fight, but You are God so You must win.’

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The love of God

Not my words, Lord, but Yours.

Not by us, Yahweh, not by us,
by You alone is glory deserved,
by Your love and Your faithfulness.
Psalm 115:1

How do we know that God loves us? Aren’t we just too small and unimportant to bother with? Doesn’t He have better things to do? Or maybe it’s just that we don’t want Him to love us, so we prefer to remain in the dark about it. That’s easier, because we can be ‘our own’ men, not owing anyone anything, especially not owing Him. What does the Word of God say about God’s love? Here are some examples from Psalm 107.

Give thanks to Yahweh for He is good,
His love is everlasting:
Let these be the words of Yahweh’s redeemed,
those He has redeemed from the oppressor’s clutches,
by bringing them home from foreign countries,
from east and west, from north and south.

(Verses 1-3)

These words are for God’s hereditary people Israel, and are prophecy fulfilled in our day, as the return of Israel to the land proves. He addresses His own people first, and proves His love by always bringing them back. If you are a follower of Jesus, the Son of God, then you too are addressed in these words. He has redeemed you also from the oppressor’s clutches. Who or what is the oppressor? Death itself, which oppresses everyone. How has He redeemed you? By the precious blood of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, that is, Jesus Christ.

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.

(Verses 10-12)

What is this? Does the loving God fetter those who defy Him and scorn His advice, that is, His Word? Does He really send them hardship, try them to the breaking point, and withhold all help from them? You cannot escape this. It’s here in the scriptures. You can’t make up a god out of your false hopes, and then search for Bible verses to prove your ideas. Why would God do these things to people who reject Him? That doesn’t seem very loving now, does it? Perhaps they’re right to reject Him, if that’s the kind of God He is. What else does it say?

Then they called to Yahweh in their trouble
and He rescued them from their sufferings;
released 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.

(Verses 13-16)

What? Is that all it takes? If you’re heading down the wrong road, and things are just getting worse and worse, all you have to do is just ‘call to Yahweh’? That just seems too simple, doesn’t it? Surely, somebody has to pay for the wrongs, if they were wrong to begin with! Yes, and Someone has. It’s He who broke ‘bronze gates open’ and smashed ‘iron bars,’ when He descended into She‘ol, into Hades, into Hell…

Isaiah knew it would be so.
‘The world of shadows mourned,’ he cried, ‘when it met You,
mourned at its bringing low, wept at its deluding.’
The shadows seized a body and found it was God;
they reached for earth and what they held was heaven;
they took what they could see: it was what no one sees.

(Chrysostom, Paschal Homily)

The psalm continues with more examples of the love of God.

Some, driven frantic by their sins,
made miserable by their own guilt
and finding all food repugnant,
were nearly at death’s door.

(Verses 17-18)

So here’s a bit more about what’s going on. It’s not just God that punishes man with the penalties of sin, but the sins themselves have an effect on those who commit them. What’s this? Their guilt makes them miserable? How can this be possible? Is there a real right and wrong? Or do people suffer like this because they really do know that there is a God, and that His ways are holy?

Then they called to Yahweh in their trouble
and He rescued them from their sufferings;
sending His Word and curing them,
He snatched them from the pit.

(Verses 19-20)

What does it say that God does when the afflicted call to Him? He sends His Word and cures them! How is this possible? What can it possibly mean that ‘He sends His Word’? What is this ‘Word’ and how does it cure anyone? Can it possibly be what is called the scriptures? Backtracking to an earlier psalm for a moment, we might find the answer in Psalm 19, where the Law, Torah, is described in a way that makes us think whether it might be what Psalm 107 is calling the Word…

The Law of Yahweh is perfect,
new life for the soul;
the decree of Yahweh is trustworthy,
wisdom for the simple.

The precepts of Yahweh are upright,
joy for the heart;
the commandment of Yahweh is clear,
light for the eyes.

The fear of Yahweh is pure,
lasting for ever;
the judgments of Yahweh are true,
righteous every one,
more desirable than gold,
even than the finest gold;
His words are sweeter than honey,
even than honey that drips from the comb.

Thus Your servant is formed by them,
observance brings great reward.
But who can detect his own failings?
Wash out my hidden faults.
And from pride preserve Your servant,
never let it dominate me.
So shall I be above reproach,
free from grave sin.

(Verses 7-13)

‘Thus Your servant is formed by them’ and ‘free from grave sin’ seem to be saying that the ‘words of Yahweh’ have the power to shape us and free us from sin. It sounds like this might be the answer to what is meant by God ‘sending His Word and curing’ people who ‘called to Yahweh in their trouble.’ If this was true for them, can’t it be true for us as well?

Psalm 107 reveals to us a lot about how God, the living God of Israel, thinks and acts, showing us that God really does have a distinct personality, and isn’t just a ‘cosmic process.’

Sometimes He turned rivers to desert,
springs of water into arid ground,
or a fertile country into salt flats,
because the people living there were wicked.

Or again, He turned a desert into sheets of water,
and an arid country into flowing springs,
where He gave the hungry a home
in which to found a habitable town.

(Verses 33-36)

It isn’t just the mindless and purposeless forces of nature that change things on earth after all, but the just judgment of God that He expresses within time. Here’s an interesting verse…

Pouring His contempt upon the nobly born,
He left them to wander in a trackless waste.
But now, He lifts the needy out of their misery,
and gives them a flock of new families;
at the sight of which, upright hearts rejoice
and wickedness must hold its tongue.

(Verses 41-42)

Whatever else we think, we can see as we look around us, especially in these times, how these very things are happening. The ‘old money’ families, despite their wealth and prestige, are coming unglued. Their control of whole nations has brought them nothing but inner decay, moral and spiritual. On the other hand, are we alarmed when we see the prosperity, in our United States, of the new immigrants, the Latinos, the Koreans and other Asians? These latter are by and large ‘people of the Book,’ who take God at His Word and rely on His faithfulness…

Mary declared, ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away.’
(Magnificat, Book of Common Prayer; Luke 1:52-53)

Psalm 107 concludes with this thought about the love of God…

If you are wise, study these things
and realise how Yahweh shows His love.

(Verse 43)

All power and authority

All power and authority given to man on earth by God is given to him when he prays.

‘How can this be? I pray all the time and I don’t have any power, I have no authority. What are you talking about? But I do see power and authority given to people who have status, who have money, who are educated, who know how to pull the strings. As for the rest of us, right, we pray, but we pray because there’s nothing else we can do.’

With a sigh of resignation the words of barely hidden contempt are mouthed. Men for whom Christ died and who say they believe in Him, men on whom
‘all authority in heaven and on earth,’ given to Christ by His Father has been bestowed, men who can read the words for themselves, ‘anything you ask for in My name,’ are reduced to practicing magic they don’t even believe in.

‘Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You!’
I hear muttered constantly under his breath, and ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!’ cried out in lonely and forsaken places, moaned even, mingled with sobs of sorrow for his sins. Of little account, the world passes the saint and thinks him mad, yet his prayer is genuine and not for show or for sale.

The religious are even baffled.
‘We do more than he does, keep the fasts, drink tea without sugar, never touch flesh or oil or cheese during the prohibited times, never miss a service, and we greet each other nicely. Why does everybody go running to him? He scares us. He doesn’t follow the rules. He’s proud and wants his own way. Why does God answer his prayers and not ours?’

He can battle the devil, he can even drive him out, because he knows him personally. He has locked himself in battle with him in an invisible ring many times.
His weapons? The words of holy and divine scripture, outbursts of mighty psalms, supplications to God Himself and his shameless asking for what he doesn’t deserve, his confession of his own sins, his laying all at the feet of Jesus.

The irreligious, bent as they are on what profits them, can come closer to the Truth than those who were suckled by it, who feel so sure that they know what works and what doesn’t, that they do neither. Seeking himself, the worldly man can stumble upon his own corpse and, asking, rise from the dead. The religious polish their coffins, but the saints lie down in theirs in peace, expecting life.

‘In peace I lie down, and fall asleep at once, since You alone, Yahweh, make me rest secure. (Psalm 4)

For me the reward of virtue is to see Your face, and, on waking, to gaze my fill on Your likeness.’
(Psalm 17)

He will truly come

People can do me no evil, as long as I have no wounds.

I saw two caves, one of which revealed an echo, while the other had none. And many curious children were visiting the former and were mischievously carrying out shouting matches with the cave. But from the other cave visitors were quickly returning, because it was not answering them with an echo.

If my soul is wounded, every worldly evil will resound within it. And people will laugh at me, and will throng more and more strongly with their shouting. But truly, evil-speaking people will not harm me, if my tongue has forgotten how to speak evil. Nor will external malice sadden me, if there is no malice in my heart to resound like a goatskin drum. Nor shall I be able to respond to ire with ire, if the lair of ire within me has been vacated and there is nothing to be aroused. Nor will human passions titillate me, if the passions within me have been reduced to ashes. Nor will the unfaithfulness of friends sadden me, if I have resolved to have You for my friend. Nor can the injustice of the world crush me, if injustice has been expelled from my thoughts. Nor will the deceitful spirits of worldly pleasure, honor and power entice me, if my soul is like an immaculate bride, who receives only the Holy Spirit and yearns for Him alone.

People cannot shove anyone into hell, unless that person shoves himself. Nor can people hoist anyone up on their shoulders to the throne of God, unless that person elevates himself.

If my soul has no open windows, no mud can be thrown into it. Let all nature rise up against me; it can do nothing to me except a single thing—to become the grave of my body more swiftly.

Every worldly crop is covered with fertilizer, so that it will sprout as soon as possible and grow better. If my soul, alas, were to abandon her virginity and receive the seed of this world into herself, then she would also have to accept the manure, which the world throws onto its field. But I call upon You day and night: come dwell in my soul and close all those places where my enemies can enter. Make the cavern of my soul empty and silent, so that no one from the world will want to enter it. O my soul, my only concern, be on guard and learn to distinguish between the voices striking your ears. And once you hear the voice of your Lord, abandon your silence and resound with all your strength. O my soul, cavern of eternity, never permit temporal thieves to enter you and kindle their fire within you. Keep quiet, when they shout to you. Stay still, when they bang on you. And patiently await your Master. For He will truly come.

— From Prayers by the Lake, by Nikolaj Velimirović,
Bishop of Ohrid and Žiča