Wednesday, February 27, 2013


“Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
These are what defile a person…”
Matthew 15:12-20

We take such great care to keep ourselves undefiled by outward conformity to what we consider standards of righteousness in action and in thought. It doesn’t matter whether these standards are those of our own invention or those based on our reading of scripture. Our behavior before God is in His sight as well as those of other men, and He sees the motives of the heart. It isn’t what we say of ourselves, that we are sinners and unworthies saved by grace, and the like, that has any bearing on the reality of our salvation, but what we say of others. This is heard not only by men, but by God, who hears what fills the heart before we ever speak. No one has to tell Him who is speaking; He knows whether the words are His, or the enemy’s.

Whether we speak or remain silent, it is what fills the heart that cannot be hidden forever. A good testimony within us can’t help but get out; so it is also with a bad testimony. Who it is that we have enthroned in the heart, that is whom we really obey and serve, whatever we might profess outwardly. We have good reason to fear, not only for the Day of Judgment in the future, but for the Day of now, for what the prophets spoke they still speak, and their words are not for the dead, but for the living: ‘In the pride of your heart you say, ‘I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the seas.’ But you are a mere mortal and not a god, though you think you are as wise as a god. Are you wiser than Daniel? Is no secret hidden from you?’ (Ezekiel 28:2-3).

Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
Matthew 12:33-37

Yes, it is true, ‘For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person…’

Where are we, Lord? Where have we placed ourselves? At the foot of Your throne in heaven? At the foot of Your cross on earth? What offerings do we bring You, our Lord and Savior? Is it the blood of goats and rams, our wicked and our righteous brothers, like the priests of old? Or is it our own blood, following the example of Your Son? Is it the sacrifice You require? Or is it that which we feel it is our right to offer You, the fruits of our soil. We think ourselves innocent farmers and envy our shepherd brother, as Cain envied Abel, and where does that envy lead us? Save us, O Lord, from ourselves! Cleanse us, since we have no soap to wash our hearts clean. You alone can purify us. Have mercy, Lord!

Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy holy Name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for Purity, Book of Common Prayer (1662)

Repent for me

Where can you look, my soul,
where you will not see the signs of His love for you?
Everywhere you turn, outside yourself or within,
are the signs of His love.
The very comforter you lie on to rest, He provided.
Your holy ikons and books,
all your holy things given out of love,
out of solicitude for your needs,
all the gifts of His friendship.

And within, the secret things He has divulged to your soul,
and the love with which He taught you
the languages of His Holy Scripture.
And through all your lonelinesses and trials,
He has stood beside you,
comforting and defending you, never judging you,
because He knows the Word planted in you
will purify you and raise you after any possible fall.
Such was and is His great love for you, my soul,
such was and is His respect for you.

Yet, like a stranger you turn away from Him,
as if He were an enemy to be despised.
You judge Him, as if He were a criminal to be punished.
Worse than His people who accused Him,
when He fed them with manna and quails and gave them drink
from a rock that followed them.
And worse even than them whom He healed and fed,
and who nevertheless gave Him up to be crucified.

What madness is this?
What ingratitude hidden amidst the foliage of piety?
Is this the kind of Jew you are, my soul,
continuing the work of your fathers who slew the prophets?

Lord, have mercy.

I go to You, Lord,
as one who has not yet made a beginning of serving You,
yet the time is close.

Repent for me, Spirit of God,
press me harder through the sieve of repentance.
Hold back my coarse and useless dust,
let through only the flour refined by Your grace.
Moisten me, then, with real tears and knead me,
yeastless, into a level loaf.
Pierce me all over,
that in the earthen oven of tribulation
my body may bear the stripes darkened by the fire,
to guide the fingers that must break me in pieces
for the brethren.

Yes, Lord, I go to You as one
who has made not even a beginning of serving you.

Lord, have mercy.

One in essence and undivided

Be silent out of strength, powerful through prayer, untroubled by opposition because of irreversible certainty, and trusting of the Lord who giving us free choice yet protects, preserves and saves all who turn to Him. Yes, as Christ teaches, ‘Be as sheep among wolves,’ or in another place, ‘Be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves.’ What all this is leading us to, ever so gently by the meek Lord Himself, is to make us understand that there really is no ‘us and them,’ that ‘what the Lord has joined together, let no man tear asunder.’ We think this phrase applies only to marriage, but then, what is marriage if not a special instance of this unity that underlies all our being? Marriage and the life of the Church are both examples of the life of the Holy Trinity, ‘one in essence and undivided.’

Christ prays the Father—not just in the gospel according to John, but throughout all time and in every place, unceasingly—‘that they all may be one, even as You and I are One.’ What He is doing is not asking the Father to bestow upon us something that is alien to our nature—our true and original nature, that is—but to open our eyes to see the Divine Image which we in fact are, the unbroken, undivided, Image of God, that which He became a human being to reveal to us. He says, ‘If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father,’ but also to see Christ is to see Adam before the Fall. Everything that Jesus teaches us about ourselves leads us to only one conclusion: Our neighbor is our brother, is our other self, and no one hates himself, no one considers himself his enemy, but he loves him and seeks his good. This is where the words of Christ take us.

The human race is a single organism, ‘one in essence and undivided,’ as God sees us. How else can He love each of us as though we were His only creature? The universe's Divine Spouse loves His Bride and in the tunnel of time is perfecting her, preparing her for Himself, making her also Divine. Though the tunnel can pass through deep darkness, at its end is Light, and that Light can be reached by no other way than that which He has revealed to us—the Cross. Let's take up that Cross, brethren, because it's not heavy like His earthly cross was, nor are we mocked and despised on our way as He was, nor do we bear it, nor will we die on it, as He did, and does, for the sins of the world. No, my brethren. He has done the hard part, ours is the easy. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.

And your neighbor as yourself.’

Monday, February 25, 2013

Only three years

Sometimes looking back on my life, searching for those moments of real happiness, it seems that the longer I look, the shorter and fewer those times become. Maybe in a lifetime of fifty or sixty years, one might find only five or six years when the memory shows times of pure happiness, and not all connected either, but scattered about. This kind of pondering leads nowhere and belies the fact that one is happy right now, else there could be no leisure for such plundering of the vanished past. What’s more, everything looks and feels different in retrospect. We find that looking back seldom recovers the truth. In this body of sin, memory like everything else doesn’t work right, but always partakes of that fatal flaw that taints everything on this side of the resurrection. But on the other side of the resurrection, it’s a different story, literally.

Thinking back to my own youth, I remember how I spent four years of my life in training to become a traditional furniture maker under an old Norse-American cabinetmaker. This man was thirty-two years my senior, and I was his last apprentice. He grew up on a farm in the borders of Minnesota and North Dakota, one of twelve brothers (there was also one sister). His family was swept up in the pentecostal revivals of the 1920’s and 30’s, and he told me many stories of tent meetings and other experiences in his early life.

I was a new Christian, just having accepted the Lord at the age of twenty-four, and only six months before hiring on at the Sterling Furniture Company in Portland. I had prayed, while still living in Corvallis, to be led to a workplace where there would be at least one other Christian. In very short order, the prayer was answered.
The four years I spent with this elder were hard but happy years. Along with his teaching and example in the crafting of wood, without intending it, he passed on to me the legacy of his life in Christ, and little did he know (or perhaps he was aware) that I followed his every move so as to make it my own, my soul being stamped, like communion bread, with the cross of Christ. I was not a pentecostal, yet there was never a difference between us. Knowing about the ancient faith, he would sometimes say to me, when I had done something that especially pleased him, ‘May the saints bless you!’ For my part, it never occurred to me to think of him and his faith as different from my own. Certainly not. How could I judge him? In my eyes he was perfect, what a Christian man should be. I wanted to emulate him in every way.

Only four years with this man shaped the rest of my life to this very day. And we wonder sometimes, what effect our own lives have on the people around us. To be a Christ-bearer in the world, what possibilities, if only we live in the light of the risen Christ! In only a moment, Christ in us can change the world, forever.

Then, there is the reason behind this all. The reason being the Divine Word, through Whom the world was made, and in Whom we live and move and have our being. Though He is God, He entered into our time and assumed our flesh, living secretly, that is, unknown to the world, just as we live. No one will remember us after we’ve left this world, at least not for long, but the world remembers Him. The world doesn’t remember Him for anything He did in the first thirty years of His earthly life, or at least not much, but for what He did in the last three.

Only three years was all it took for the world to remember Him, and not only to remember Him, but to be changed forever. No other time period in all of human history has had as great and lasting an impact on the rest of time as those three years. Yet, at the time they were happening, very few noticed those years at all, in terms of the world’s population. Only a few thousand people at most, and in a land which, though it has become the center of the world’s attention from time to time, is still just a small spit of rocky soil between empires.

Only three years of one man’s life, and billions of other men’s lives are changed forever, even the lives of those who don’t know Him, who don’t ask themselves the question, ‘Who is that man?’ If that isn’t power, then I don’t know what is, and only one could have that power, the Lord Almighty, who is alive and present with us at this very moment, the risen Christ.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Whom the Master seeks

For to despise the present age,
not to love transitory things,
unreservedly to stretch out the mind in humility
to God and our neighbor,
to preserve patience against offered insults
and, with patience guarded,
to repel the pain of malice from the heart,
to give one's property to the poor,
not to covet that of others,
to esteem the friend in God,
on God's account
to love even those who are hostile,
to mourn at the affliction of a neighbor,
not to exult in the death of one who is an enemy,

This is the new creature
whom the Master of the nations seeks
with watchful eye amid the other disciples, saying,
‘If, then, any be in Christ a new creature, 
the old things are passed away. 
Behold all things are made new.’

Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome

What can it mean to ‘despise the present age’
if only not to worship it and be hardened by its accomplishments?
What can it mean to ‘not love transitory things’
if only not to rely on any beauty other than the Divine Nature?
What can it mean to ‘unreservedly stretch out the mind in humility’
if only not to crush ourselves with the heavy weight of self-protecting walls built against saying ‘yes’ to God and our neighbor?
What can it mean to ‘preserve patience’
and to ‘repel the pain of malice’
if only not to abandon being hung on the Cross with Christ
who promises paradise even to thieves?
What can it mean to ‘give one’s property to the poor’
and ‘not to covet that of others’
if only not to hoard as our own
that which has been provided in abundance to us and to all?
What can it mean to ‘esteem the friend in God’
if only not to hate one's enemies, not to laugh at the pains of others, and not to rejoice at the death of anyone?

Yes, He knows who are His among those who profess to be His disciples, even those who are His without professing, and that is why He does not give Himself to all men, because He knows them, but secretly bestows Himself on those and only those who earnestly seek Him by obedience to His word.

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
John 14:23

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The cost of discipleship

A young Christian brother asked me, ‘Romanos, what is the cost of discipleship for you?’ On first hearing, it seems a simple question, one that expects a simple answer. But no, it is a loaded question, and it speaks volumes. But, let me try to keep it simple for love’s sake.

What is the cost of discipleship to me, or to any person? First, I must tell you, the cost will look different at the beginning of one’s life than it does at the end. Of course, I can’t say ‘at the end’ for myself, because I’m not there yet. I am only one day closer.

As a young man, having been brought up in a religious family, I nevertheless was not satisfied with religion. I suspected that it was a cover for something else, something quite different, yet the same. I thought it best to reject my religious upbringing, and start over.

Unknown to me at the time, I now look back and say, that was my first payment of the cost of discipleship. Loving my parents and my ancestral religion, I still had to leave them behind, because I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back…’

What? But weren’t you a Christian? Weren’t you raised a Christian? Of course, but I began to read the holy and divine scriptures for myself, and there I heard what had been preached to me, unheeded, within the sacred enclosure, ‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God…’

So like any pilgrim and disciple, that is, follower, of Jesus, I ran after Him, at first with my eyes and ears, and then with my feet. His teachings were very sweet and clear to me. I was like a dry field finally knowing rain, beginning to feel as though I could bear an abundant crop.

This is how it is when anyone, at any age, discovers Jesus, the real, living Jesus, not the Christ of religion. There is a feeling of exhilaration and relief, we feel liberated from being stifled by mere belief. We want to give all and, as a young Christian, that’s what I thought the cost of discipleship was.

This is very linear and unpracticed thinking, but that is how it must be for most people. I felt the cost of discipleship to be a very light burden and, rather than having a sense of ‘giving up the world’, I only felt immense gratitude for being called out of it. Again I say, I wanted to give all for all.

Filled with bible verses to bolster my enthusiasm, I thought of God’s holy commandments as a joy to follow and fulfill, in thanks for being saved. I imagined all the worldly things I was giving up, and living a counter-cultural lifestyle with my wife and children, was the cost of discipleship.

I thought to myself, ‘Yes, this is what Jesus means when He says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light,” and I thought I knew what the cost of discipleship was…

‘Just follow Jesus.’ I say this now, and I said it then, to myself and to anyone else who would hear me. At the beginning of my life in Christ, the cost of discipleship was primarily paid by the Blood of a Lamb without spot, slain before the foundation of the world. I loved to know that.

But before not many years, I learned that to be a disciple you must respond to the call of Jesus Christ, daily, hourly, even minutely. He does not wait for you to contemplate the cost of discipleship from an armchair, or while enjoying a television program or playing with your children.

I also learned that to be a follower of Jesus is dangerous. Why? Because Jesus can walk anywhere, and as He trusts you more, He calls you to accompany Him to places ‘where angels fear to tread.’ Yes, you’re right, ‘For fools rush in’ is the first part of that saying. The cost of discipleship, yes, the cost.

It becomes clearer that you can no longer rely on anything of your own, not your piety, your blameless following of the commandments, nor your refusal to compromise with the world’s demands. Worst of all, the blessings you thought you earned begin to fail. Now, who or what do you rely on?

What then? It may seem that the cost of discipleship can even be, to not know for sure if you are even a disciple at all. This is where the saying, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’ comes into play. Not every good saying is a direct quote from the bible. The cost of discipleship, yes, the cost.

Now, a different set of bible verses begins to dawn on us. ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head,’ and ‘No disciple is greater than his master…’ What was this cost of discipleship that we thought we had to pay when we started?

It seems to me, finally, that the cost of discipleship is different for each one who follows Jesus. It is something that we must pay, and if it costs us little or nothing, we must fear that perhaps what we are calling our ‘discipleship’ is nothing of the sort, but only a ‘pious phase’ we’re going through.

Then again, the cost varies with time, place and occasion. What seems hardship or self-denial often has nothing to do with the cost, and sometimes what seems self-indulgence and irresponsibility does. Even worse, the cost places the disciple in the position of being wrongly accused, and judged.

If you want to know the cost of discipleship for me, or for anyone, I should now shut my mouth, and best point to Jesus who says, ‘I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,’ for the cost begins and ends there, with Jesus.

The gates of repentance

Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life,
For my spirit rises early to pray towards Your holy temple.
Bearing the temple of my body all defiled;
But in Your compassion, purify me by the lovingkindness
of Your mercy.

Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God,
For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.

When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgement.
But trusting in Your lovingkindness, like David I cry to You:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy!

Today we are at the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, not yet Lent, but it's never too soon to pursue repentance, as the hymn quoted above testifies. This Lord's day we met these images once again, spoken by the Word of God in human form, our Lord Jesus Christ. Nor is it ever too soon to yearn for true discipleship, for the grace of God who alone bestows it upon us, praying in the words of Ephraim of Syria…

O Lord and Master of my life,
take away from me the will to be lazy and to be sad,
the desire to get ahead of other people and to boast and brag.
Give me instead a pure and humble spirit,
the will to be patient with other people, and to love them.
Let me realize my own mistakes,
and keep me from judging the things other people do,
for You are blessed now and for evermore.

This prayer is associated with the time of Sarakostí, Great Lent, the forty-plus days of fasting before the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Pascha, the ‘Passover of God’, the Lamb without spot, slain before the foundation of the world.
Yet the fast is not a program of ascetic discipline designed for our pride. As the fathers teach, ‘Eat what you please, anything, but not the flesh of your brothers.’ To remember this prayer and say it faithfully and with all our heart, even if only once in this fast, with prostrations or without, it doesn't matter. God knows our hearts. He knows our lives. All we have to do is bring our burdens to Him, and lay them down before His Cross, and receive from Him what we do not deserve but what He longs to grant us, great mercy.

Prayer. Speaking to God. He speaks to us, we speak to Him. In our own words, or in words that we make our own, partaking of the mind of the Church, when we read aloud or inwardly what we find in our prayer books. Do you think it is really any different, whether we speak to Him out of our private treasury, or out of the treasury that the saints have bequeathed us? Maybe to some of us, but not to Him. Again, He is listening to our hearts, and our hearts are listening to Him. ‘Remembering our most-holy, most blessed…’ and praying with her and all the saints, as we join them in the heavenlies, ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb… wearing white robes… holding palm branches in their hands,’ there we are, together, one in faith, one in hope, one in charity:
There is the Church, and there is no other.

Prayer is the language of welcome between heaven and earth.

The incredible God

Perhaps it is, as I have often thought, that people dismiss the very idea of God as incredible because it is claimed that He does impossible things, what we would call miracles and—of course—the idea of ‘miracle’ itself is inadmissible to the modern, scientific mind.

It is easy to dismiss a God who, it is claimed, creates the universe in six days, causes a universal flood that drowns all air-breathing life except for a few humans and animals in a paltry, primitive ark;

who, it is asserted, afflicted ancient empires with unidentifiable plagues to release a tribe of wayward ethnopaths, opened a passage through the waters of the sea for them to escape, kept them alive in a trackless waste with a mysterious airborne nutrient that tasted like whatever one wanted to eat;

who, not satisfied with creating a world and peopling it with predatory races, keeps coming in and out of history at intervals, speaking and acting by means of possibly deranged individuals who are taken to be prophets or even gods;

who, to crown all, is said to have entered the created order through a woman's womb and become one of His own creatures, yet not a creature, born as a man yet not as other men, who, it is believed, never sinned, never did an immoral deed, thought a sinful thought, or spoke a destructive word.

Yes, it is easy to dismiss such an incredible God, even when, it is recorded that as a man He was slain and rose again to life, and not just to ordinary life and to die again, but to a different kind of trans-mortal life, knowing no death, but a life which could not be lived on the planet as it is.

Yes, it is easy to dismiss this God, because nothing but nothing can be proved—scientifically; nothing verified through analysis; nothing counted, weighed, measured, because the whole story is a complete sham, a delusion, a pious fiction. Easy to dismiss a lie so obvious.

People are proud to not believe, to be indifferent, to prove they are too intelligent, sophisticated, judicious, wise to believe in the incredible God, and they think all the evidence is on their side.

But really, they dismiss the Only True and Living God for none of these reasons: That would be too easy, but they make it sound difficult, so they can be congratulated, adulated. What they want to avoid is looking bad, to themselves, and to others. What makes this God incredible to them is—that He forgives.

An early Church Father, Peter of Damascus, writes,
Even if you are not what you should be, you should not despair. It is bad enough that you have sinned; why in addition do you wrong God by regarding Him in your ignorance as powerless? Is He, who for your sake created the great universe that you behold, incapable of saving your soul? And if you say that this fact, as well as His incarnation, only makes your condemnation worse, then repent; and He will receive your repentance, as He accepted that of the prodigal son (Luke 15:20) and the prostitute (Luke 7:37-50). 
But if repentance is too much for you, and you sin out of habit even when you do not want to, show humility like the publican (Luke 18:13): that is enough to ensure your salvation. For he who sins without repenting, yet does not despair, must out of necessity regard himself as the lowest of creatures, and will not dare to judge or censure anyone. Rather, he will marvel at God’s compassion, and will be full of gratitude towards his Benefactor, and so may receive many other blessings as well.
No other god, or rather, no other human idea of God, is so incredible as this, ‘working wonders among His saints’—and these wonders are not primarily the supernatural miracles recorded in scriptures and even in secular histories, but the constant and effervescent miracles of unconditional, and ever-loving mercy with which He treats the sicknesses of mankind.

It is easy to dismiss a God who does what no one else does or can do, but hard to dismiss one who does what everyone can and should do—forgive, restore and love—not yesterday, far away, but now, here.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

When by His mercy

They said that men fell in love with him as readily and gladly as women fall in love with Tammuz or Adonis. I thought to myself, ‘Well, this I have to see! What kind of rabbi is this? The kind whose perverse piety considers us outsiders, even dogs, because we don’t follow their every meticulous commandment?’ We are people too. We share the same land, bless the same ancestors, fish the same waters, plant the same fields, are born the same, and die the same, as those zealots, calling themselves ‘God’s people Israel’ as if the Glorious Ones had favorites! Our people may not have wandered rocky deserts, but what raging wilderness of the seas have our ancestors not traversed, what barren islands and distant shores have we not settled with the sons of men?

This is how I used to think. Like my neighbors on the slopes of Lebanon, we’d been subjected to the missions of itinerant rabbis—some Jews, but mostly Galileans who would have liked to be considered Jews, though even their own kind shamed them to a lower place—looking for the worthy of the nations whom they might cleanse of filth and make servants of the God of Israel, giving us the honor of obeying the commandments of Noah. The commandments of Noah! Yes, work hard at them, you not-quite-Jews, and they will make you worthy to eat the crumbs that fall from our table, to drink the water we wash our feet in. I had seen and heard enough of rabbis the likes of these to last me till the end of my days. And who says we don’t believe in the gods, or the God, whatever the difference might be?

Now I am old, and some of those who followed that man, the one who saved my little girl—yes, saved—are living among us, here in our mountains. The words that were told of him, news cascading over the rocky trails before his shadow ever fell upon us, were more than true. Yes, men, but women too—I am one of them—fell in love with this strange rabbi. Other rabbis drew crowds of admiring men—never women! we are too unclean—and those adorers hanging on their fetished tassels learned from them how to be even harsher to their women than they were to begin with. But not this rabbi. Despite his covered head and unshorn sidelocks and beard, he bore no resemblance to those teachers of the Law. Men who loved him went back and loved their women more, not less, than they did before.

He seemed not to notice, sometimes, who it was that approached him, or who sat before him as he preached. Wherever he went, rather than noticing and condemning the unclean, he seemed to purify whatever and whomever he laid his eyes on. ‘It’s not what goes into a man that makes him unclean, but what comes out of him,’ I heard him say. It wasn’t as though he and his disciples didn’t wash themselves, but he rendered unto each what belonged to each one. Glory, honor and blessing, he taught, belong to God on high—the one he called ‘Father’—and not by us, he said, is glory deserved, but only love and faithfulness. ‘Love and faithfulness,’ I pondered for days after I first heard him, as he spoke in my village. Love and faithfulness! And how would this Galilean rabbi make good his words? I dared to hope.

My little Anatolé, my beloved dawn-born child, to whom I gave birth that chill autumn morning as the sun passed over the ridge and bathed the valley in golden blessing—may the gods be praised! she was such a lovely child—my little Ana, the delight of her father’s eyes and mine—may he rest in the garden of the just!—our little daughter, what suffering did she not endure as payment to the gods for being born so beautiful. The divine envy—for that is what I believed at the time—the divine jealousy took out its ire upon her, flesh and soul. Not even the little matya that I sewed to her infant dress could avert their evil eyes. For of a day, when we all were happy, something terrible came over her, even entered her, a darkness that flowed out of gods whom we once thought were powers of light, and crushed my hope.

One morning just after the sunrise, I heard the sound of people coming up the road that passes my house: voices conversing, men posing questions and one replying in tones deep and full of joy. My heart could not help dancing inside me, hearing that voice, and my memory hears the sound of flutes and finger cymbals and lightly plucked strings, the ripened sound of the silence that preceded and followed the arrival of the Son of Man. For that’s who it was, treading that steep road, as if he were himself coming to meet me, only me. ‘Is it that rabbi whom men love more than women love Adonis?’ quickly pierced through my defenses, as I hurried to veil myself so I could come out and see. My Anatolé was asleep, finally, in her tiny dugout, after unsleeping the night through, tormented by her terrors.

Not soon enough! ‘O Adonis! O Tammuz! Dying you have revived, but where you lived and died and lived again no man living knows! Help me!’ I weeping cried in a frenzied whisper, seeing the rabbi and his closest followers had already passed my door. I went back inside and took a last look at my little girl. Yes, she was sleeping still, but how hot and troubled she lay, her blanket wet and night-soiled, in her cave inside the wall. Would the demon leave her alone long enough for me to run after the rabbi and ask, only ask, if he would help her? Would he even talk to me, a woman, and an idolater? ‘I can’t help it I am not a daughter of Israel!’ I excused myself in rehearsal for meeting him. ‘I know we’re not worthy of you or your God, but can’t we deserve at least to eat the crumbs that fall from your children’s table?’

I quietly shut my door and bolted it from the outside. I always did that when I had to leave her unattended. There was no one to help me. I looked up the road and saw the disciples of that man clustered around him, but him I did not see. As I had heard, he was not even as tall as most of the men in my village. I lost no time thinking any more about anything. Only Anatolé, only my precious one, whom the gods tormented, only she was what was driving me up the mountain after him. ‘Kyrie! Rabbi! Eleison imas! Chaneynu!’ I cried out as I pursued them, but they were too far ahead. Not watching my path but only his, my foot fell into a pit and, turning onto my side, I fell into the ditch. Now my veil was torn and my dress dirtied. ‘He will not see me like this! He will not let me near him! O, have mercy!’

The rabbi turned in at a house up ahead that I knew well. It was an inn that served merchants, and the owner was a kindly Galilean whose wife was, like me, only a daughter of Tyre. He had, of anyone in the village, offered me the most help in my tragic loss. Agathon, my poor dead husband, had made him welcome in this our village when he first arrived many years ago, and they became fast friends. That’s how I met Mariamne, his wife. Childless, yet they sorrowed with me for my daughter’s affliction. It was Mariamne who first told me the good news about the rabbi from Nazareth. ‘Y’shua,’ she said, ‘is his name, and it means salvation in my husband’s tongue. If only he would come up here in these hinterlands to teach us—what a blessing it would be! especially for my dear husband. He too is from Nazareth.’

The long years since that day have vanished without a trace, and though I am now the oldest woman in the village, I seem to still be standing in the doorway asking the strange rabbi, ‘Please, sir! Please, come, and heal my daughter!’ and then, hearing nothing, falling face downwards at his feet and covering myself completely with my wretched veil. I only remember hearing Mariamne’s words pulsing in my ears, ‘He is a healer. He knows souls. He drives out demons. Our olden gods are afraid of him, or maybe, they just don’t even exist. Ask him. Ask him to heal Anatolé. Ask him. He can do anything. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. If he comes to our village, just ask him. He won’t refuse.’ The room was suddenly charged with emotion. ‘What’s she doing? Who is she? She can’t do that! Only to the house of Israel…’

I did not move. I lay there not as one dead, but as one upon whom the weight of the whole world pressed, a weight that would crush me. I knew what he was likely to say. Like all the other preachers of the Law, he would probably tell me to get back on my feet and go out the same way I came in, unclean, unworthy, unforgiven for not being a daughter of Israel, unsaved. But how little I knew the man. How could I have known? All that I had heard was hearsay. How did I know if it were true or not? Mariamne was insistent, I know, but she was ‘one of us,’ not one of the chosen, unclean, uninstructed. I’d even heard that this rabbi was considered unclean by his own kind. Yet, my grief planted hope in me, and my hope bore the fruit of faith. It was nothing I did, nothing I chose. Someone else had planted it in me.

‘The children should be fed first, because it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house dogs,’ I heard someone say. Without looking up, the words I felt I had been rehearsing all my life poured out of me moist with a grace that I did not own, ‘Ah yes, sir, but the house dogs under the table can eat the children’s scraps.’ I cringed like a sinner thinking she is about to be struck by a righteous hand. What rained down on me instead of blows was a scattering of mercy cool and fragrant as the myrrh they asperge on the funeral bier of Tammuz: ‘For saying this, you may go home happy: the devil has gone out of your daughter.’ Without looking up, I gathered my wrap around me, slowly arose and bent down again in front of the man, snatching up the dust at his feet, and throwing it on my head.

An expectant silence crowded the room, so I could hardly breathe. I turned around, and without looking up, ran all the way home, afraid to be seen by any eyes, human or divine. As I approached my house, I heard a child singing. My fingers clumsily undid the knotted cord that secured the bolt from being turned from inside. I could hear singing. My little girl, Anatolé, my sweet child, singing! It was a voice I had never heard before but instantly recognized. It was the singing I heard sometimes in dreams when by the gods’ mercy—I mean, when by His mercy—I was able to sleep a little after soothing my troubled child. She has grown up now, and married, and her daughters sing the same song to me, their old Laylah, for that is my name now, no longer Astarte. By His mercy, I am a daughter of true Israel, and of night.
Simultaneously published in my newest blog, Eyewitnesses.
All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Faith like an eye

We all receive God’s blessings equally.

But some of us, receiving God’s fire,
that is, His word, become soft like beeswax,
while the others like clay become hard as stone.

And if we do not want Him,
He does not force any of us,
but like the sun,
He sends His rays
and illuminates the whole world,
and he who wants to see Him, sees Him,
whereas the one who does not want to see Him,
is not forced by Him.

And no one is responsible
for this privation of light
except the one who does not want to have it.

God created the sun and the eye.
Man is free to receive the sun’s light or not.
The same is true here.

God sends the light of knowledge like rays to all,
but He also gave us faith like an eye.

The one who wants to receive knowledge through faith,
keeps it by his works,
and so God gives him more willingness,
knowledge and power.

Peter of Damascus

You alone are Lord

It’s a very great struggle. We try to tell ourselves, when we sometimes notice it, that it’s nothing. That we’re just imagining it. That we’re not really that way. We pray, ‘Make us worthy, Master, in freedom and without fear of condemnation, to dare call upon you the heavenly God, as Father, and to say, Our Father…’ and then, having excused ourselves once again, by having partaken of ‘the holy and life-giving mysteries,’ almost without thinking, we look upon another human being, and despise him.

Yes, this is true of me. I hope it’s not true of you, but I know that I am not the only one who piously despises my neighbor, while outwardly speaking words and doing acts of love towards others, those others whom I like, who attract me or are attracted to me, from whom I want, or think I need, something, anyone at all except those whom the Lord would have me love: my enemies, those who repel me, who hate me, who are ugly and undesirable, no less than those whom I envy.

What is worse, is that when I see one of those whom I despise (of course, I hide it from everyone else and just smile) doing a good deed, doing what I say I see Jesus doing, that makes me despise him even more, and I think to myself, ‘Who does he think he is? He can’t do that. He doesn’t know the Lord. He’s just pretending, that sly one. I know all about him.’ If I were a woman, I would just change all the pronouns to ‘she’ and ‘her’… as a man, I hardly notice women enough to despise them.

But it’s true, what our enemies say about us. We are hypocrites. What other explanation can there be for people who say they believe one thing, yet do another? Even when we are doing good, we make sure that others notice, and thank us. If they don’t, well, we despise them anyway, and secretly, so we can maintain our pious disguise. Clad in our religious camouflage, we hope that even God Himself won’t be able to find us in this jungle. Yes, it was a garden once, but we’ve brought it under control.

God help us! Even a hypocrite can pray, but only when confessing what he knows for sure, that even those he thinks least of, those he despises most, are worthier than he of obtaining any good, in this world or any other. Only when he realizes who it is he’s been despising and continues to despise, even at the moment he leaves the place of prayer. For there is no prayer truly uttered that goes unanswered, and no answer that we let ourselves quickly accept, since we think we know best what we want.

Yes, we want things our way. No wonder the Reformers were so focused on our incapacity to live in love. No wonder they believed so strongly, and preached so fervently, that we are utterly depraved, that we deserve hell and an eternity of painful darkness. They could find no answer in themselves, just as we cannot find anything in us that can avert our self-destruction. For he that despises his neighbor hates himself as well as God. Yes, so accept Jesus, the Reformers said. He will save you.

And yes, they were, and are, right, but in theory only. Now comes the practice, for works cannot save but are indispensable in the life of grace. We are back to square one, realizing that if we despise our neighbor, even our brother, we are lost, because beyond all reason and sense, deep down we know who our neighbor is: Jesus Christ. Whatever else we believe, or practice, whatever we use to cover up our deformity, it remains. We despise another creature for whom Christ died, and in whom He lives.

Again, God help us! Help me, Lord, to despise no man or woman, aged or young, of whatever race, of whatever state of life, even all those ‘protected minorities’ that the happily God-denying authorities of this world have commanded us to respect. It isn’t about what I look like, Lord, before myself or others. It’s about what I look like to You. Again, Lord, I acknowledge I am lost, I am nothing in Your presence and even in my own eyes. Show Yourself to me in everyone I meet. Help me to not despise You.

For yes, You alone are Lord.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

New seed

So, the pope has resigned or, as it was announced to me by an unofficial herald, ‘The pope has quit!’ A bit hard to believe at first hearing. Popes are not supposed to quit. They don’t resign. They don’t retire. Theirs is a job for life. How can they quit? They’re said to be ‘infallible,’ at least when speaking ex cathedra. I wonder, was he speaking from the chair of Peter, or just standing somewhere?

They say, this hasn’t happened in almost six hundred years. Well, I think, actually, it has probably never happened. At least, not like this. Popes have been forcibly removed from office, and often jailed. The pope that they usually refer to as having resigned, Celestine the Fifth, did so after five months, and also issued a decree saying it was legal for a pope to resign. How convenient.

The truth about Celestine is, he was happily monked and hermited, and shouldn’t have been dragged to the papal throne in the first place. He had every right to resign. Nobody should be pushed around like that, not even by the Church. Another pope who resigned was actually probably never pope in the first place. There were two, then three, popes at the same time. That’s Church politics gone wild.

Popes don’t resign. It used to be, kings and queens don’t resign either. These used to be sacred persons, anointed to be for us for life. Two queens of the Netherlands have resigned, and now a third one has announced she will retire too. Not Elizabeth, the Queen, though. If she keeps the faith she promised at her coronation, she may be the last. The last real queen, maybe the last Christian one.

But Benedict the Sixteenth is resigning, for health reasons. The Church has guaranteed that any pope, no matter how sick, or how weak, has her support to continue to the end. So, yes, he is really doing something new and unexpected, but everyone will put the best face on it they can. Who knows the real reasons? Conspiracy theorists and end of the world Malachites can have a field day.

But maybe, just maybe, this pope is letting us see a light that has gone on in his brain. The Church is a holy republic, a commonwealth, with an elected monarch, not unlike the former Kingdom of Poland. The supreme ruler is elected, yes, but for life. What if, in step with the times, or at least a little late, a mere two hundred years, the Church might become a real republic, with a pope elected for a term?

Yes, term limits for popes. It seems to have worked with presidents in some of the countries that have them, and it hasn’t diminished the authority and prestige of their office. Why couldn’t the papacy, since the pope is no mere ‘bishop of Rome’ but a kind of universal bishop, be filled by election, with limits of seven years per pope, elected in middle age, and then released to resume his former ministry?

This may not be as far-fetched as it seems, and it might be a bargaining chip for Rome in its efforts to rejoin the other ancient patriarchates in a united, historic Church. Perhaps Benedict may have seeded the ground in a more fruitful way than any pope before him. Of course, the seed has to be dropped into good soil, and not on pavement, because fowl in plenty still seek to fill their bellies.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Guard your thoughts

The devils, being spiritual beings, direct most of their attacks against us at our minds, where our spirits are lodged.
There they plant thoughts, λογισμοι, loghismí, in Greek, which are all but indistinguishable from our own thoughts, except for their objects.

Our spirits being regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit present thoughts consistent with our new spiritual natures. They are good and pure, rational and just. They lead us from one good to another, if we follow them. But the thoughts planted by the evil one and his angels are the opposite. They add drag to our spiritual natures, try to bring us down, and lead us from one evil to another, sometimes by trickery, sometimes by flattery.

Here is our problem in these last times…

We have been taught by the world to believe that all our thoughts reflect who we are and what we ourselves desire, and that to follow them is not only natural but commendable. So, whatever thought comes to mind, whatever the devils plant there, be it an apparent good, some transitory pleasure or speculation, or something pitted against the truth of God’s revealed Word and which we know to be wrong (but only there, so the devils lisp in our mental ear), we think it right to follow, to try out, to experiment with, to experience.

In former days, for most Christian souls, thoughts were not accepted inwardly nor acted upon if they went against what the conscience knew was right. Whether traced back to the devils or merely to fleshly weakness, bad thoughts, imaginations and fantasies were rejected, boldly and as a matter of course. Now, however, with the lie that whatever we think is possible, and therefore, permissible, even souls that acknowledge Christ can justify themselves in following every and any whim…

‘Go where no one has ever gone before, do what no one has ever done. Follow your dream, your vision. Life is a journey.’

Yes, my brothers. Life is at least a journey.
But it’s more than that.
It’s a pilgrimage from the ‘City of Destruction’
to the ‘Celestial City.’
John Bunyan was right.

Brethren, guard your thoughts!

Then one said to Him, ‘Lord, are there few who are saved?’ And He said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open for us, and He will answer and say to you, I do not know you, where you are from, then you will begin to say, We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets. But He will say, I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity. 
Luke 13:23-27 NKJV

To receive the King of all

It's very odd how paradox seems to be the rule rather than the exception with Christian Orthodoxy, and I think that's one reason why some people find it so attractive, at least intellectually, even esthetically.

Complex but not complicated in its 'natural' state, though when it accommodates the protocols of the modern world reversing this quality, everything about it abandons time and place, pointing beyond itself.

Emulating the Truth at every level and in all contexts, continually escaping the grasp of merely rational, as well as obsessively passionate, men without turning them out, or forcing their disillusion, it subsists.

Even while under subjection to unworthy rulers, or stagnant under generation-long reigns of the superstitious, it moves triumphantly along the historic road of its humiliation, with undiminished light and power.

Evincing the presence of the living God without convincing by force, conquering not by might or even right, but by mercy, by forgiveness, even by defeat, which the world regards with suspicion and despair.

It cannot be purchased at any price, not by anything convertible into currency, but only by that which is entirely beyond price, and even when obtained, it cannot be contained, but as the wild earth, escapes all ownership.

So we say we serve the Lord. We say we are born again. We say we are saved. We say all the words we think we should, as if this somehow proves we are Christians. We go to church, we pray, we fast, we give alms.

All the while, we fail to notice that to live we must die, to be saved we must be lost, to be sane we must be mad, to be healthy we must be sick—all of this, from the world's point of view, which we have come to share.

The path of paradox lies open behind closed doors, those very doors we shut to keep out the uninitiated, who have no desire in the least to enter, just as we who stand within hold ourselves back while bringing our offering.

Not the fat of bulls or goats or rams, not the religion we employ like fig leaves to hide our nakedness, no, but to follow Him in the night as He walks upon the waters, to lay aside all earthly cares, to receive the King of all.

The flesh rebelling

The Serpent in the Wilderness by Edward Knippers
2007, oil on panel, 32" x 24"
                       The flesh rebelling
                       and the spirit unwilling
                       as gradually the soul
                       all lethal loves is killing,
                       a miniature of my life’s full bent,
                       this forty days of fast, this monstrous Lent!

                       Temptations prying
                       and pretentious praying
                       attacking and adorning
                       the ceremonious slaying,
                       and images and idols risen
                       or deeply sunk,
                       ground up and mixed with blood
                       or water, and drunk,
                       and desert,
                       unremitting sunlight under
                       dark cloud (somehow above!)
                       and thunder 
                       pounding hammerlike and loud
                       on door and wall and window of the proud,
                       and pagan shower of wishful floral fêtes,
                       ideals, presumptions,
                       vanities, and bets,
                       illusions, boasts,
                       illogic, lies, and ghosts,
                       all headlong fall
                       before the heavenly hosts.

— Romanós
     February 27, 1986

With brotherly greetings and for the encouragement of those observing Ash Wednesday, 13 February this year, the beginning of Lent in the Western Church. May you be strengthened for all that you decide to undergo, as we prepare ourselves for the bright Feast of Holy Pascha.

Western Pascha (Easter) March 31Eastern Pascha May 5, 2013

This year Orthodox Christians observe the Feast 5 weeks later than Roman Catholics and Protestants.
Let us not forget one another.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

St George the Trophy-Bearer

St George the Trophy-Bearer
by the hand of ikonographer Photios Kontoglou
St George was an officer serving in the armed forces of the Roman Empire, under Diocletian. Ikons must always show the historicity of the event or person, and so the saint wears the uniform of a Roman imperial officer, including the solar faced medallion. There is nothing impious about this. As modern day Orthodox living in a pagan, often anti-Christian culture, we are sometimes forced by the conditions of our employment to assume some of the trappings (whether of material substance, or whether of protocol, which is even more dangerous) of the non-Christian employer. This should not be taken to mean we endorse them, but they can sometimes contaminate our witness for the Truth (who is Christ), and if we are not careful, they can also gradually wean us from the community of faith and graft us into the culture of death.

As an ikon, the ‘portrait of St George’ type of ikon, while perhaps not as compelling or at least not as graphic as the more common depiction of the saint mounted and spearing a dragon, is actually the more to be preferred, precisely because of its historicity. St George the trophy-bearer is certainly a saint called on in all times and places for help, and there must be a reason why. Even Muslims in the Near East venerate him. He is somehow the archetype of the devoted and guileless servant of God, trapped by circumstances leading to his physical death, yet liberated without sinning into what the holy apostle Paul calls the ‘freedom of the sons of God’ (Romans 8:21).

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Of coal and diamonds

I know that man was made out of the dust of the earth, that he is red like the clay out of which he was fashioned. I know that of the body it is said, ‘Remember, O man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return,’ while the soul is not addressed at all, since ‘the soul of man is immortal, and cannot die,’ as some church formularies have it (that’s what I was taught as a child).

But in my metaphoric mind, I like to think of man as a lump of coal. Why? Because coal is carbon, for one, the building block of life. For another, because, take coal and subject it to intense heat and pressure and, voilà, you have a diamond. This is what I see makes a man bright and hard (in the sense of indestructible), that he is subjected to heat and pressure, and instead of burning up, turns into a diamond, the brightest and hardest of all gems. A man who reaches this I call ‘Adamantios.’

There are plenty of man-made diamonds around, maybe as good as the real thing, I don’t know. I’ve also seen what used to be called rhinestones, maybe they still are. That’s the kind of jewelry my mom had, (her only real diamonds were tiny ones in her wedding band). But rhinestones are not diamonds at all. They try to glisten, they try to look real, but they’re only glass, just sand melted up and crystallized.

Everyone starts out, continuing my metaphor, as a lump of coal. Some of those lumps want to become diamonds, but they don’t want to have to go through the ‘treatment.’ Instead of turning themselves in, letting themselves be buried deep in the earth where heat and pressure can crunch them into what they want to be, they stay on the surface. Some of them pretend to do the heat and pressure treatment, but they’re like pieces of coal that just jump into a furnace of their choice, thinking that’ll be enough heat and, hey, who needs the pressure anyway? But what happens to them? They only glow red for awhile, then they burn up, carbon in the form of soot, smoke and ash. So much for just wanting to become a diamond!

But there are those who know that there’s no way around it: to become a diamond, you have to let yourself be buried. You’re afraid that maybe you’ll be crushed, but that won’t happen, so long as you let yourself be buried deep enough. That’s another problem with being buried, that has to be deep too, otherwise you just get crushed. But crunched, not crushed, is what you want to be. That’s how a diamond is made. So the lump of coal has to first ask, ‘Is this what I really want?’ and then if the answer is ‘Yes,’ to turn itself over to the Diamond Maker.

Why this silly metaphor? Well, I really do think like this. I look around me at the lumps of coal that go rolling by, up above the dig that I’m in (by the way, I hope my dig is deep enough!) and some of them that I see will stop by, and stay a spell. We’ll have a little chat, lump to lump, and I’ll look hard to see if there’s a diamond lurking in there somewhere. Sometimes the lump will come right out and tell me he wants to be a diamond. A few even tell me they’re diamonds already. Heck, I’m not color-blind! And I admit, sometimes I want to see diamonds so bad, I’ll even talk myself into thinking a passing lump of coal is a potential. Then again, sometimes I’m wrong. It’s one thing to just read about the bell of Dharma, and quite another to ring it.

So, in closing, my brother lumps and lumpettes, I ask your prayers for this lump to get crunched enough to join the brethren in the diadem of the King of kings of kings (blessed be He!). It’s dark down here, but I know it’ll be, I will be, light soon.

Man makes an end of darkness
when he pierces to the uttermost depths
the black and lightless rock.

Job 28:3 Jerusalem Bible

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The cost of discipleship

The cost of discipleship. Yes, the cost of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s never been easy in any time or place. It’s precisely when my life in Christ seems easy that I become uneasy—am I not only a failed human, but a failed, and rejected, disciple as well? For though Jesus says, ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28), He still does not accept volunteers as disciples. He accepts only those whom He personally calls. This can be frightening to contemplate.

How do I know I am called? Doesn’t He say, ‘many are called, but few are chosen’ (Matthew 22:14)? Yet, what does the holy apostle say, but ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Romans 10:13)? Yes, ‘will be’ but not yet, for the same apostle also says, ‘our salvation is not in sight,’ and ‘we are not saved yet—it is something we must wait for with patience’ (Romans 8:24, 25).

Is part of the cost of discipleship not only the pain and suffering inflicted on us by the world that hates us just as it hates Him (cf. John 15:18), which we must bear in silence and humiliation as He did, ‘like a lamb to the slaughter… and as a sheep silent before the shearers, not opening his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7), but also, the accusing doubts that afflict our very hearts and minds from within? 

Is this why we are warned ‘to do as the LORD your God has commanded… not turning aside to the right hand or to the left’ (Deuteronomy 5:32), not even to enter our own door, because ‘a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’
(Matthew 10:36)?

No, the cost of discipleship is not now or ever, easy.
What the Master says of Himself is true for His disciples, since ‘a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him’ (John 13:16): ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20). This ‘no place’ may be literal for some, but for all it is more than literal.

The cost of discipleship, the bitterest and yet the sweetest, is to have no home in this world at all—not in its thoughts, its loves, its hopes—to be suspended in tension between heaven and earth—heaven not yet ready to open and receive us, earth making no room for us because we are pregnant and about to give birth.

Give birth to what or to whom? That is its greatest fear. As holy and divine scripture says, ‘When peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run the half of her swift course, down from the heavens, from the royal throne, leapt Your all-powerful Word; into the heart of a doomed land the stern warrior leapt, carrying Your unambiguous command like a sharp sword, He stood, and filled the universe with death; He touched the sky, yet trod the earth’ (Wisdom 18:14-16).

So the world as inn-keeper slams the door in the face of Joseph in Bethlehem, ‘No room!’ because it’s terrified of an unborn child (cf. Luke 2:7). So the world as would-be king sends soldiers to dash hoards of infants against the rocks because it senses its slayer nigh (cf. Matthew 2:16). Death cannot cohabit the universe with life, so life becomes death so that the dead may live. The cost of discipleship is a price too high for anyone to pay, but that price, the Blood of a Lamb without stain, was prepaid before time even began or place became (cf. Revelation 13:8).

No, the cost of discipleship is not now or ever, easy.
Yet now, and always, we are, you are, I am, carried in arms that too support the heavens, even while nailed to the Tree. And we still hear that voice that says to everyone who has nothing left to lose and is unafraid to ask, ‘I tell you truly, this day you will be with Me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43).

Know and trust

A ramble…

The other day I found myself writing the words 'instant Christianity' to describe the kind of religion that takes no notice of anything in its path but mows down all opposition without a hearing—this, really in reference to a certain 'missionary' style, though it can be applied to churches as well.

Thinking about just the phrase, not what I'd originally intended by using it, I imagined 'Instant Christianity—Just add water, and mix' as if it were a label on a product. This made me think of another aspect of modern Christianity: its religious relativism, and its marketing and branding.

That brought a scripture to mind, 'And the misery of the children of men who corrupt their minds and are cheated of the truth, and they think that making money is the worship of God; but stay away from these things' (1 Timothy 6:5). This almost seems to prophesy a kind of 'prosperity gospel.'

Back to 'instant Christianity.' Thinking about it some more, two images came to mind. The first, the baptism of an infant. Yes, some might see this as a magical form of 'instant Christianity, just add water,' as if baptism as a rite can make someone a Christian with no effort or knowledge.

The other image was that of an adult man being baptised by immersion in a large tank in full view of a congregation. To many this would seem to be the only kind of baptism that is valid. I know people who have submitted to this kind of second baptism because they were made to doubt their infant baptism.

Yet, in actual practice, this 'believer's baptism' is quite often just as magical and as much 'instant Christianity' as the other. Again, a concept of 'just add water' and, there you are. Once when I was witnessing downtown by reading scriptures aloud, I was stopped and asked by a listener, 'Don't you think water baptism is necessary for salvation?'

The questioner quoted me relevant passages from the third chapter of John's gospel, which I had only just read. Christ seems to be telling Nicodemus that water is somehow necessary to salvation, 'No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit' (John 3:5).

'Well, then,' I responded, 'who or what is it that saves? Is it the water, or is it Christ?' My informant unhesitatingly affirmed, 'It is both. Baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, because Christ said so.' All that came into my mind in that moment, and I said it, was, 'Well, who baptised the thief on the cross?'

Back to 'instant Christianity,' if we use it as another thought weapon to attack each other, then let's bury the hatchet right now. For me, it simply signifies the state of mind that forgets that our neighbor too is Christ, even if he is an unbeliever. Our witness to him can never ignore this fact, else it becomes transgression.
'Lord, when did we see You like that?' (See Matthew 25:31-46.)

One last thought that came to me as I was considering what makes Christianity real and not instant or imaginary. There are two entrances into Christianity in my experience. One entrance is through knowing. The other is through trusting.

Some people become Christians through study. Not just books, but life itself, especially their own. They know, and are forced by their knowing to become disciples of Jesus. In this category probably belong C. S. Lewis among the modern, and St Augustine of Hippo among the ancient Church fathers.

Some people become Christians through trust. They find themselves somehow in the presence of someone or even something that they feel they can trust, and they give themselves over as easily as a bride to her husband. In this category are many people raised as Christians, and I am one of those.

Those who know, and therefore become Christians, will arrive sooner or later at the state of unshakable trust. Those who trust, and therefore become Christians, will arrive sooner or later at the state of certain knowledge. Both of these are predicated on the fact that it is the living God they know or they trust at the beginning.

Now, place the template of baptism over these ideas. The baptism of infants is an example of Christianity by trust. Believer's baptism is an example of Christianity by knowledge.

'Do you know the Lord and accept Him as your personal Savior?' is the qualifying question to the adult baptised, but there is nothing you can ask an infant, yet its answer can be found in the book of Psalms, 'Enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet like a child in its mother's arms, as content as a child that has been weaned'
(Psalm 131).

That is trust.

A reminiscence of my Dad

My Dad, after whom I am named Roman, just passed away at the age of 86 years, in Florida. I was fortunate in being able to tell him before he reposed those things a son should say to his father before he leaves this world, like ‘Thanks for being my Dad… I love you… You are my hero… and, Wait for me on the other side.’ We used to talk by phone every week, and I visited him at least once a year, even though we were almost at the extreme antipodes of the continent from each other. Yes, my Dad really is my hero. He taught me so much, and passed on to me without knowing it the philanthropic heart he received from his father. Yes, my grandpa, Casimir, newly arrived from Prussia and managing a real estate development in Florida was quickly blacklisted and driven out, because in the first decade of the 1900's, he insisted on paying his black labor the same wage as his white. He said, ‘All men are the same.’ That was too much for his colleagues. He went north to Chicago and founded a Credit Union instead…

I've posted this reminiscence before, but anonymously, but here it is again, only now you know who the old veteran was... it was my Dad!

An old man sitting in his tiny room on a day bed. On the wall behind the bed are two glazed picture frames, the one on the left full of awards and ribbons from his American Legion days, the one on the right displays an arrangement of military decorations, bars and medals hanging from ribbons, with a sepia tone photo of a young soldier in his early twenties. He has company with him in his room, a rare event.

His visitor asks him about the medals, ‘What was this one for? And what about that other one?’ The old man’s eyes get a far away look in them when asked about a medal for his service in Korea during the war almost sixty years ago. ‘What did you do when you were in Korea to earn that? Were you in combat?’

‘No, not exactly what you’d call combat, but I was surrounded by it. Me and another soldier, we were assigned to carry mail between Pusan and the front lines. When we landed in Pusan, that’s about all there was of Korea, the Chinese had overrun everything. My original army unit was almost completely wiped out. I got placed in a different unit, and we took the mail back and forth.

‘We lived in the railway car that carried the mail, like a postal unit on wheels, it got hauled from the base at Pusan to wherever we had to get the mail to and from our troops. We took in a Korean boy, must’ve been twelve years old or so, named Kim Mun Heup. He spoke good English, he was from a rich family in Seoul, but both his parents were killed in the fighting. We took him in as our house boy. He cooked, washed our stuff, helped us buy food and supplies in the towns wherever we went. He lived with us in the railway car.

‘We paid him, of course, but I got a hold of a Sears Roebuck catalog, and we let him look through it and pick out clothes and other things. We sent away for them, and when they finally got here, boy, was he ever happy! He had a baseball cap and real American clothes, tee-shirts and blue jeans, and shoes. Boy, was he ever proud! Kim found five other boys, all orphans like himself, but younger, and became their manager. He got his orders from us, and gave them their work. He paid them, and shared with them, of course.

Kim Mun Heup (third from right) with his ‘cohort’
‘I was proud of him, too, and I wanted to adopt him and bring him back to America, but I knew that wouldn’t go over well. I’d just gotten married before being shipped off, and I had a baby on the way. I knew my wife wouldn’t want to see me bring home a kid just ten years younger than me, and not “one of us,” if you get my meaning.

‘When we were in the north, at the front, refugees would come to me and my buddy, maybe Kim told them about us, and we’d give them a place to stay and a ride in our mail car back to the south. We’d drop them off at various places along the way, where they had friends or relatives to take them in. Times were pretty rough, and they’d lost a lot. Once we even hid a bunch of Catholic nuns who escaped from the north and dropped them off in a safe area. They were Koreans, of course, but spoke good English, as did most of the people that came to us for help.

‘Boy, would we ever have gotten in trouble for hiding these people, if the base commander had found out! But he never did. That’s because we always dropped them off before the train got back to Pusan. We didn’t see any harm in it, helping those folks. What else could we have done?

‘I didn’t stay right to the end of the war. Our replacements arrived, and me and my buddy returned to the States. Like I said, I really wanted to adopt Kim and bring him home, but it just couldn’t happen. So before we left, we gave him a couple of thousand dollars and dropped him off in a small town where he had some relatives. The money was for his education. I hope he made it. We didn’t stay in touch after the war. Life had just changed too much for all of us.’

The visitor listened to the old man release his secret story and wondered, had anyone else heard this told in many a year? Was the buddy still alive, staying alone in some cottage like this old soldier? And where was Kim? Three whole lifetimes were lived completely apart, that once for a year or a little more had been more closely knit than family, two young men and a boy riding the rails together in a war-torn land, carrying messages between danger and safety, carrying souls secretly from oppression to freedom.

That’s worth more than medals.