Thursday, October 31, 2013

The peace of Christ

Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?
The Blood of Jesus whispers peace within.

—Edward Henry Bickersteth
Hymn writer
Peace, that which comes from above and is granted by God alone through Christ is not easy to define, but it definitely does not mean something like ‘all's well’ or ‘peace and quiet’ in the usual sense. Peace from God does not necessarily mean that there is no trouble anywhere in our life, nor that we are not faced with problems to which we cannot find a solution.

It's easier to talk about this peace that comes from God through Christ and is bestowed on us in prayer than it is to actually have it. Why? Because we usually talk about it when we are not in any great distress, emergency or need, but after we have been delivered from it. We look back in retrospect and thank God for the deliverance and find words of testimony to give about God's faithfulness.

What is the best definition of and the most convincing testimony to the ‘peace from above’?

When we are presently in distress, in danger, at risk, beset with problems we see no end of, when we are suffering persecutions, slander, unjust accusations, when no one believes us, when no one cares about us, and we are not sad, not unhappy, not anxious, not disturbed, not reproachful, uncomplaining, unmoved to anger or revenge, still hopeful, still forgiving, still loving our enemies, still seeking God’s Kingdom first and His righteousness, never giving in to despair or abandonment. When we are in this place, and can define ‘the peace of God which passeth all understanding’ not only by the word of our confession, but also by our passionlessness, then we have understood and accepted what that peace is. It's the same peace that Jesus knew when He was crucified and when He uttered with His last breath, ‘It is finished. Into your hands I commend my spirit.’ It is the same peace which Jesus gave to His disciples when He said, ‘My peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give.’

This is the peace of Christ.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

It has to be Him

‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me.’ This is a mighty word of Jesus, and it has become a stumbling-block for both the world and the Church. The missionaries go forth to the world spreading the gospel message with varying success and failure. Success is sometimes achieved by enticements or the display of power. The Orthodox to this day report with pride that the conversion of the Slavs came about because the emissaries of the barbarian prince were awed by the splendor of the Divine Liturgy in the great church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. This is used as a kind of historical bait, as well as trophy, by modern Orthodox Christians. Why then don’t today’s barbarians come flocking? Maybe there’s more to the message of the gospel than mystic splendor.

‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me.’ History tells a sad tale of the spread of Christianity, in large part because those who spread the gospel used bible texts as bastions and towers, even against the truth. What truth? There can’t be any truth outside of the gospel, so there isn’t. ‘If anyone wants to follow me, he must renounce himself, take up his cross, and follow me.’ There can’t be anything good among those we want to convert. They must renounce it all. Give it all up. No works done before regeneration, nothing they had before we brought them the gospel, can they keep. It must all be trashed. That’s their cross. Now, after they’ve killed everything in themselves that comes from their foul ancestors, they can follow us—which means, of course, follow Christ.

‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me.’ The Lord is here saying, in a religiously ironic way, that the message is, in effect, not a set body of knowledge, an ‘information virus’ as some have called doctrinal Christianity, but somehow a personal encounter. Though there is a body of knowledge, even saving knowledge, it can’t be handed over, transmitted, until there is a receiver. That receiver is produced not by tinkering with men’s minds, but by re-imaging their hearts, and that can only be done by a personal encounter. What kind of encounter? Well, the only encounter that matters, a personal rendezvous with Jesus Christ, who is who He says He is: Lord, Savior, even God. If there is a virus His ambassadors carry, it is no mere information. It has to be Him.

‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me.’ Why do they reject, and who or what is it that they are rejecting? Human beings are rational animals, reasoning souls. In the Akathistos Hymn, St Romanos calls the saved Christ’s ‘logical flock.’ How did they get that way? Isn’t it because humanity is, though somehow fallen, the image of God on earth? Isn’t it because they are, in some mysterious way, God-bearers without knowing it? Isn’t Christ telling us, when He speaks of rejection, that the message we are to bring, the good news, is something really more than mere words, that it is the Word Himself, not something that can be rejected, but Someone? And who, then, can reject that Someone, who is love itself in the form of a man? Who rejects love? Is it they, or we?

‘Anyone who rejects you rejects me.’ No, brethren, there is no room for rejection when what we bring to the world is Christ, not as an imperial proclamation, but as a marriage proposal from the King of Glory, whose Kingdom is built not on men’s backs, mortised with their sorrows, tenoned with their fears, and roofed with false authority. The messengers must first themselves be receivers before others can become what they are. Why do great souls reject the gospel? ‘I will become a Christian when I see one.’ Are words such as these an attack on the Church and its work? No, brethren, but they are a judgment on us who claim to be what we are called to be, saints, that is, receivers of the message, ambassadors of God, even Christ-bearers. Is He really with us?

Help me to repent

Today is the Lord’s Day when we hear the gospel command, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ This is the Lord Jesus calling out to His disciple Peter, who was out on the sea of Galilee with his companions casting his nets without catching anything. ‘Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!’ the Rock called back, as if the Lord didn’t already know, and then, ‘but at your word I will let down the nets.’

Often, try as we might, all our efforts come to nothing, that is, when we are doing what we think we should do. But when the Lord intervenes in our failures—for He always does, though we don’t always notice—when the Lord gives the command, if we dare accept it and do what He tell us, well, something good always results, without exception. We may not always be ready and willing for what happens, but the word He sows in us never returns to Him empty.

So Peter did as he was told, willingly and yet reluctantly. The scriptures don’t tell us either way, but I can only imagine what I’d have done, if it were me. On the one hand, willingly because I want to obey His word, reluctantly because I am always apprehensive, always afraid, of change. But this saying is true: ‘God never gives us a word that He doesn’t expect us to act upon.’

Or put the same idea positively, ‘God always gives us a word, that He expects us to act upon.’ When I think about it, this is absolutely true, at least it has been in my life. Most of my sins have been and continue to be not ‘sins of commission’ but ‘sins of omission,’ knowing what is the right thing to do, and not doing it, for whatever reason.

Why we don’t recognize this more quickly is due to our religious upbringing. We think only bad things we do are sins. We think of ourselves as good people, as good Christians because we tell ourselves, ‘I haven’t killed anyone. I go to church. I volunteer and support good causes. I am a nice person,’ and that’s where we leave it. The problem with this is, it is simply not true. We aren’t good people, though we may be nice. We do what we want to, and we call it good.

Do we do what God wants us to do? Are we even listening for His voice? Would we recognize it, if we heard it?
Christianity is not religious activities, training or even study. We can know a lot of stuff and even act within the confines of our select knowledge without ever reaching the only kind of knowledge that matters, that is, knowing the Lord.

‘What is the benefit of knowing the Lord, and why isn’t my religious affiliation, activities and training enough to guarantee my salvation?’
Because none of these things can compare to knowing the Lord, and knowing Him, to love Him, really Him, and not an imagination or idea of what or who He must be. It’s the difference between worshiping an idol and following the living God, to put it bluntly and not mildly. If we know the Lord, we will love Him and do what He commands.

So to be a good Christian, one must do more than pay my tithe of dill and cumin as the Pharisees boast, and place oneself in the presence of the Lord and listen for His voice, His word of command. ‘God never gives us a word that He doesn’t expect us to act upon.’ Do we want to hear that voice? Do we want to act on that word? Like Peter, something in us wants to protest, even in the face of love. Yet if we know the Lord, our love for Him conquers the old man in us, just as His love conquered death and Hades for us.

What of the consequences? We know one thing: that obeying the word of Jesus Christ always changes us, always changes the people around us, always changes the world. Metanoía, a word with so many shades of meaning that we lose track when we try to count them—repentance, turning around, renewing our minds, change: those are some of the simplest—from metá, ‘beyond’ and noó, ‘what the mind does, thinks’: this is the meaning of our every encounter with Jesus.

‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’ Yes, Lord, and what a catch! This was more than I bargained for. Your love and mercy and abundance are too much for me. If I dared, I would say, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, but You already know it, already know everything about me. You even teach me about myself things I could never know. You know I am sinful. That’s why You came for me. That’s why You called me. That’s why I even exist at all. You love me.

Me, a good Christian? No. A good man? Again, no. I might dream I am good somehow, but out of that silly dream I always awake. We are just following you, Lord. Following along the saints who follow behind you, hoping that we will continue from day to day, knowing that every step is only at Your beckoning. All we can cry out is, ‘Lord, help us to know you more, so that we can love You more, and loving You more, that we gladly run to fulfill Your word, that it does not return to You void.’

Now, where to next?
Help me to keep my eyes on You. Help me to walk, my feet fitting Your footprints. Raise me when I fall. Carry me when I am too weak to move. Awaken me when I slumber, raise me again from the sleep of death every day, for You are the Resurrection and the Life. Change me, renew my mind, turn me around, help me to repent. Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But speak the word only, and my soul shall be healed.

Another angle on 'the cost'

So often when we say ‘I love you’ we say it with a huge ‘I’ and a small ‘you’.

We use love as a conjunction instead of it being a verb implying action. It’s no good just gazing out into open space hoping to see the Lord; instead, we have to look closely at our neighbor, someone whom God has willed into existence, someone whom God has died for.

Everyone we meet has a right to exist, because he has value in himself, and we are not used to this. The acceptance of others is a danger to us, it threatens us. To recognise the other's right to be himself might mean recognising his right to kill me. But if we set a limit to his right to exist, it's no right at all.

Love is difficult. Christ was crucified because he taught a kind of love which is a terror for men, a love which demands total surrender: it spells death.

If we turn to God and come face to face with him, we must be prepared to pay the cost. If we are not prepared to pay the cost, we must walk through life being a beggar, hoping someone else will pay. But if we turn to God we discover that life is deep, vast and immensely worth living.

Anthony Bloom, Metropolitan of Sourozh

“Remember who your teachers were…”
2 Timothy 3:14

Monday, October 28, 2013

Going after

The cost of discipleship. Yes, well, if we’re talking about discipleship to the God-man Jesus Christ, there is a cost. How can there not be? But it’s not what most people think, and when many are faced with the cost, they go into denial.
Deny Jesus Christ?
Well, no, they wouldn’t do that. That might be dangerous.
It could damage their reputation.
Instead, they find or fabricate other costs, costs that they’re willing to pay, costs that’ll provide a good return on their investment. ‘For, after all,’ they reason, ‘isn’t it being a good steward to invest your deposit from the Lord with the bankers, so you can return it to Him with interest when He returns, just as He teaches in the gospels?’ Naturally, the bankers needn’t be real bankers—that would seem too materialistic—but, what harm if they were?

So, we follow Jesus. That’s what discipleship is all about, right? In the original Greek He says, Δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου (dhéfte OPÍSO mou), ‘Come AFTER me.’ The disciple’s response is immediate—or never. Jesus doesn’t wait once He calls, or at least, not for long. At least, it’s not really a matter of time (Greek: chrónos) but of acceptable time (Greek: kairós). What’s more, if we don’t keep our eyes on Him at all times, we will miss a lot, we can even miss Him. Like unto Moses on the mountain, the living God reveals Himself to us, pronounces His merciful Name, and lets us see only His back as He passes by, having hidden us in the cleft of the rock to protect us from His glory.

Protect us from His glory? Yes, just like the Ark of the Covenant is thickly wrapped in colorful swaddling clothes to protect the people from its glory when the Ethiopian Coptic priests carry it out of its resting place to show it on a festal day. We must be protected, yes, from the living God.

Why? Because we are created, He uncreated, and anything He indwells or overshadows takes on the aspect of His glory. Even a reflection is full of power. Even we shall also be, if we are faithful to follow Him, not only with our eyes and minds, but with our hands, our feet, yes, even with our hearts.

‘You’re going to be learning Hebrew and Greek for the rest of your life,’ I tell a precious young brother as he embarks on yet another unforeseen journey in his ‘going after’ Jesus. Yes, surely it is enough to do as Christ bids us in the gospels, ‘If you make My word your home, you will indeed be My disciples’ (John 8:31). But what that looks like in the life of each disciple is a unique vision, vouchsafed by the One who gives each one a white stone with a Divine Name written on it, that only he who receives it can read.

It is the stone that the world rejects and tries to induce us to reject too, fearful of what we shall become if we can read that Name, fearful that Heaven, which is already firmly but invisibly established in its midst, shall one day become visible, and that we its citizens, all of us first-borns, shall be its judges. The followers, yes, the disciples of the God-man Jesus Christ, shall judge the world, but not yet.

Why not yet? Because we have not yet paid the cost of discipleship, in full. We have not yet washed our robes white in the Blood of the Lamb, which is, in fact, our own blood, because we have followed the Lamb wherever He goes, even to the Cross.

‘The cost of discipleship? The cost of discipleship?’ many ask. ‘Doesn’t the Lord say, my yoke is easy and my burden light? Hasn’t He paid the price for our sin once and for all on Calvary? Hasn’t our confession of Him before men guaranteed His confession of us before His Father and the angels?’ Well, yes, and no.

Look at the saints. Chisel away carefully the legends of their lives and get at their flesh and blood. See them in their glory—His glory, which He was given once and for all when He reigns (not reigned only) as ‘King of Glory’ from the Tree. They, the saints, believed, they confessed, and becoming like their Master evangelical criminals, by doing what they saw Him doing, speaking what they heard Him say, they learned what is the cost of discipleship, and they paid the price, their blood mingled with His from before the world ever was.

‘You did not choose me, but I chose you…’
John 15:16

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Asking


At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, "Ask for whatever you want me to give you."

Solomon answered, "You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.

"Now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?"

The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, "Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both riches and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. And if you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life." Then Solomon awoke—and he realized it had been a dream.

1 Kings 3:5-15a NIV

Blessèd thanks

He has given me all, everything I have, all I am. There is nothing I have that He has not given, nothing of my being that He has not created. All is from Him, nothing real from myself. Nothing.

And what do I give Him in return? What can I give Him who has given me all and who Himself has all and is all? We are not separated from each other as a rich man is from a poor man. No, the contrast is much greater. We are separated from each other as being is separated from non-being. I only am because He wills it. I cannot even say ‘I am’ as He can say ‘I am.’ When I say it, it is only a confession that He is. When He says it, it is His very Name.

I try at least to thank Him, as dust thanks the light for revealing it to itself. But even in the open mouth of my thanksgiving “He fills the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53), or as the psalmist declares of the Lord Yahweh, “you have only to open your mouth for Me to fill it” (Psalm 81:10). As Francesco di Bernardone says, “We are all poor in the eyes of our Lord,” and it is our poverty, our very nothingness, that attracts His grace and draws down His unbounded mercy. As General Löwenhielm asserted in his testimony at Babette’s feast, “we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude.” God is good. What else can we say of Him? Nothing is enough, yet He accepts all.

Let's pray now!

I don't have very much to say these days that's bloggable. A drowning man doesn't talk much. Well, not drowning exactly… I'm exaggerating. But learning to walk on water is tough, and I can't even swim!
I found this cartoon on the OrthoDixie blog, and it shows visually something that I practice and sometimes preach, "Let's pray now!"

Early in my life as a Christian I'd meet people who'd say things like, "I'll pray for you," or "Please pray for me."

I thought the first was a kind of pious ‘put on’, and I'd say "Thanks!" and I always felt very uncomfortable with the second and hastily responded, "Of course, I will!" and then I'd just forget about it, like the guy in the cartoon. Clergy and pious old ladies usually said the first, and ‘humbler than thou’ wannabees usually said the second. Occasionally both the offer and the request were genuine, but rarely.

One day, I just sat up and decided to do what the Word of God says, "Pray all the time, asking for what you need, praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion" (Ephesians 6:18 Jerusalem Bible).

One thing that meant to me was this, I never again (or almost never again) told someone I'd pray for them. If someone needed to be prayed for, I'd just drop everything, including the pretense, and say, "Okay, let's pray now!" and start praying right then and there.

This readiness came with not a few surprises. Some people actually wanted to pray and wanted to be prayed for. Others simply excused themselves and so much as said, "Don't bother!" with an embarassed grin.

Being ready to pray at the drop of a hat (or yarmulke) is a very good way to increase your faith, because you have to rely on God to give you the words—and that's how prayer is supposed to be. If you haven't thought about this before, try it out. It has the same wonderful and incredible results as wearing a smile does. It catches people off guard and disarms them, and you too, and puts you in a place where, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, faith becomes possible.

The only time I express something like "I'm praying for you" is in a letter or email, and I am doing just that while I am writing it. Never the future tense, not even in a letter. Always the present. Always in His presence. He's with us here, with me while I type these words, with you as you read them. And in this written tabernacle I can ask your prayers for Romanós the sinner, and I can know that if only for a moment you're now bringing my cause before the Father, because that's all it takes, and that's all that's possible.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

If only we give them room

Let your words ring true and do not let them appear to create a divide between the systematic and holistic aspects inherent in Orthodox Christianity and all other Christianities.

We can be thankful for what we have accepted from our holy and pious ancestors in the faith and from the saints with whom we are living and working out our salvation today, and we can also praise them.

The opportunity lies in our invitation extended to those who haven’t yet ‘seen the true Light… received the heavenly Spirit… found the true faith.’ This is no scolding, but an invitation to greater love,

that greater love which causes us to lay down our lives for our brothers. And who are our brothers? People even closer to us than our neighbors, and yet even between them we draw no distinction.

We are all met by Christ Himself, regardless of whether we are Orthodox or not, even Christians or not. We are all met by Him and offered eternal life, by the Savior of the world who does not let His divinity overwhelm His humanity.

In the same way, let’s walk together in the seamless faith which confesses no tear, moving through the world as the One Body of Christ wearing His undivided garment, that which soldiers wagered to win.

‘He who does not gather with Me, scatters,’ says the Lord Jesus Christ, who does not notice anything about us other than our need. Just as holy apostle Paul says, we are unspiritual. The Spirit in us must take us to Himself.

The sheep who were wandering aimlessly without a shepherd have been gathered and are being gathered by the Shepherd of souls, who is presenting us to His Father, the heavenly King.

Come let us worship, and fall down before Yahweh our Maker, for we are the people He pastures, the flock that He guides. Keeping our eyes on Jesus, following Him closely, other sheep will follow, if only we give them room.

Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on earth. The Church of Christ is not an institution; it is a new life with Christ and in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit. Christ, the Son of God, came to earth, was made man, uniting His divine life with that of humanity. This divine-human life He gave to His brethren, who believe on His name. Although He died and rose again and ascended into heaven, He was not separated from His humanity, but remains in it. The light of the resurrection of Christ lights the Church, and the joy of resurrection, of the triumph over death, fills it. The risen Lord lives with us and our life in the Church is a mysterious life in Christ.
Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church

When Orthodox Christians read the above passage in Bulgakov's classic The Orthodox Church, most of us assume with an unconscious smugness that we have it, the ‘Church of Christ on earth,’ that we are it, the true Church, and this belief is reinforced at every liturgy when we sing ‘We have seen the true Light…’

But in the very next sentence Bulgakov states an alarming proposition—‘The Church of Christ is not an institution; it is a new life with Christ and in Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.’ The man has let the cat out of the bag. I mean, the Church is not something that is ‘set on automatic,’ or can rest on beds of laurel.

Well, yes, we know that, but still, we're the true Church, we have the true faith, otherwise what's the point of being an Orthodox Christian? Once again we are confronted by the obvious but well-hidden fact that the point of being an Orthodox Christian is to be united to Christ, to partake of the Divine Nature.

More than confessing Christ before the world in verbal testimony or churchly announcement, as Orthodox Christians we are here to give our lives, as Christ did and does, for the life of the world. We are here both to taste and to share His literal, not just symbolic, presence in our midst, living in and among us, as us.

For yes, brethren, we are the Body of Christ, and Jesus our Saviour and good Lord, is our Head, our only Mediator and Advocate, who ‘was not separated from His humanity, but remains in it.’ The resurrection started with His literal rising from the dead, and as we are born into it, born again, we are saved.

Saved from what? This is no mere self-betterment regimen. The world offers plenty of these, and if it doesn't destroy our planet first, it will undoubtedly save the world. Save it for what? The world knows no heavenly kingdom, no kings. It strives to create a perfect social order, in which all are its slaves.

There is no kingship in the works of the flesh, but in the faith of the saints, all become kings and queens, ‘they will reign forever and ever’ (Revelation 22:5). This is why the Orthodox Church is. This is the point of being an Orthodox Christian. Not to pressure wash the world, but to be what Christ says we are,  ‘the Light of the world’ (Matthew 5:14).

Let's look at the same passage of Bulgakov again, this time, as Christians who do not belong to the Orthodox Church, maybe as a Roman Catholic, but especially as a bible-believing Christian, or maybe as one who believes in Christ, in whatever manner, and tries to follow Him, without belonging to a church.

He states, ‘Orthodoxy is the Church of Christ on earth.’ Instead of starting with Orthodoxy, let's start with the Church of Christ. If we are believers and followers of Jesus, if we believe the Bible to be God's message to humanity, or at least to us, we must know of the Church and consider ourselves members of it.

If we are members of the Church, we must be asking ourselves, ‘How does that make me Orthodox? I don't want to accept any kind of label, or submit myself to some earthly authority.’ But brethren, read on. Don't you agree with what Bulgakov states in the rest of the passage? Aren't these your beliefs too?

He states the Orthodox Church is not an institution, but rather life in Christ. This is where I now have to leave you to your own internal deliberations, just as the Orthodox left me to mine as I was coming to them as an Episcopalian a quarter century ago. I found out not that I belonged to the Orthodox Church, but that it belongs to me.

Orthodoxy, that is, the Orthodox Church in its visible and invisible aspects, is the property of all the believers in Jesus Christ, it is their, or rather our, true home on earth, where all are welcome and, therefore, all should be made welcome. In it live the saints of all ages, not in agreement only, but in merciful love.

This is the only reason why we should feel joy, once we have arrived at Holy Church—for that, and not its more formal designation ‘the Orthodox Church,’ is what we call her once we are inside her fold—this is the only reason we should feel joy when we chant

We have seen the true Light,
we have received the heavenly Spirit,
we have found the true Faith,
worshiping the undivided Trinity,
for He has saved us.

It's really quite simple

With the coming of the pentecostal movement, which developed into many denominations—‘he who does not gather with Me, scatters’ (Matthew 12:30b)—and its second wave, the charismatic movement, which infected almost every Christian community, causing further splits, many biblically orthodox beliefs were eroded and gradually erased from the active memory of the average member of the Church. One of these was the meaning of ‘the sin against the Holy Spirit, which cannot be forgiven’ (Matthew 12:31). Odd, how this verse follows exactly on the heels of the previous one, demonstrating they are connected. Let's quote the entire passage for the reader:

Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
Matthew 12:30-32

During much of my adult life, encountering all shades of Christian believers toting their doctrinal handbags and sometimes waving them around like dangerous weapons, along with others I became somewhat confused about this ‘sin against the Holy Spirit,’ thinking that it meant being critical of what the Holy Spirit was doing in the present day, as represented by any of these ‘Spirit-filled’ communities. Nobody came right out and said it, I don't think, officially, though I did hear it on ‘Christian’ television. Finally, after many years, seeing the damage, some of it seeming beyond cure, caused by this mistaken belief originating in the Azusa Street Revival, I rediscovered the meaning of this ‘unforgivable sin.’

Rather than explain it in my own words, I want to quote it from the blog of brother Timotheos, the young choir director at our Greek Orthodox parish, Aghia Epiphania, in Jakarta, Indonesia.

How do you sin against the Holy Spirit?

There is only one way, that is by consciously refusing to accept God's forgiveness. God does not forgive because someone refuses to accept His forgiveness. You cannot do that by accident. It takes a conscious and continuous effort on your part.

“The correct interpretation, as it is given to us by the Church Fathers, is this: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the denial by man out of hatred of God's power to save him. Even more simply, the man who does not believe that the grace of God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—can save him, closes his heart to the actions of the Holy Spirit; he does not accept Grace. He does not proceed to repentance. He fights against the sanctifying and saving act of God. He creates within himself a sorrowful and incurable condition.”

As you can see, it's really quite simple.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Broken

There’s something about Christianity that makes outsiders (if there is such a class of persons) think that it’s a crutch for the weak, a form of consolation for losers, a kind of drug, ‘an opiate for the masses,’ as Karl Marx put it. Well, there is some truth to this idea, but it’s not what Christianity’s detractors think. Moreover, so many Christians are afraid that this idea might be true, that they go to extremes to prove that it isn’t.

Orthodox Christianity says that what’s wrong with man is that the icon of God is broken, and we’re that icon. They say that Christ came to fix the icon. Well, that’s one way to put it, and I want to get over that idea right away, not because I disbelieve it, but because as delicious as it sounds to those who want to creep away from the idea of an angry God who can only be appeased by the death of His Only Son, it can be misunderstood even more than some other theories of how salvation works.

The truth is, though, that man is broken, and some Christians are in such a hurry to fix him, that they actually shove God out of the way in the mad, and hopeless, attempt. Why mad and hopeless? We may be broken, but we can’t fix ourselves, no matter how hard we try.

Being broken is what we are, no matter how some of us try to cover it up. Admitting we are broken does not mean that we’re happy with it. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to be made whole again. It’s our confession of being broken that places us in a position where God can work on us.

Some people think that Christianity is a kind of self-help and self-empowerment program. They start with the knowledge that man is broken, but then they take charge of the situation. Mining the Holy Scriptures for verses that they can claim as God’s promises and His spiritual principles for overcoming, sure enough, they put God to the test. Hmm, makes me wonder just whose side they’re on!

Christian businesses with names like ‘Believer’s Voice of Victory’ or ‘This Is Your Day’ bombard the unchurched masses with slick entertainment and self-improvement promotions. These are not ministries and have nothing to do with Christ or Christianity, except that they draw on the Bible for their vocabulary. They know that man is broken. They know who’s in the audience. They offer to fix them, for a price of course. Yet it’s not their job, and in fact and act, they can do nothing.

I have a brother in Christ who repeatedly confesses that he is broken. Furthermore, he wants to remain broken. How can that be? Doesn’t he want to be whole? He lives a normal life, has a job, goes to church regularly, and he is living victoriously over his enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil. How do I know this? Because of the fruits of his life. But also, when he receives the praise of men, he somehow skillfully evades it, always turning it back immediately to God, and in such a way that you feel he didn't even notice what he was doing. Talk about playing a game of ‘hot potato’!

Broken, because that state is where we are just by being human, is what draws the love and help of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to us. Admitting it, confessing it always, and turning to Jesus, that’s what opens us to the merciful heart of our loving God. Yet, this is not how Christians are taught to be any longer.


Many churches set human standards before their members instead of the Word of God. The leaders of these churches preach themselves, not ‘Christ, and Him crucified.’ Go to almost any church web page and prepare yourself to hear about the virtues and accomplishments of their leaders. They set themselves up as examples of ‘successful’ Christians, again placing before you not Christ, but themselves. They hold out to you these images of a ‘happy life,’ while hiding the cross, except to wear it as jewelry. But the true cross is the happy life, because it is life with Jesus.

Not ‘success’ is ours for the taking, brethren, but being broken, like the flask of ointment was broken, that the feet of Jesus might be anointed.

Ours is to stay close to Jesus, hanging on to His precious words, not as magic promises that we can force Him to grant, but as they are, the living words of the living God, spoken to us for our hearing, that we may have faith. And what is this faith? It is trusting Christ and only Him to be our saviour, confessing no other, waiting on Him to make us whole, without looking, without measuring ourselves to see if we’ve grown, looking only to Jesus and not at ourselves.

Yes, brothers, let’s be broken for Jesus, who said…

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

Matthew 5:1-11 NIV

Thursday, October 24, 2013

In God We Trust

Life in the world is seen to require a practical orientation: one must be practical to succeed. Methodical, too, and persistent. Otherwise we risk failure, and that must be avoided at all costs. That's why we run after modern gurus of business, fashion, health and, yes, even religion.

Even Christians, those who claim to follow Jesus as well as those who prefer only to identify themselves as church members, can fall into the mindset of the priority of practical wisdom which, first, is no wisdom at all, and second, isn't ultimately practical.

Why isn't it wisdom? Because all wisdom is from the Lord and leads back to the Lord, and it comes to us when we have decided to make the Lord the priority
‘…seek first His kingdom and His righteousness…’

Why isn't it practical? Because all that is practical is included in following the commandments of God, which assure us of receiving everything good that He has in store for us, ‘…and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33 NIV).

So the question for every man or woman, but especially for every Christian, is… Whom do you trust?

Practical wisdom teaches, God helps those who help themselves.
As any worldly proverb, this is both true and false at the same time. These words are not found in scripture, which reveals the mind of Christ. Some say they are, but the Word does not tease us with riddles.

The saying actually comes from Aesop's fable of the wagon driver and Hercules. The wagoner gets stuck in a rut and prays to Hercules to get his wheel out. Hercules appears to him and says, ‘Sluggard, put your shoulder to the wheel, and push! The gods help those who help themselves!’

Yes, this attitude of practical wisdom goes a long way back, and many Christians actually follow Hercules’ doctrine without realising it. Like those described by the psalmist, they claim to be devoted Christians when it is convenient, but ‘when push comes to shove,’ they honor the gods.

Look after me, God, I take shelter in You.
To Yahweh you say, ‘My Lord,
You are my fortune, nothing else but You,’

yet to those pagan deities in the land,
‘My princes, all my pleasure is in you.’
Their idols teem, after these they run…
Psalm 16:1-4a Jerusalem Bible


What should be more natural, and more sympathetically regarded by everyone, than that parents should watch out for their children's welfare, not only when they are under age, but even after they reach adulthood?

Yet how often does this protective attitude stem not from the mind of Christ, but from that other mind, the mindset of practical wisdom? I have seen it again and again, even in my own church, parents leading their children to serve Mammon in place of Christ.

Instead of holding Christ before their offspring, by teaching, by example, by exhortation, by guidance, by love, as the One whom they should not only emulate but follow, they hold up successful businessmen, engineers, politicians, athletes, and even clergymen.

Is it any wonder, then, that the children outstrip their parents in worldliness, as they are only trying to please them? Is it any wonder that they take husbands and wives from among the denizens of this world instead of from the City of God?

In the film The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom, who was later to become a world renown evangelist, was asked by a Jewish cantor she was hiding in her home during the Nazi occupation, ‘Wasn't marriage ever in the picture for the daughters Ten Boom?’

She replied, ‘Betsy was always sickly, and was told she couldn't bear children, so she didn't marry. Myself, I had a young man, but we didn't marry, because his parents didn't think I was cut out of good enough cloth.’

These are all Christians we are talking about, in 19th century Holland. But the same situation obtains today. In the selection of life partners, husbands or wives, Christian parents are still bent on making a good match for their son or daughter, rather than seeking the will of God.

Putting Christ out of the picture is very unwise. He is not only the unique Mediator between God and man, but also between man and man, and in these particulars, between husband and wife. It is only Christ who can bring them together in truth, and hold them together.

It is not a woman's background, culture, educational level, social status, wealth, intelligence or physical beauty that is getting married to a man's family heritage, prowess, worldly success, ability to provide well, social connexions, possessions, talents or stamina.

No, all these are what they will bring into the marriage in order to complement each other's weaknesses with strengths. They are the resources that God has given them and which they will use to fulfill His will for them. It is not these things that are getting married.

A man and a woman are getting married, nothing else. They are as naked as Adam and Eve were. This is how it is when God is allowed to bring them together. ‘This is why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body’ (Genesis 2:24 JB).

The alternative, which all too often happens, is what happened to Corrie Ten Boom and her young man, Christian parents restricting the pool of available mates for their children to those who are practical like they are, those who are successful, ‘known entities.’

The justification for this is, ‘We only want to do what's best for him/her. We want to prevent heartbreak and disaster down the road.’ This attitude, though, is not restricted to the practical parents, but to the religious as well. Both, however, are following the same mind, their own.

This post is not especially about the relationships between parents and children, but essentially about trust, the word we see prominently displayed on every piece of United States money, from the humble penny to the hundred dollar bill.
In God We Trust. It's so pervasive, that it's no longer persuasive. Like many another monument of formal Christianity in America—Ten Commandments plaques in court houses, the Pledge of Allegiance to ‘one nation under God’—it too may cave in under secular pressures.

Where it can only truly be written, in our hearts and minds, is all that matters. Will it prevail over the practical and worldly wisdom of success, allowing true liberty, true freedom of choice, to mold not only individual lives but families, churches, and nations?


Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ … ‘Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.’
John 8:31-32, 36 NKJV

Run for your life




Psalms for the 24th Day
116 117 118 119:1-32

Reading the psalms,
reciting them and breathing them into me, 
fragrant as my bible is right now 
with the smell of basil 
from the feast day of the finding 
of the holy Cross, 
there I found some ρηματα 
(rhímata, living words) 
that nourished my soul, 
reminders of my path.

(You alone, Lord, know my path.)

I have faith, even when I say,
‘I am completely crushed’.
Psalm 116:10

(Lord, You know what I mean when I recite this verse in prayer.
And at times, I do feel completely crushed,
yet there is no place I can be,
or feel myself to be,
where I do not have faith.)

Yahweh, I am Your servant,
Your servant, son of a pious mother,
You undo my fetters.
Psalm 116:15-16

(I can’t undo my fetters.
I can’t do anything to free myself from bondage, Father.
It is You alone who can free me,
because You alone have freed me.
You undo my fetters.)

I run the way of Your commandments,
since You have set me free.
Psalm 119:32

(In my distress I cried out to You,
‘Lord, why have You given me yet another day?’
Your answer was instant,
Your will to me was clear.
You said, ‘I have raised you again to life,
so that you can carry out My commandments.’
Nothing more, nothing more had to be said.
I heard Your voice, Lord, and I am satisfied.
I run the way of Your commandments, 
since You have set me free. 
Glory to You, O God, glory to You!)

Draw me in Your footsteps, let us run.
Song of Solomon 1:4

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The strong name

‘I arise today in vast might,
in vocation of the Trinity,
belief in a Threeness,
confession of Oneness,
towards the Creator…’

Thus begins ‘the Breastplate,’ or Lorica, of Saint Patrick, a mighty prayer invoking Divine Might and clearing the road ahead of all possible obstacles and dangers, making mighty ‘against every fierce, merciless force’ him who recites it. It is also called ‘the Deer Cry’ because the occasion of its composition was the journey of Patrick and his monks to convert one of the Irish kings to Christianity. The king did not want to convert and sent armed men to ambush the missionaries. Somehow, Patrick and his monks got through the ambush chanting his prayer. When the king later asked what happened, his men replied, ‘We did not see them. We saw only a few head of deer go past.’

As a new Christian, a ‘born again’—though what I call my ‘born again experience’ looks in retrospect like nothing other than the moment I became aware of the fact that I was born again ‘of water and the Spirit’ without my knowledge or consent when I was baptised as an infant—as a new disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, confronted by ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil,’ I recited this prayer of the apostle of Ireland frequently, complementing it with many signs of the cross, bows and prostrations. Yes, I had a whole ritual worked out, almost a dance movement, to pray with my body those mighty petitions my lips uttered. I fully intended my performance to be efficacious.

Yes, performance maybe more than prayer. Such are the faults of beginners, and that is what I was, a very, very green Christian. I hadn’t spilt my blood yet, not really, and I was going to make sure I never did. I hadn’t yet noticed that a follower of Jesus does what he sees his Master doing. Green, not red, was the color I wanted my life in Christ to be. This was the deal: I follow Christ, and He protects me. He keeps me safe. I can trust in His promises. That’s why He says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ Christ spilt His blood to save me, so I don’t have to spill mine. I even went so far with this color thing, that I had a picture of Jesus in a green robe!

Becoming ‘born again,’ joining the Church, I felt good. I felt I had really accomplished something. Looking back I now call it, ‘pretending you’re a sinner, so you can pretend you’re saved.’ I didn’t really know what it meant to be a disciple. I thought to myself, I had finally outgrown the ‘children’s version’ of Christianity, and I was now a Christian man. I now knew ‘the rules’ and henceforth I would follow them. Then, God would bless me, just like it says in the Psalms. What a happy life! But, back to the Lorica, that most powerful prayer that I offered to ward off the evil that surrounded me and my little family on all sides. As my life became less and less precarious, I offered it less. What a mistake!

It even seemed to me, finally, a quaint relic, almost a magical incantation. I now realize that, of course, it can become that, and it probably was that for me in my youthful folly. For I did not have real faith then, only folly disguised as faith. Real faith is not mercenary, but I wasn’t listening closely enough to the Word of God preached to me in church, or when I read it at home. Misguided teachers of a materialistic gospel—which is no gospel at all, but just another way to make money—hid the truth from me, just as they still do for many new believers, whether they are young or old. Captured like a bird in the fowler’s net, the Lord had mercy on His unworthy servant. He tore the net, and I escaped…

The strong name of the Trinity. Yes, it is strong. It is very strong, for the Lord is in His name, and His name is in Him. But this name, and this Trinity, though they are mighty, though they protect—yes, like Abram, we know the Triad as three yet call them ‘my Lord’—this might is not what we call might, nor is this protection always what we expect. It cannot be, because He treats each of us in a unique way—as there is only One God, so there is only one of each human being, all different, all unrepeatable, and so are His ways with us. The prayer always ‘works,’ and we always need what it asks for, but we almost never know what it is we need.

Like the Irish kings of old, deep within the walls of our self-protection we hide, unwanting light, pretending to good but rejecting the only One who is good. We send our sentries to ambush them whom God sends to convert our hearts, yet because He loves us more than we hate Him, they pass through our ambush and pierce our defenses. To chant this Lorica, we switch sides against our selves, against the ‘old man’ in us, and join the ‘new man’ whom Christ has formed in His Divine Image. This prayer has now, for me, truly become ‘the Deer Cry’ because it is no longer something I can perform, but the bleating of my heart for a protection not only promised but delivered.

‘Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ under me,
Christ over me,
Christ to right of me,
Christ to left of me,
Christ in lying down,
Christ in sitting,
Christ in rising up.
Christ in the heart of every person who may think of me,
Christ in the mouth of every person who may speak to me,
Christ in every eye which may look on me,
Christ in every ear which may hear me.’

Now I know, it is one thing to simply recite this prayer, and another to walk in it. Just as the holy gospels are all contained in the name of Jesus, and that name is the same as the name of the Trinity, so is this Lorica of Saint Patrick, not a spell of white magic, seeking that our will be done instead of the will of our heavenly Father, but an expression of the Divine name for us to walk in. That walking will, and of necessity, must be following Jesus wherever He leads. Yes, for if we are disciples, we shall walk like Patrick and his monks: ‘They have kept themselves as pure as virgins, following the Lamb wherever he goes.’ That is might. That is protection against all harm. That is life.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A ramble on trust


What a great photograph! The infant being held above the baptismal font has a look of sheer terror—or is it only disbelief?—‘How can this be happening to me?’ as a very calm looking priest steadies himself to perform the famous Orthodox triple dunk. How I wish I had been ‘born Orthodox’ so I could’ve had that bracing shock of entry into the Kingdom of God instead of, as a Catholic infant, been merely poured on from a scallop shell while being comfortably ensconced in my godmother’s arms.

Or perhaps the baby’s already been dunked and that look on his face is pure wonder at the miracle of instantaneous new birth. Even without knowing that, ‘unless a man is born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot see the Kingdom of God,’ this and every baby who has survived the symbolic drowning and then been slathered in virgin olive oil, cannot help but be thankful that the ordeal is over and that normal life can start up again. Do they ever wonder, ‘What did I do wrong to deserve this?’

Well, even after almost sixty-three years I still wonder about such things, and being able to articulate the wonder with my biblical vocabulary hasn’t made anything any clearer. Thank God that Holy Church has had two thousand years to work out every possible explanation known to man, and been generous enough to share it with anyone who would listen. Too bad, even knowing what is knowable, we’re no wiser than when we started out in diapers, yet some people insist on being dunked again.

Once when I was reading the Gospel of John aloud publicly in the forum—that is, Portland’s Pioneer Square: if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean—I was asked if I was reading the Qur’an by a passer-by. No fault of his, I was reading the Gospel in the original Greek, verse by verse, and then translating it, don’t ask me why. The enquirer stopped for my explanation and then took the opportunity to challenge me in my faith. ‘Do you believe that one must be baptized to be saved?’ he asked.

Well, that wasn’t hard to answer. Of course, the answer I gave him was, ‘No.’ That was his entrée into my personal testimony, and it turned out that he was a member of some kind of Christian fundamentalist cult. When he challenged me that the words I had just read, and quoted above, ‘unless a man is born again…’ were proof that I was wrong, I simply asked him if the thief who was crucified next to Christ was saved or not. He admitted that, according to Christ’s words, he was.

I asked him, politely, ‘Well, when was he baptized? He cannot have entered Paradise just on the words of Christ’s promise alone, can he?’ Well, this turn in the conversation was not part of the questioner’s script. He hadn’t been prepared for this. I mean, how can you win in a contest unless you know the strength of your opponent, and prepare for it? Life cannot be scripted, neither can salvation.

Last night, my eldest son Jacob visited me, and we had a nice evening of catching up on things. He is a graduated Greek Orthodox seminarian and theologian. He used to teach high school level Sunday School at our local parish. Sometimes his students would get cheeky—Greeks can be very lively—and challenge him on this or that. He would tell the challenger, ‘Don’t trust anyone to be your teacher unless he has died and risen from the dead, not even me.’

There's a point at which, no matter what church or fellowship we belong to, or what doctrines or creeds we confess, or even what our opinions are and whom we agree or disagree with, we must go back and hear the plain words of Jesus, believe what we hear Him saying in the gospels, and try our best to carry out what He says. You may notice there is very little doctrinal stuff in His teaching, almost all of it is quite practical. To get at the meaning of His parables and mysterious sayings is the prize reserved for those who are willing to follow His simple and obvious commands. If we only do this, we can't go wrong, can't be damned, no matter what anyone may say, whether we are baptized or not, confirmed or not, churched or not, even good or not—‘why do you call me good?’ says Jesus, ‘None is good but God alone,’ even though He is God. This is what is behind the saying of martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘only the obedient believe.’

What the Word of God says to us is always true, ‘You have One Teacher, the Messiah.’

Monday, October 21, 2013

That new river

River of Life, Revelation 22:1
'The world my parish, or my parish my world.' Years ago when I managed Ethos, the Greek Orthodox bookstore in Portland, I remember having a few copies of a book—I think it was a children's book—with a yellow cover and a photo of a Greek bishop in his blacks and skoufi with some children, and the title of the book was something like ‘The World My Parish.’ Trying to find that book again, instead I discovered that this phrase seems to have originated among the Methodists, probably from one of the Wesleys. I'm not surprised. I have a soft spot in my heart—some people would say a soft spot in my head—for basic mainline Protestants of all sorts, especially the small town types, Methodists, 'Piscopalians, Presbyterians and 'Lutherns.' These people have always been kind to me whenever I've interacted with them. The more rigorous types would say these people were 'just being nice' and, alluding to C. S. Lewis' observation in Mere Christianity that it's not nice men but new men that life in Christ produces, consign them to the category of 'probably not saved.' Why kill when slander does the job better and lasts longer? Anyway…

Forgive me, brethren, but back to the topic, is it my parish, or my club, or my cohort or my family that is my world, and let all outsiders stay away, or is it that daring opposite, the world my…? For the second is to have your door blown off in a hurricane and possibly even your house blown down or carried away in the whirlwind, but hey! didn't Elijah leave mother earth in just that way? For to shut your door and bolt it tight is the magnification of what you're doing to your heart, and that open door, if you unwisely keep it unlocked or even wide open, will attract all kinds of unsavory types. Welcome, for all decent people, consists in showing hospitality to your relatives and friends, but as for the others? How could you? You never know who the wind just might blow in. You have only one life to live, so why not stick close to your kith and kin. Let the other guy welcome angels who might possibly be Christ in disguise—but probably aren't, since that only happens in fairytales—while you smile on the deserving.

Why am I thinking of this just now? I have an old friend, someone I've known nearly my entire adult life, and for some reason he has always tolerated me and grudgingly—but sometimes with a surprising hint of genuine warmth—accepted me into his very narrow circle of friends. Yes, he's a Christian, started out a small town, one of the 'aforenamed' Protestants, very mellow, almost a 'Bilbo Baggins of the Shire' sort of man, of hardy English stock. Well, started out that way but married a lass, yes, alas! a no-nonsense, 'my way or the highway' sort of missionary Baptist zealotess, a sweet woman who characteristically could smear Jesus all over your face at the picnic table when she found out you were not exactly a real Christian like herself, and did it with a smiling frown that Da Vinci would've loved painting. Probably would've out-classed even the Mona Lisa, if he had. That changed him for ever after. My friend, that is.

We worked together, and we probably learned a lot from each other, woodworkers as we were, though he would never admit it. I learned a lot from him, of course. It all happened while he carefully tried to polish me up to his standards of Christianity, but he was unsuccessful and finally gave up with a shrug. But I never seemed to learn enough. The thing that irked him most about me was how I kept welcoming people and including them in my life, as promiscuously and shamelessly as a common prostitute or sinner. Of course I didn't 'fool around' with anyone, but I didn't seem to understand that not everyone can be trusted, and I recklessly let people get to know me, and even invited them to my home and church. I didn't seem to know where to draw the line, and lines must be drawn, or else we'll get dragged down the slopes with those galloping pigs. Drowning in a lake may be too good for them, but Christ shows mercy even to demon-filled hogs.

Our lives are nearly over. My friend is retired early, and I may be too, sooner than I think. He has become firmer and more righteous than the rock of Gibraltar, and his dear wife must now be a pinnacle of biblical inerrancy and churchly rectitude. I don't know, as we haven't seen each other in years. She is a brilliant woman and a medical professional. My friend, of course, has remained what he always was, a country squire, just a little more disconsolate at the state of everything and everyone around him. The world was going to hell in a hand-basket when we worked together all those years. Now, it's probably arrived, because the last he saw of it, it was going in the same direction in a dump truck. We do see each other once in a while, and I think we're always happy to see each other, at least I know I am. I see him as I will see him on the Day of resurrection, loaded with only good memories. He sees me, well, I don't know how he sees me, but I sometimes feel pity looking at me through his eyes. Yes, I am a failed human, but because he still likes me, he'll be able to hear, 'Enter into the joy of your Lord…' Who knows, maybe I'll be let in too, as his stray dog.

This is my experience of the world. When I wrote, our lives are nearly over, I meant, from man's point of view, I've done what was expected, and my friend has too. Now we can rest, he on his laurels, me, well, on my futon. The only laurel leaves I have are tucked in the pages of my bible where I use them as book marks. I picked them up off the floor of Hades after they showered down on the Son of God to celebrate His victory over sin, death and hell, as He was emptying the place. I hope that when it's my turn to go down below, I'll be turned away at the door by a sign that says, 'Sorry, hell is too small for you. Please see the Receptionist at Gate 22.' I see those laurel leaves and the flower petals whenever I read the psalms, and I remember all the blossoms that the Lord showered down on me in my long life, all the wonderful human souls whom I tried to make welcome and who welcomed me. Nothing virtuous on my part. I just read what the Lord says, 'Make peace with your adversary while you are on the way with him to the court,' and that's what I did. It's not hard to follow instructions when it's a matter of life and death, and especially when you know that life is with your brother, and death being without him.

This ramble is, of course, just another rant about welcome, about hospitality, about brotherly love, about turning the other cheek, going the extra mile. It's about being willing to see your neighbor as your other self, just as good and just as bad as yourself, just as deserving and undeserving of love, acceptance, even forgiveness, as you are. Yes, we are again approaching the edge of the highest cliff in the universe, the one which Lazarus approached and looked down from, never seeing the bottom, and across seeing the land of infinite sorrow. Like him we will be reprieved, called back temporarily—who knows for how long—from our bodily death, so that having faced it and overcome it through the One that calls us out one by one by name, we can remember to keep open our door to the stranger, our hearts to those who are different and for that reason unwanted. For we are the person that is turned back at the door, we are the unwelcome, we are the stranger in a land far darker than Pharaoh's Egypt, the state of misery. Let's get ready to journey together to that other mountain, not Sinai of the trumpet-blasts and rock-hard commandments, but the place of the Tree of Life, from whose branches more than manna can be gathered, and whose roots do not drink water but deliver it to all who thirst.

Come, brethren, let us drink from that new river…

Together

‘I was born a Christian, and I will die a Christian.’ That has been the defiant confession of many a new martyr under the Turkish yoke over the centuries—men and women who were Christians, usually Orthodox, who somehow were coerced into accepting the Islamic religion, and who later openly renounced it, and with these words went to their deaths.

I can say the same words, and mean what I say, but not with the same effect. I was ‘born a Christian,’ that is, I was born into a Christian family, a family that had been Christian for possibly a thousand years, maybe longer. As a baby, my mother took me to the little church in the basement of a Catholic convent in Chicago, and had me ‘christened.’

That christening didn’t guarantee my salvation, didn’t make me a Christian in reality but in potential, placing me in an environment in which I would be raised in the knowledge and, hopefully, the love of God. Mine wasn’t a perfect upbringing—far from it—but it provided an indelible basis to my life, my thoughts, my feelings, that made faith possible.

Yes, I know about believer’s baptism, and I don’t have a problem with it, but I am with those who believe in the baptism not only of individuals, but of families, yes, even tribes, even whole nations. ‘Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else,’ writes the holy apostle Paul, whose call was preaching, not baptising.

The Christian family. One father, one mother, many children, living together according to the Word of God, following the commandments, teaching the faith to one another by love, protecting, nourishing, injuring but forgiving, remaining one, staying together, even if the walls are blown down by the tempest, the foundations shattered by the tremors, of life.

‘Even if we lose everything, we’ll still have each other, wandering as gypsies if we have too,’ we used to say. The family is more than the house it lives in. So also, I read last night in an old copy of the Anglican Digest that I saved from my first years as a Christian, ‘The Church is what’s left after the building burns down.’ How true! because the Church is the greater family.

What else is the Christian faith for, if not for this? ‘The only purpose of this instruction is that there should be love, coming out of a pure heart, and clear conscience, and a sincere faith’ (1 Timothy 1:5). To make a home in this exile world for the nomads of the Most-High God, a home that is not tied to time or place, but moves with the family as it follows the marching orders, ‘When the cloud moves, we move.’

The weakness of Orthodoxy

I hope you know I am not your average Orthodox zealot out looking for converts. I'd rather have anyone go to his or her own church of choice or heritage, if coming to Orthodoxy in any way would muddy or prevent their relationship to Jesus. But for those who are already Orthodox but can't see ‘over the wall’ or ‘find the door’ I am Johnny-on-the-spot to provide a ladder or be a friendly door-keeper. In fact, that's what I've thought my place in the Body of Christ to be almost from the first moment of my conversion: I'm just a humble porter, here to carry your luggage (and you) to a place of safety—one meaning of ‘porter’—or here to guard the doors from enemies and open the doors for friends—the other meaning. Yes, ‘the doors! the doors! tas thíras! tas thíras!’ Another favorite moment of mine in the Liturgy. Deacons can call out the words; I try to obey them.

Coming upon a very long but excellent article by Fr Stephen at Glory to God for All Things blog, I wanted to quote an excerpt from it, words that ring absolutely true to me. A sister in Christ, having read his post The Church and the Cross of Christ, remarked to me that ‘this is possibly the best thing that Fr Stephen has ever written, at least in the top ten.’ I think I agree with her. Here follow some of the testimonies in that post that speak deeply to me…


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

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scriptura, poor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome.
What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

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

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


Read the whole article here.
All the italics and colorization and bold-facing in the quoted excerpt above are mine, and I would do even worse things if God allowed it.

In a single moment

What Fr Stephen describes in this post at Glory to God for All Things is another instance and example of a truth that opens my eyes every morning and closes them every night, that a single act, a single moment, can contain the whole of our eternity, of unending joy or of infinite despair. In part he writes,

Over thirteen years ago, my family was received into the Orthodox faith. My oldest daughter was seventeen – my youngest was only seven. We were surrounded by friends, strangers, some family…but I recall the utter silence that fell across the congregation as my seven year-old daughter read the traditional words of promise at her Chrismation:

‘This true faith of the Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, that same I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God helping me. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in good deeds and blamelessness. In witness of this, my true and pure-hearted confession, I kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen.’

In the silence, everyone wept. The purity of a seven-year-old’s confession caused us to blush. The innocence which spoke such solemn phrases as “even until my last breath” took the breath away from all who stood around. It was a moment of which the witnesses knew far more than the child whose moment it was.

This is just a heartening image from his essay. I encourage you to read more by continuing here. This is not a denominational promotion for Eastern Orthodoxy, but rather a testimony of how God works, and how small He becomes to enter with us into our small worlds, to bring us out into the large world of life in Him. It is, I suppose, a promotion for Jesus Christ, because only a God who can come to us as He does can be the living God, and worthy of us, because He alone makes us worthy. This testimony is worth reading, and it will only take a moment…