Monday, June 30, 2014

Side by side

Lord, have mercy on us,
since we do not know ourselves,
we do not know whether or not we are obedient
or only pretending, since sin blinds us to its presence in us,
and we are often mistaken and led astray,
judging our brother when in fact,
it is we who have lost our way.

Grant us to meekly bow down before You
in Your Holy Church,
side by side with sinners just as bad as ourselves,
and not to presume
to cast out by our unthinking words and actions
those for whom Your Son has given His life;
and bring us all, the good and the bad, to repentance,
so that we may be found worthy of Your eternal Kingdom.

Glory to You, O Lord!
Glory to You!

At once

Και παραγων ειδεν Λευιν τον του Αλφαιου καθημενον επι το τελωνιον και λεγει αυτω, Ακολουθει μοι, και αναστας ηκολουθησεν αυτω.

And as he passed by he saw Levi, the son of Alphæus, sitting at the place of toll, and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him. Mark 2.14

The call goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus. The cause behind the immediate following of the call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once.

This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus. Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. There is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road — only obedience to the call of Jesus.
What does the text inform us about the content of discipleship?

Follow me, run along behind me! That is all.

To follow in his steps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after.

At the call, Levi leaves all he has — but not because he thinks that he might be doing something worthwhile, but simply for the sake of the call. Otherwise he cannot follow in the steps of Jesus. The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead.

He is called out, and has to forsake his old life in order that he may ‘exist’ in the strictest sense of the word. The old life is left behind, and completely surrendered. The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus), from a life which is observable and calculable (it is, in fact, quite incalculable) into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous (that is, into one which is necessary and calculable), out of the realm of the finite (which is in truth the infinite) into the realm of infinite possibilities (which is the one liberating reality).

Again, it is no universal law. Rather is it the exact opposite of all legality. It is nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone, completely breaking every program, every ideal, every set of laws. No other significance is possible, since Jesus is the only significance. Beside Jesus nothing has any significance. He alone matters.
When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person.

The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. It transcends the difference between the law and the gospel. Christ calls, the disciple follows; that is grace and commandment in one.

‘I will walk at liberty, for I seek thy commandments.’ (Psalm 119.45)
Discipleship without Jesus Christ is a way of our own choosing. It may be the ideal way, it may even lead to martyrdom, but it is devoid of all promise. Jesus will certainly reject it.

And they went to another village. And as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus said unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of heaven have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head. And he said to another, Follow me.

But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But he said unto him, Leave the dead to bury their dead, but go thou and publish abroad the kingdom of God. And another said, I will follow thee, Lord; but suffer me first to bid farewell to them that are at my house. But Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand unto the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
Luke 9.57-62

The first disciple offers to follow Jesus without waiting to be called. Jesus damps his ardour by warning him that he does not know what he is doing. In fact, he is quite incapable of knowing.
That is the meaning of Jesus’ answer. No man can choose such a life for himself. No man can call himself to such a destiny, says Jesus, and his word stays unanswered. The gulf betwen a voluntary offer to follow and genuine discipleship is clear.
Where Jesus calls, he bridges the widest gulf.

The second would-be disciple wants to bury his father before he starts to follow. He is bound by the trammels of the law. He knows what he wants and what he must do. Let him first fulfill the law, and then let him follow. A definite legal ordinance acts as a barrier between Jesus and the man he has called. But the call of Jesus is stronger than the barrier.

Nothing on earth, however sacred, must be allowed to come between Jesus and the man he has called — not even the law itself.

Now, if never before, the law must be broken for the sake of Jesus. Therefore Jesus emerges at this point as the opponent of the law, and commands a man to follow him. Only Christ can speak in this fashion. He alone has the last word. This call, this grace, is irresistable.

The third would-be disciple, like the first, thinks that following Christ means that he must make the offer on his own initiative, as if it were a career he mapped out for himself, but the third is bold enough to stipulate his own terms.

He lands himself in a hopeless inconsistency, for although he is ready enough to throw in his lot with Jesus, he succeeds in putting up a barrier between himself and the Master. ‘Suffer me first.’ He wants to follow, but feels obliged to insist on his own terms. Discipleship to him is a possibility which can only be realized when certain conditions have been fulfilled.

This is to reduce discipleship to the level of human understanding. The trouble about this third would-be disciple is that at the very moment he expresses his willingness to follow, he ceases to want to follow at all. His desires conflict not only with what Jesus wants, but also with what he wants himself.

If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps.

The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. Jesus makes it clear from the start that his word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of man. The only right and proper way is quite literally to go with Jesus.

The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God. The first step places the disciple in the situation where faith is possible. If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe.

This step is not the first stage of a career. Its sole justification is that it brings the disciple into fellowship with Jesus, which will be victorious. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. If men imagine they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.

Discipleship is not an offer man makes to Christ. It is only the call which creates the situation, and the situation in which faith is possible is itself only rendered possible through faith.
Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.

If we are to believe, we must obey a concrete command. Without this preliminary step of obedience, our faith will be only pious humbug, and lead us to the grace which is not costly. Everything depends on the first step. It has a unique quality of its own.

This first step starts as an external work, which effects the change from one existence to another. It is a step within everyone’s capacity, for it lies within the limits of human freedom. To take this step it is not necessary to surrender one’s freedom.

Come to church! You can do that of your own free will. You can leave your home on a Sunday morning and come to hear the sermon. If you will not, you are of your own free will excluding yourself from the place where faith is a possibility.

Once we are sure of this point, we must add at once that this step is, and can never be more than, a purely external act which can never of itself bring a man to Christ. Nevertheless the external work must be done, for we still have to find our way into the situation where faith is possible.

We can only take this step aright if we fix our eyes not on the work we do, but on the word with which Jesus calls us to do it. In the end, the first step of obedience proves to be an act of faith in the word of Christ.

Unless he obeys, a man cannot believe.

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

It is love that heals

Over the course of my life this thought keeps coming to me,
“It is not medicine that heals, it is love.”

I’ve said it to people in conversation, even to my personal physician on my last visit. I’ve written it to my closest friends in messages and emails. I’ve thanked God for it, the healing that comes from love, not just from the feeling of love, but from the actions that love inspires. I’ve reminisced how I used to hold my sons when they were very young, and sick with fever, sitting on my lap facing me, bare chest to bare chest, rocking them gently to calm them and to absorb the fever from their hot bodies into my cool one, or how as a sick and frightened child, one of them would slip into papa’s bed, to sleep in safety. And I’ve thought about the strange sharing of others’ sicknesses and distress by holding them close to my heart, spiritually, by prayer, and how they have done the same for me. As holy apostle Paul writes, ‘If one part suffers, every part suffers with it’ (1 Corinthians 12:26), to which verse my experiences have given very personal meaning.

Elder Païsios, one of my teachers, describes this same idea, that it is love that heals. The elder writes,

“You must make the other person’s pain your own, and then pray from your heart. Love is a divine attribute, and informs the other person [that you are praying for him]. Even in hospitals, when doctors and nurses feel genuine compassion for their patients, this is the most effective of all the medications to give to them. The patients feel they are being cared for with love, and have a sense of certainty, security and consolation. You do not need to say much to someone who is suffering, or try to instruct him. He understands that you feel his pain and care about him, and he is helped by this. Feeling his pain is everything. If we feel compassion for others, we forget ourselves and our problems.”

— Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Athos)

Bad alliances

If you make yourself a friend of the world,
you cannot be God’s friend.

The father of the prodigal son was a pious and God-loving man, because only such a man could have allowed his sons their full freedom and still receive one of them back with love and honor (and unself-conscious forgiveness) after he had abused his freedom and defiled himself.
The boy was ‘brought up right.’

A good marriage and family life does not come about by magic. It begins with mutual faith. It grows and is sustained by mutual faith and faithfulness. And it continues blessed and good right to the end only as long as the first faith and trust is preserved inviolable.

What can destroy it? Wanton breaking of the commandments, adultery, bearing false witness, theft and covetousness—all of which stem from forgetting who is the Lord: ‘I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.’

I have passed on to my sons what my dad passed on to me, ‘If you are looking for a good wife, you don’t go looking for one in bars. You go to church and find one.’ Though I did not exactly follow his instructions—he told me this after I was married—I followed a slightly different route, which is maybe even better: Pray to the Lord to send you a wife, and then watch closely whom He sends to you, just as you watch for friends that He sends you, and one of these will be your wife. It goes without saying—or does it?—that you are living a life of discipleship when you make this prayer.

How simple all of life is, especially family life and our circle of relationships, when we follow the commandments! Jesus says, ‘If you love Me, you will follow my commandments.’ That’s what I’m talking about, not some rigorous set of rules whether biblical or self-improvement-minded, neither of which will ever succeed in really making anyone better. ‘Branch out for a time they may, but when you look for them they will be gone, vanished like their vain hopes.’ Christ is at once the source of all righteousness, the way to it, and the achievement of it. ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,’ says Jesus (John 14:6).

Even being raised in a pious family, a son does not become a Christian by magic. As soon as he reaches the age of independent decision, his parents’ faith no longer speaks for him the moment he makes the conscious choice to take the world for his friend, instead of God. Even after making that choice, he can repent, and God our heavenly Father, can and will take him back. But just as the father of the prodigal son did not restrain that son from the choices he made, neither does God, or the parents, restrain him or constrain him. They may advise, they may teach, they certainly must pray for him to turn away from his friendship with the world, but they cannot force him to give it up. He must want a better friendship.

So it is, that a man who has taken the world for his friend no longer thinks of God, except of the punishment that he will receive after everything he does is done and his life is over—if there is a God.

Instead of memories of a youth spent in innocent fun and friendships, he finds memories only of riotous relationships, infidelities, the waste of his virginity and that of one he might have truly loved and been wedded to, and years of profound loss: spoiled friendships, missed opportunities, time and money wasted, and all for what? Now the mercy of God can only drive him to even more miserable states, to where he, like the prodigal son feeding unclean animals (pigs) and not even being given their slop for food, finds himself at another point of decision: To utterly despair, or to return to his Father.

Rather than flee from house to house, or from town to town, to escape his brown girls and their offspring, like John of Puritania this son needs to turn around and start traveling Home, facing East. The road back will look very different than that same road looked when he made the world his friend and followed it to the place of bondage. By making God, in Christ, his Friend, the road will turn into something very, very narrow, but he won’t mind that, because he will hear his Friend going ahead of him, saying, ‘Follow Me.’

Lights in the darkness

Without the slightest intention to malign the fathers, they all had faults, many of them the faults endemic to the age and the culture in which they lived. John Chrysostom, for example, by today's standards might be classified as anti-Semitic.

The Greek fathers who hashed through the doctrinal quagmires of the late Greco-Roman period, having to sort out dozens of heresy-laden, faith-diluting and soul-destroying ideas, also thrashed each other, sometimes mercilessly and were so focused on petty details, what I call 'nitpicking', that they forgot their first love, even while singing about it in the liturgy.

Their struggles were, I suppose (since God allowed them), necessary, and they certainly provided us with a very strong doctrinal base, and perhaps that was necessary while humanity was still at the childhood level. But childhood's end really has arrived if we want to exit it, our racial childhood I mean.

Ten centuries ago, Vladimir, prince of Kiev, gave this instruction to his childlike people: ‘Above all things, forget not the poor, but support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man. Take not the life of the just or the unjust, nor permit him to be killed. Destroy no Christian soul, even though he be guilty of murder.’

Are we there yet? The modern world culture pretends it is now where Christ, the first really modern, truly free man in all of history, wants it to be, that is, in terms of access to education, health, and so on: are we going to now really start building the Kingdom on earth, or using our freedom from want and fear for self-indulgence and backpedaling into darkness?

Post-Christians, some though calling themselves Christians, think that once Christianity has upgraded you to a modern, healthy human, you can discard it. But every man is a microcosm of the world culture he is part of, thinking itself the best ever, letting its guard down while not noticing its liberated behaviors are throwing it back into unhappiness and even savagery.

But those who know that what they have and are is by God's grace and that by His grace they endure, keep vigilant, live in the Word not in the world, and so remain lights in the darkness. Because for all its freedom and material achievements, the world is still a very dark place. And you can never outgrow your need for love. And it is only in love, that is, in Christ, that reality lives.

To be with you

During my endless wanderings through the corridors of the Butyrka Prison in Moscow, I suddenly met Father Valentin Sventitsky. Rather foolishly I asked him, “Where are you going?” His face lit up with a kind of inner warmth as he answered, “To be with you!” He was always such a reserved man, severe, exclusive, but that day I felt a ray of kindly, all-seeing saintliness shining at me. He approached my soul, which was in need of his help. He was like a “staréts” [an elder]. This is what prison life can make you see…

— Sergei Fudel, Light in the Darkness, p. 108

A Jewish Orthodox priest-martyr

…I was told over and over, “But the deeper I went into the Church, the more deeply I felt myself as belonging to the people of Israel,” and, “The more I am Christian, the more I feel myself a Jew.” What is more, this Jewish identity had become positive and internal, rather than the negative, externally reinforced anti-Semitism that was their basic identification with Jewishness before entering the Church. They did not become ‘Russian’ in the Russian Church, but ‘Jewish.’

Father Alexander Men' probably needs no introduction to many of you. He is the late priest in the Russian Orthodox Church who was found murdered by an axe in September 1990, and whom the late academic Sergei Averintsev called "The man sent from God to be missionary to the wild tribe of the Soviet intelligentsia."

This post about hieromartyr Alexander Men' consists entirely of quotes from an online article. To read the entire article, click HERE. Photo (right) is of Alexander Men' as a youth.

It was an issue of how to maintain your difference. ... To stay a spiritual personality. Not to be completely engulfed. In this sense, the Church helped to support the human personality, the personality of the intelligentsia, for whom personhood is extremely important. Not to be completely dissolved into the aggressive Soviet mass. … It was the power that I found to stay myself. (Father Michael)

For another Russian-Jewish intellectual affected by the wave of baptisms in the late sixties:

… Living in the Soviet Union, and always being bothered by the constant lie, you had the sensation that there must be a great deal that they are simply hiding. I was led to a sense of readiness, readiness to believe in something else. I didn't know what that something was, but the readiness was there. ("Osip")

There were and are, of course, many ways to respond to such inner "readiness." They could have sought out Judaism, to the extent that was feasible in the Soviet Union of the time. They could have become Zionists, and tried to go to Israel. Or they could have followed the secular dissident pattern of, say, Sakharov. Indeed, in the sixties, these paths did not seem so disparate, as one interviewee acknowledged:

From the same underground came the dissident movement and the Zionist movement. Discussions would take place in the same house… I didn't hide the fact that I went to church. For those Jews in those days the fact that we were Christians was not an issue. Most of them had been in Stalin's camps. Christians were not enemies. They were all allies. In those days we were a minority of outcasts. (Father Michael)

For many of these "outcasts," as I have said, it was Father Alexander Men', by both example and word, who showed them the way out of what has been variously called the ideological lie, the vacuum, the cellar, or the prison of Soviet culture. Born a Jew, thus an outsider, a "dissident" by birth, trained as a scientist in a Soviet institute, Men' came to represent for these intellectuals the best of all worlds.

Men' clearly had charisma. But he also had a message that appealed to a generation straitjacketed in their institutes for Historical Materialism and Marxism-Leninism. The way out of the cellar that he showed them celebrated the highly sensual ritual, the materiality of Russian Orthodoxy not as a utilitarian end, but as the incarnation of mystical Truth and as a sign of the possible deification of creation. Spirit and matter, religion and secular knowledge were not so far apart, after all. Engineers, historians, and mathematicians were attracted by Men's readiness to build a bridge between the Church and secular society, between science and religion: "This idea of dialogue with the world has stuck with me all my life," wrote the Jewish priest [Fr Michael].

…perhaps the most radical, and controversial of the followers of Men' now gather to pray in the basement of the building housing the Center for Human Rights, near the Nikitskie Gates [in Moscow]. To be clear, this small community is not part of the Patriarchate of Moscow. It belongs to the so-called Apostolic Orthodox Church, founded in May of 2000 through the authority of the True-Orthodox (Catacomb) Church, a body that never reunited with the Moscow Patriarchate since the 1920s. It is sometimes called Gleb Iakunin's Church, for its founder, the famous dissident from the 60s. At the recommendation of Iakunin, this dissident Church's synod canonized Father Aleksandr on September 8, 2000.

The canonization of Men' was, and still is, highly controversial. Many followers of Men' with whom I spoke agreed that the canonization was perhaps deserved, but nonetheless, in this form and by this splinter Church, nothing more, and nothing less than an unnecessary provocation: We split with them over this, Men's brother explained. I understand their views, but it was all done on their own, which only disturbs the situation. Men's son, Mikhail, currently the deputy major of Moscow and a controversial figure in his own right, wrote: "I look on this as a provocation directed against all my family. ... by an organized group of people having no relationship to the Russian Orthodox Church."

But a saint he is, say some. The makeshift Church of the New Martyrs, led by Father Yakov Krotov [photo right], is divided by an iconostasis with only three icons: the Mother of God, Christ, and one of Father Aleksandr. The wall is punctuated by wide arches in place of the closed royal doors of a traditional icon stand, thus making the altar fully visible, and accessible, to the congregation. The services are conducted in Russian, rather than the Church Slavonic recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church, and, thus, also easily accessible to the worshippers. There is no choir; the congregants themselves are expected to chant the entire service, and Father Iakov recites all prayers aloud, rather than mumbled as is usually done in the Orthodox Church. All of these innovations, Krotov believes, make his service more democratic, more inclusive, and more in the spirit of Father Aleksandr Men's own teachings.

Does he deserve sainthood for this legacy, as those in Gleb Iakunin and Iakov Krotov's Church believe?

According to one of Men's Russian Jewish Christians:

I do think that according to the Orthodox definition of a saint, Fr. Alexander is a saint. There are a few different types of saints. One of these types is a person who lived a great life, was extremely important for his time and people around him, bravely preached about faith in the time of danger, wrote beautiful books about faith, and died as a martyr. Who will fit this definition better then Father Alexander Men?

The OCA [Orthodox Church of America] website gives the following definition:

It means only that, within the context of his age, he manifested the image of God in himself in some way — that he was an ikon, an original creation, a new creature in Christ.

Canonization does not make a man a saint. Rather, it establishes the fact, publicly and for all to see, that the man is already a saint…

Was Father Alexander Men' such a man? I don't know. I never met him. I don't believe in saints. I don't even believe in Jesus Christ. And I'm crazy about Jews converting to Christianity. I do know, however, that his ministry, and, even more, the presence of his spiritual children, grandchildren, cousins, and fellow travelers, especially among the Jews, continue to press the case of his significance, and in so doing, to test the saintliness of the contemporary Church itself. "In his day," in the "cellar" of the Soviet Union, he did something unusual. He was an "original creation" as an intellectual in the Church.

"Pasha," a Russian Jewish Christian now living in New York suggested the following:

To show you are a Jew in Orthodoxy is a kind of litmus paper. Jewry is the verification of faith for a Christian. Why? If you take this paper, Jewry, and you immerse it in someone's faith, and the paper changes color, even just a little, then that is a marker that something is not right in his faith. True Orthodoxy, the Orthodoxy his followers believe was preached by Men', is thus associated with tolerance and ecumenism, with what they see as the true message of the gospels. And any Orthodoxy that does not accept Jews, that flunks the litmus test, must have abandoned its true ecumenical form and become intent only on its own ritualistic laws. Did Men' revolutionize the Russian Orthodox Church? By no means. Was he a messiah? Absolutely not. Does his legacy point out to the Church how it might "heal itself"? In a quiet, sometimes defeatist and always paradoxical way: Yes.

Real Orthodoxy

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

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

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

Always Rejoice

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

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

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

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

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

Heaven’s Smile

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

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

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

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

“You see Jesus?”

“Yes, I see Jesus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure Orthodoxy

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

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

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

“Well, some forty years ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

Glory to You, O God, glory to You!

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

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

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

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

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

Thankfully and without trembling

The following poem was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the concentration camp shortly before his death…

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.

Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be Yours alone.

To be His presence among men

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

Mother Maria [Skobtsova] is remembered in the context of the Russian Emigration [after the victory of communism there], the French Resistance [during World War II] or Ravensbrück concentration camp [where she died]. But her achievement extends beyond the circumstances of her life, and it outlives them. For above all, by way of her Christian dedication and in her own distinctive style, she demonstrated what it means to be human.

In the process she sacrificed her personal serenity. Since her life was completely interwoven with the destiny of her contemporaries, their turmoil was hers, their tragedy was hers. And yet she was not swept away by it. She was anchored in God and her feet rested on the Rock.

Infinite pity and compassion possessed her; there was no suffering to which she was a stranger; there were no difficulties which could cause her to turn aside. She could not tolerate hypocrisy, cruelty or injustice. The Spirit of Truth which dwelt in her led her to criticize sharply all that is deficient, all that is dead in Christianity and, particularly, in what she mistakenly conceived to be classical monasticism.

Mistakenly, for what she was attacking was an empty shell, a petrified form. At the same time, with the perception of a seer, she saw the hidden, glorious content of the monastic life in the fulfillment of the gospel, in the realization of divine love, a love which has room to be active and creative in and through people who have turned away from all things and, above all, from themselves in order to live God's life and to be His presence among men, His compassion, His love.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
John 3:16

This she understood, this she lived for.
This is also what she died for.

Anthony Bloom, Metropolitan of Sourozh

Christ of the gulag

A wonderful ikon, an ikon which just had to be written, to memorialize and bring to our attention those saints whose suffering was hidden from the world in concentration camps, in gulags, and yes, even in sweat houses, factories with inhumane working conditions and unsurvivable wages, those saints who often didn't even know they were saints, who may have lived in despair of salvation, for in this world no such thing was in sight.

But the Lord God Almighty, hidden or revealed in the man Jesus Christ according to our doubt or faith, has cleansed Hades of its dead, making the unclean clean, the dark light, and freed the desperate from their tombs.

Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You!

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.

Greater things

Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
John 14:12

Oh, help! The greater things? What are they?
Could they be every good invention of mankind from the time of Christ till today, whether discovered or invented (the original meaning of the word invented was ‘found’ or ‘discovered’) by Christians or not? He is, after all, the Light that enlightens every man that comes into the world, and, as the Psalms say, ‘by Your Light we see light’.
Well, maybe, maybe not.

Jesus Christ didn’t personally invent brain surgery, heart transplants, a cure for cancer (are we there yet?), or such devices as automobiles, airplanes, and outer space probes. Nor did He come up with electronic devices, computers, or the internet. All of these seem to be ‘greater things’ that He doesn’t seem to have had time to do while He lived His thirty-three years as a man on earth.
But who did come up with these things?

And those are the better ones. What of the worse? Sex change operations, the electric chair, and nuclear warheads? Well, have you noticed these are things that have their usefulness but are nothing great in themselves? For better or for worse, they are just earthly development of already existing resources. The human brain, though, is still the creation of the Almighty God.

What greater things I think the Lord is speaking of are simply those things which His disciples will perform in their lives with faith in Him, the same things He did in those thirty-three years, only more of them because we have a longer span of space and time in which to do them.

‘Greater’ can be a relative term. What things can we do that are greater than those done by the Son of God?

Well, He healed and saved a few thousand whom He touched, we could, if we dared, heal and save millions. But no need to get all hot around the collar, nothing to worry about. He only expects us to do ‘greater things’ with those whom He places in our paths. Remember, ‘greater’ can be a relative term. Even to smile at a stranger can be a greater work than inventing a new kind of running shoe. That stranger could have been thinking of suicide. Instead, the smile encouraged him to call a friend, who then helped him back out of the hole he was in.

Yes, greater things.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Was, is, and ever shall be

I once heard someone say, ‘Jesus cannot be the Son of God. How could God have a wife?’

It’s incredible to me how vain the human intellect is—anyone’s, mine as well—to challenge others when one’s only armor is ignorance. In my youth I have done the same. Perhaps I still do, even now, without knowing it. Nonetheless, it still astounds me how we humans take on as adversaries immense truths while we are armed with only unbridled ignorance. Perhaps deep down we feel we’re David sent forth to lay Goliath low. Too bad metaphors can’t be cheaply applied, nor indiscriminately. We do this too, cheapening not only the quest for truth, but—if it were possible—even the Truth itself.

Well, how to respond to such a challenge, ‘Jesus cannot be the Son of God. How could God have a wife?’

Words like misaimed arrows elude their mark or, too shallowly shot never reach the target at all. What meaning can be found when, casting questions that cannot be asked, we seek answers that cannot be grasped by the human mind?

A man asks, ‘Why do ants move so quickly?’ An ant responds, ‘Why do shadows move so slowly?’ The ant doesn’t know that men exist. It sees only the gaping shadow and then, perhaps, nothing at all as it is crushed beneath the shadow’s weight. A man can’t see the world of the ant as it moves with reasonable rhythm and speed, not (as he imagines) in ‘fast forward.’

We are all caught in the grip of congenital blindness, made worse by voluntary deafness. In our natural state we are worse than dumb beasts, because at least their lack of language enables them to praise God without argument, whereas we, blind and deaf except for the Light of Christ and the Word of God, seek to slay each other spiritually and even physically as our ‘praise.’

And to what or to whom is our praise offered? 
To God, or to ourselves?

If the Jew could only know and accept who Jesus of Nazareth was, there would be no need for Christianity. If the Christian could only know and accept who Jesus Christ is, there would be no need for Islam. If the Muslim could only know and accept who Jesus Son of Mary ever shall be, there would be the threshold of the Parousía.

Yet we luxuriate indolently asking such questions as, ‘How could God have a wife?’ so that, not listening for an answer even if there were one, we can ready ourselves for our next attack. Since God has tired of blasting the Babel Tower and scattering the nations, we prove ourselves by our wanton, ruthless monotheism to be His partisans, defending what it is we think of Him not who He is, self-blindfolded and numb to His touch.

He sees, hears, and knows all of this, all we do, all we do not do. He knows why we are here, who we are, and how He has entered His creation as one of us. Though He speaks His Reason—that is, His Word—to us in every moment and place, we will not hear it. Though His Light shines on the eyes of every man that enters the world, we blindfold ourselves. I say this to myself as well as to those who pose unaskable questions: Unblindfold your eyes, and see. Jesus was, is, and ever shall be, not only Son and Word of God, but Pantokrator, Lord of all.

What is it that we do…?

The average Christian seems to approach the life of grace the way the average driver purchases a new car. She finds the best vehicle she can afford, buys it, and drives it. She seldom cares much about how the thing works. She just wants it to do what it’s supposed to do, get her to her destination. She knows how to fill the gas tank, maybe how to change the oil or the wiper blades, or replace a burned out head light. But as far as everything else, that’s someone else’s job.

So Miz or Mister Jody B. Christian finds the best church they can afford, one that they think will get them where they want to go—heaven, of course!—and invest as little as they can get away with in fuel (offerings), lubrication (sacraments), and bulb replacements (bible studies). As for the big stuff—how does salvation really work? and what does it mean to be ‘saved’ anyway?—they leave that to the ‘professionals.’ After all, ‘we pay them enough.’ Tell me this isn’t true, so I can sleep nights.

We live in a labyrinth of faith-based pitfalls—if it isn’t the end of time itself—and we find ourselves inevitably detached from the sources of true spiritual life, egged on by false advertising hawked by bold-faced liars in microphone-laced black gowns. It’s neither their fault nor ours, we tell ourselves, and try to keep our ‘happy faces’ afloat on message boards while we avoid confronting false hopes and falser lives. Our churches, arks afloat in a flood of our own filth, we pack to the doors, us animals by twos or sevens.

Yet the Lord Almighty, Giver of life, who seeks not the death of anyone, but gave Himself for us, came down for us, dove deeper than our fall to rescue us, to raise us on high with Him, to present us spotless, faultless, fully formed in the Image and Likeness before which all creation trembles in awe and wonder, there He stands, not behind our wall, nor hidden behind a temple veil, but in our midst, among us, even as one of us, His hands full of lightning flashes that heal anyone they touch, earthing themselves in us.

What is it that we do when we do nothing?
We may call it worship or alms or fasting or prayer, but like withered fig trees we may be rooted, yet bear neither leaves nor fruit. The wind may blow through our bare branches and the sounds of faint fellowship may be heard, but we produce nothing, save nothing, not even ourselves. Nor do the gracious plentiful rains that soften the parched earth around us avail us any, for we gave up to others what was only sent to ourselves, and we missed Him as He passed by.

Just to make sure

Defined by what I don’t more than by what I do.
That’s how many people look at themselves and the world.
It’s a ‘me against them,’ or if they’re some kind of Christian,
it’s an ‘us against them’ mentality.

I am, or we are, right and everyone else is wrong,
and they’re gonna know it.
I speak up and stand up for what I believe.
Who cares who’s listening.
Who cares if someone’s feelings get hurt.
Somebody has to tell the truth.
I like what you say, but as for those other guy’s,
they’re just plain wrong, and I don’t mind telling you.
Yeah, you can be my friend, but watch out!
You’re under my gun the same as those other fellows.
If you don’t think like I do, you’ll hear from me.
Though as a Christian man I can’t say this out loud,
‘it’s my way or the highway.’
But God approves, because I’m rightly dividing His word.
If you know what’s good for you, stick with me.

Yes, brothers, this world is an arena, not a battlefield.

In a battlefield, we are heavily armed and we know who our enemy is, and we fight, we fight for our lives, and it all depends on us.
It’s a ‘winner takes all’ scenario. If we lose, well, we lose our lives.
No one is watching, no one cares.

In an arena, we are competing. Some enter the arena thinking like they are entering a battle against an enemy, and they fight tooth and nail, not caring if they fight fair. All they want to do is win and make sure everyone watching knows it.

But that’s not how we enter the arena, brothers.
That’s not how we are sent into the ring.
For us, if there is a battle, it is only against ourselves, not an opponent. For us, the arena is where we are tested, where we are trained, to be what our Teacher is, to show Him that we have learned how to present ourselves, blameless, in a fair fight.

He knows we have no choice but to be placed in the arena, so He has taken us under His wing and teaches us, day by day, letting us enter the ring now and again to see how we are learning our lessons, to see if we’ve absorbed His martial arts technique. Violence, but not for its own sake, passionless and without hate, respectful and generous in courtesy. We spar with our partners, knowing them to be under the same Teacher. As for the spectators, some of whom will soon join us, what will happen if they see us make a false move?

In the end, perhaps, but not now, not at present, the arena will be our last encounter. We may be thrown into the ring with a real gladiator, or worse, thrown weaponless into the lair of wild beasts, and there will be no exit for us except through the gate of death, death to the world, which is life’s Gate for us.

But until then, let us be merciful, brothers, to ourselves and to each other, and mince our words and deeds so that they will not choke our neighbor, but gently feed him. For the love that is shown us now by our Teacher, for the sake of the prize that awaits us, let us also be at peace, and love one another.

Let’s live by what we do, not by what we don’t, just to make sure.

A man-loving God

Ο Μόνος Φιλάνθρωπος, o Mónos Philánthropos, the only lover of mankind, the only loving God. However you translate His name, it comes out the same, giving the lie to all who rely on His fierce anger to incinerate the unbeliever and the unrepentant. Aside from the ample hints throughout the scriptures that there will be a reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, we have no details, except what our imaginations supply, clouds and songs of praise and light for the one, fiery lake and demons and darkness for the other. Our imaginations supply us with these images of eternal blessedness and eternal damnation whether we are Christians or not, whether we believe in the Bible or not: these images are the common domain of all humanity. That's what makes them suspect. We cannot, or we should not, second guess God, especially those of us who believe a God who becomes Man and tells us, 'If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.'

I am no universal salvationist, but stay close as I can to the words of holy and divine scripture, yet I do not live in a religious world where God is roasting the unrepentant forever on the points of pitch forks. I don't know what punishments await the wicked or what joys are in store for the righteous, except what He reveals to me about myself here and now, nor who the wicked or the righteous be: I hope I will be numbered among the righteous, though I cannot see how that can possibly be, except only if the righteousness of Christ is covering me. Yet, I still believe in God who is Ο Μόνος Φιλάνθρωπος, o Mónos Philánthropos, the only lover of mankind, the only loving God. If it weren't plain enough in scripture, we have the testimony of the Church, which from the very beginnings has believed in this man-befriending God. How can anyone come away from reading the gospels or the epistles of the New Covenant without coming to this startling conclusion: God is love? Hear what an early father, a desert father, says,

The Lord, indeed, is the Lover of mankind so full of tender compassion whenever we turn completely toward Him and are freed from all things contrary. Even though we, in our supreme ignorance, childishness, and tendency toward evil, turn away from true life and place many impediments along our own path because we really do not like to repent, nevertheless, He has great mercy on us. He patiently waits for us until we will be converted and return to Him and be enlightened in our inner selves that our faces may not be ashamed in the Day of Judgment.

If that seems difficult and troublesome to us because practicing virtue is hard, but, more so, because of the insidious suggesting of the adversary, still He is very full of compassion, long-suffering and patient as He waits for our conversion. And when we do sin, He is ready to lift us up for He desires our repentance. And when we fall, He is not ashamed to take us back, as the Prophet says, “When men fall, do they not rise again? Or if one turns away, does he not return?” (Jeremiah 8:4) We only have to have a sincere heart and live in vigilance and be converted immediately after seeking His help and He Himself is most ready to save us. For He looks for our ardent will, as best we can, to turn toward Him. When we show good faith and promptness glowing from our desiring, then He works in us a true conversion.
Abba Makarios, 4th century

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

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Rubrics of love

Salvation is not about doctrine, but about love. There is, in fact, no salvation outside of love, because God is love, proven by His becoming one of us, and everything that follows from it. We approach God always through love and never through doctrine. Does this mean that doctrine is pointless or of no importance? Not at all. But it is always love that gives doctrine its true meaning and value.

Loving God will always bring you to Him, but thinking about God at best brings you to the threshold of love, at worst locks you into a mental prison.

The invisible God becomes visible through love, but the visible God, our brother and sister, can become invisible through doctrine.

What is ‘the first and great commandment’? And what is ‘the second, that is like unto it’? And on what hang ‘all the Law and the Prophets’?

‘With the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near!’ intones the priest or deacon, announcing the readiness of God to receive us unto Himself in the Holy Mystery of His divine and life-giving Passion, fed to us spiritual infants on golden spoons. ‘You have only to open your mouth, for Me to fill it,’ says the Lord Almighty through His holy prophet, the psalmist. And, ‘precious in the eyes of God is the death of His saints.’

Yes, with fear, that is, utmost respect, even awe, approach God in your brother and sister.
Yes, with faith and love, trusting in the One who upholds all faithfully and who loves both you and them with an unconditional mercy.

We can do no more and no less than what we see our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ doing every moment of every day, not just in His ‘little Book’ the written scripture, but also in His ‘great Book’ the world.

Archimandrite Vasileios writes,

How frequently the Lord would stop people who wanted to start a ‘theological’ conversation with Him. They ask, ‘Will those who are saved be few?’ and the Lord replies, ‘Strive to enter by the narrow door’ (Luke 13:23-24).

Again, with the Samaritan woman who is surprised when the Lord asks her for water, and explains her surprise, ‘For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’ (John 4:9), Jesus cuts short her comments on the relations between the religious communities with the command, ‘Go, call your husband’ (John 4:16). In a moment He leads the conversation into the field of personal life, of true theology.

In every case He is interested in the person, not in theological discussion as an isolated occupation remaining out of touch with life and with the very person who is speaking. ‘I seek not what is yours, but you’ (2 Corinthians 12:14), says Paul; I seek the person and his salvation.

Therefore, while the Jews of Christ’s day were so eager for theological discussions, He let them go unanswered; ‘But He was silent.’ For He did not come to discuss, He came to seek out and save the one that had gone astray (Matthew 18:11). He came and took on our whole nature. He entered into us, into the shadow of death where we are, and drew us to the light. We passed into His life: we live in Him.
Hymn of Entry, pp. 32-33 passim

A word on forgiveness

‘I will not judge who is worthy of forgiveness (since I also need forgiveness), but will leave that final judgment to God…
…it is as close as I can come to forgiveness of predators and sociopaths at this point in my Christian development.’

It is not an essential condition of your salvation, I don't think, to have to forgive predators and sociopaths, except, of course, for any that have committed aggression against you personally.

If you do have predators and sociopaths in your life that you have not forgiven, then I would ask, who is there, who is being unforgiving? Is it you, really, or is it the image of your injury that you call yourself?

In my life, a great injury has been done,
life-changing if not life-threatening.
The person who injured me is alive and well
and thinks that no wrong was committed,
thinks that God is pleased.

How can I forgive that? How can I live with that? How can I see that person standing a few feet away from me in church? How can I speak to that person, if I am addressed? How can I live day to day without resentment?

The Lord is good.
He purifies us of ourselves
when He sees we cannot cleanse ourselves,
which is most of the time.
He renews us.
He makes us into different people.
Though we may live in the same house,
wear the same clothes, go to the same church, or work,
He has changed the inner man.
It is a different heart inside, a renewed mind.

If it weren't for that, to live next to such injustice,
such triumphant denial of one's being by another person
who thinks they are doing you a favor by destroying you,
would be impossible.
It would certainly lead one to suicide.
It would have led me to that door.

But no.
God is good.
He is always there, patient and receptive of our tears.
He dries those tears and puts us to sleep,
so He can allay our loneliness, and when we awake,
if not a helpmate in the flesh taken from our side,
then what is better.

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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Light of the world

‘This is my planet.’ I used to say that to justify my enjoyment of being out in nature, especially in the winter, here in Oregon wearing just my trousers, bare-chested, with unsocked sandaled feet, as I walk through the forests near my home. Pretending to be a Native American, I still look forward to living here someday, out in the wilds, like an ‘Indian.’ But that may just be the private dream of a person who never was. In the real world, aside from my leisure hours at home, I dress and conform to mainstream culture like everyone else. No, I don’t wear Birkenstocks.

Traveling anywhere on this planet is for me another following of the call. I have no idea of what I will do there, or of why I am being sent. I have no delusions of ‘being on a mission’ any more than the next guy. My whole life is a mission, and I am not in charge of it. Like a poor beast of burden, but one lavishly loved by its owner, I just keep moving in a direction He only knows. Beast of burden? Well, no, that was a very poor choice of words. Our good and gracious Lord treats no one, absolutely no one, that way. Not as a dumb beast, not even as a servant, not even as a son, but as an only son and a firstborn: that’s how He treats us, all of us.

It is a beautiful, rainy/sunny day here in Oregon. I love my homeland and country so much, but strangely, I love even more wherever and among whom the Lord sends me. Fr Louis Evely writes, somewhere in his book That Man Is You—I can’t find the exact place—it’s because the saints have no home anywhere that they can feel at home everywhere. By saints, of course, he means you and me. (Sometimes I forget just how much I owe to this Belgian Roman Catholic priest who finished his course outside the institutional priesthood, and with a good conscience.) Where I’m headed, always seems home.

I greet you all, my friends, and my enemies too, if I have any. What would life be without your friendship? What would life be if I were not wearing these chains? The way of Christ is perfect, because it is a life of mercy, of forgiveness, of affirmation, of freedom, of love. It is being transformed beyond all that you once could recognize. It is being poured out and yet never emptied. One blood, one body, one heart, the human race redeemed and ransomed by the head sorely wounded, to be part of that, to be knitted into the seamless robe of Jesus Christ, what is called ‘the Church,’ who is called ‘the Bride.’ Yes, always, not ‘what,’ but ‘who.’

Once we were lumps of clay, but the Threefold Radiance breathed soul into us. Once we stumbled and broke ourselves, but the Only-Begotten fell with us into that deepest of all pits, and then stood up, taller than the sky, and raised us on high with Him. To free us from our passions, yes, the Merciful Lord, having done all that He was sent to do, releases us now in Himself to do even greater works, because the Divine Nature before all ages, has come among us as a newborn Child, and invites us also to appear before the world. The First-Born from the dead, first-born in every way, invites us to become as He is in the world. ‘You are the Light of the world…’