Thursday, July 31, 2014

Unschuldig

Postscript to Our Jews, our problem

It may seem to be a bit premature, but really, someone ought to give you all a ‘heads up.’ Time is running out for the ‘state of Israel,’ and everybody knows it. You’ve had more than half a century to show the world you could not only wrest a garden from the desert sands, but also create a viable, democratic state that can live in peace both with itself and with its neighbors. Though some of you fall back on bible passages to justify your capture of the land and conquest of its people, most of you do not really believe in the God that reveals and commands in the Torah. In the end, those who really do believe will prove it by following the commandments of true righteousness and, heeding the prophets of Israel, do what they say. These alone will be allowed to remain in the land. For them, their footprints will spell ‘the land of Israel’ and they will live in peace with the indigenous peoples, whom they will welcome back, to replace those others.

Those others? Yes, those of you Jews who created the ‘state of Israel’ believing only in your vision of a ‘homeland’ where Jews would be safe from Christian persecution. You should start thinking about where in the Western world you want to live, and pack your bags. Will it be the United States, or the United Kingdom, or France, or Germany, or even Russia? It’s your choice, wherever you decide to go.

The justification for Zionism has disappeared with the evolution of Western society. There are almost no countries in the Western world that place burdens or unfair controls over Jews. If anti-Semitism still exists in some places, how can its reappearance not be related at least minimally to the existence and policies of the ‘state of Israel’? Some countries have even offered Jews incentives to return to their original homelands. Portugal and Spain are two examples. So there you are! Secular and other agnostic, unbelieving, and unobservant Jews in the ‘state of Israel,’ now is your chance! Why wait till you are forced to escape by the skin of your teeth?

Maybe it’s not your fault that you were born into a failed experiment. Even if you did it with eyes wide open, there’s still time. Your education and skills are probably in demand here in the West, and your departure, or rather your ‘return’ (giving the term ‘aliyah’ a new meaning) will help the peace process. That process will move forward with you or without you, because history doesn’t wait. Like God Himself, it is never too early or too late. It’s always ‘just in time.’

That time is running out for the ‘state of Israel’ might seem to be good news for the original inhabitants (if they really believed it), but though the land will be given back to them, along with all political, social, religious and economic rights, there are also responsibilities. For the Muslim Palestinians, they have experienced in reverse what many Jews, no, all Jews, experienced when living in the lands of Islam. According to your religion, the ‘people of the Book’ who do not convert to Islam become second-class citizens. They become dhimmī, must pay jizyah, and are excluded from participation in certain civic duties.

This aspect of Islam, whatever are its reasons, must be rooted out. Wherever Islam coexists with other religions, it cannot insist on special rights, privileges, or priority. This is a reality of the modern world, which has proved itself capable of providing safe homes and equal opportunity to all citizens. There is no place for fundamentalism in democratic societies, if that fundamentalism seeks to extend its influence and control over others who do not accept it. Christian and Jewish and Hindu and atheistic fundamentalisms are no different or less dangerous than Islamic fundamentalism. If the race is to survive, all must go.

This morning as I write this, the ‘defense forces’ of Israel are gathering in full strength for a deeper assault on the Gaza strip. Drive all your enemies, together with their wives, children, and elders, into a narrow, desolate alleyway off an already overcrowded but glitzy street, and when resentment among them produces gangsters with enough pluck to take aim at your property there on the main street (where they used to live), retaliate by pushing them deeper into that hole where you confined them, root out and demolish those criminals, even if you have to kill innocent women and children. Yes, that’s the ticket!

It’s not your fault, if the innocent are forced into being shields for the guilty. Kill them all, if that’s what it takes to defend yourselves. This all sounds like a very bad movie plot. No heroes in that film, really, just a bunch of sweaty, overweight commanders directing a few perfectly robotic army units with equipment that indiscriminately cuts down and cuts up swathes of human bodies like a mower cutting its way through a field of weeds. The weeds and the wheat, all cut down, so the ground can be roto-tilled and purified in preparation for planting a better strain of… weeds and wheat.

Perfectly helpless, if not perfectly mindless and heartless—that’s what we are. We are petrified by our prejudices against those whom we do not know, never cared to know, wished weren’t there, but would help, if only they would listen to our instructions and eat out of our hands. We feel awful that the innocent suffer at the hands of the—what shall we call them? the guilty? no, that won’t do. Maybe, the righteous. Well, whatever else they are, the Israelis aren’t the guilty. No, they’re the innocent, the ‘unschuldig’ like the Hungarian Jew in the film Fateless who pointed to the letter ‘U’ (for Ungarn, ‘Hungary’ in German, his origin) on his prison jacket and tremblingly snickered while he said ‘unschuldig’, innocent, to the teen-age boy with whom he lived in the concentration camp. A day or two later, he was missing from roll call, and his lifeless body dragged away somewhere. Yes, the people who are defending themselves, their homes and families, against the senseless savagery of Palestinian attacks are the descendants of the very same people we watch in films about Nazi atrocities. In those films, and in the real history behind them, they were losers. Today, they are winners, no matter what it takes.

Perfectly hopeless, that’s what they are, people like us who do not know their right hand from their left, who have lost their way amidst the wealth of their great city, who do not know, cannot see or understand, that they are not innocent, like dumb animals, like the dog that nips a child in the face out of unthinking excitement, but that they are guilty, like the man who displaces the boundary marker between his land and his neighbor’s in order to enlarge his own. Guilty, but too busy to notice, like the people who robbed the ‘third world’ of its natural resources and enslaved its people, because it was ‘good business’ and because everyone was doing it, and ‘we don’t want to be left behind.’ No, whatever else they are, helpless and hopeless describes that condition under which people live, unknowing that they are guilty of the crimes of which they accuse others, and therefore incapable of repentance. Where is the prophet Jonah for the people of this generation. Has he fled and been swallowed by the whale where he is hidden till this day, in contradiction to the plain words of scripture? Has the Word of God been falsified? Has the Bible lied? or have we simply allowed ourselves to sleep, while others weep?

Lord God, Holy One of Israel, hear the cries of your people, have mercy, awaken us, free us from our passions that we may be at peace, for You are the only lover of mankind!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Who told you, you were naked?

People miss the significance of this question, and go on, to launch themselves into intellectual and emotional crusades as to whether or not Adam and Eve were real historical persons.

Those who believe, those who doubt, both waste precious time arguing, when the question addressed to them personally hangs in the air, the Asker waiting for their response. Missing the point that He knows all about us, and yet He still asks, they reduce the living God to a proposition, and His holy and divine Word to a mere book, like all their other books.

‘But the Word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it’ (Deuteronomy 30:14). ‘I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know’ (John 1:26). ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand there looking into heaven?’ (Acts 1:11).

The living God is no mere proposition, but the man standing next to you. What will you do with him? The Bible is no mere book, but the living Word of that living God: holy because unremittingly other, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8), divine because it is the Spirit Himself pressing His holy face into the folds of our human flesh, leaving His mark not made by human hands. ‘And I saw another angel coming up from the East, carrying the seal of the living God’ (Revelation 7:2). How dare we toy with this?

‘Who told you, you were naked?’ (Genesis 3:11) asks the living God. He knows all about us, yet He asks. Long after we have sinned and forgotten about it, not having been punished we sport ourselves as if all were well, though in our hearts we feel afraid, and we hide ourselves behind the foliage of our thoughts, ‘perhaps He won’t notice us.’

But one day He comes, He who walks among us invisibly, our eyes unwilling to see Him, our hearts to recognize Him, but His voice rings out, ‘Where are you?’ We already know that Voice, we recognize it. There is no escape.

He listens to our complaint, ‘I heard You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’ He deals with us on our own terms. We offer our excuses, and He questions us. Then, He asks us the question we dread most to hear, ‘Have you eaten from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat?’ just as He once asked a woman of Samaria by telling her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here’ (John 4:16).

Like her, we would rather confess, understating Him, ‘I see You are a prophet,’ and then offer our speculations, hopefully to change the subject.

But He presses down on us, proving that He is the living God, knocking on the Door that He has provided to shield us from His glory, the Holy Scriptures, giving us the freedom to keep it closed, or to open it, if we dare, to meet Him standing there. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the Door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me’ (Revelation 3:20).

This is no offer of a mere business lunch, over which we can argue whether or not the food, or the host, are real. He is here among us, the table is full and abundant. Do we choose to starve amidst plenty?

‘Who told you, you were naked?’
is Life itself coming to deliver us from death. What room is there left for our speculations, our questionings, or our vain proofs of this or that assertion?

In the time that He has opened for us, in the paradise in which He has placed us, among the fruit-bearing trees inviting us to eat and be satisfied, we are yet drawn to the one thing that He has forbidden, and then spend the rest of our days hiding behind our thoughts of self-justification, hiding from Him who has formed us as images of Himself.

‘Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from My decrees and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you, says the LORD Almighty’ (Malachi 3:7).

In a new love of the age to come

A true Christian is made by faith and love toward Christ. Our sins do not in the least hinder our Christianity according to the word of the Savior Himself. He deigned to say, Not the righteous have I come to call, but sinners to salvation; there is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over ninety righteous ones. Likewise, concerning the sinful woman who touched His feet, He deigned to say to the Pharisee, Simon, To one who has love, a great debt is forgiven, but from one who has no love, even a small debt will be demanded. From these judgments a Christian should bring himself to hope and joy, and not in the least accept an inflicted despair. Here one needs the shield of faith.

Sin, to one who loves God, is nothing other than an arrow from the enemy in battle. The true Christian is a warrior fighting his way through the regiments of the unseen enemy to his heavenly homeland. According to the word of the Apostle, our homeland is in heaven and about the warrior he says, our warfare is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against the spirits of wickedness under heaven, (Eph 6:12). The vain desires of this world separate us from our homeland; love of them, and habit, clothes our soul as if in a hideous garment. This is called by the Apostles, “the outward man.”

We, traveling on the journey of this life and calling on God to help us, ought to be divesting ourselves of this hideous garment and clothing ourselves in new desires, in a new love of the age to come, and thereby to receive knowledge of how near or how far we are from our heavenly homeland. But it is not possible to do this quickly; rather one must follow the example of sick people, who, wishing the desired health, do not leave off seeking means to cure themselves.


— St Herman of Alaska

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The plethora of ‘elders’ …

As a layman of the Greek Orthodox Church, I have been a συγκοινωνος εν τη θλιψει και βασιλεια και υπομονη εν ιησου (Revelation 1:9), synkinonós en ti thlípsi kai vasileía kai ipomoní en Yisoú, ‘a fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverence which are in Jesus,’ as I silently watched my local Greek parish get taken over by outsiders with an insider's arrogance, but I have not written a word against them. This is for my superiors in Christ to do, and here is one who has, at the time protopresbyter Dionysios Tatsis, now bishop Gregory Tatsis, who has written the following on ‘the plethora of elders and the piety of the naïve.’

Brethren, take heart! This temptation too will pass away. Let each of us, in the Lord, decide what is our best response to it. We know who it is that we have believed in, and who is the Winner in this and every struggle…
IC XC NIKA

The Plethora of ‘Elders’ and the ‘Piety’ of the Naive
By Protopresbyter Fr. Dionysios Tatsis

Our Church has been filled with ‘elders,’ who guide the faithful and lead them to salvation, as they claim.

Usually they are hieromonks, as well as secular archimandrites, who have read a lot about the real Elders and they regurgitate their words or they narrate their lives, creating illusions on the unsuspecting and they acquire for themselves a reputation for being a virtuous and divinely-illumined elder, even though they have none of the attributes of the holy Elders.

The result is that many brethren are being trapped in a dangerous cult of personality, and instead of opening their minds to progress on the spiritual path of a life according to Christ, they remain fixated on some typical things, external and meaningless, and they alleviate their conscience as if they are supposedly progressing, since they obey whatever their ‘elder’ says. Unfortunately, there are many examples and we should not shut our eyes where we are required to have them wide open.

It is difficult for these self-proclaimed ‘elders’ to recognize their delusion and be humbled. Their ambition is to have spiritual children, disciplined, spineless and to work together with them for whatever project of theirs, whether it is for a monastery or a parish. People who usually follow them are not able to reveal their hypocrisy. They have limited information, they do not think a lot, and they are dragged along by their infallible ‘elder’ by doing obedience to them while simultaneously maintaining all worldly and sinful habits. Often they invoke their ‘elder’ when they converse with their brethren in their attempt to convince them that whatever may be their decisions on small or great issues of their personal life, and not only, are correct and no one can challenge them or judge them negatively, since they have the blessing of their ‘elder.’ Obviously this is a sickened piety, which must be combated against by spiritual fathers.

At some point we must realize that naivety is one thing and humility and piety is another. We are in danger for sometimes empowering evil and naive people and considering that the spiritual life is that which is suggested by our zeal for knowledge. Alas! Certainly, all fit within the Church. But we must not give the leading role to the weak and deluded.

The true Elders are few and hidden. They do not make noise and they flee from being a spectacle. They help people spiritually, in a simple manner, without tying them up and enforcing them. They try to instill a proper concern, to inquire by themselves more about the word of God and taste the sweetness of the spiritual life, renouncing the worldly mind and unnecessary cares which lead to indolence. These Elders should be an example for all clergy. It is not an easy matter. It implies cleanliness of life, simplicity, humility and purity in our intentions.
Source: Orthodoxos Typos, 9 August 2013. 
Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

Our Jews, our problem

Little did anyone think they were setting the stage for the next world war when the British issued the Balfour Declaration, opening up the territory of Palestine (part of the defeated Ottoman Empire) to Jewish settlement. The second world war with the Jewish holocaust was still in the future, when the European powers carved up other people’s lands to create a host of petty kingdoms and states that would owe their existence to them. The Jews of Europe had been everyone’s problem (everyone being European Christians) for millennia, and this seemed like a cheap way to siphon off some of them. The idea came from some of the Jews themselves. Zionism. The ultimate goal of this movement was, from the European viewpoint, irrelevant. They had nothing to lose. It wasn’t their land that would be expropriated for Jewish settlement. Though it was their Jews, it wouldn’t be their problem. The Jews were never happy with what they got in Europe. Maybe they’d be happy somewhere else.

The original idea behind the Balfour declaration seemed harmless. ‘His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’

Clearly, the Europeans weren’t doing anything wrong. The Jews who immigrated to Palestine would simply buy property and settle down. Their remarkable intelligence, ingenuity and thrift would no doubt benefit the indigenous inhabitants. Everyone should be happy in the end. Well, if they weren’t, it would be their own fault. The British government of Palestine would try to make everyone happy, but in the end were driven out by the unhappy Jews, the unhappy Arabs, and left a mess to be cleaned up by others, since it wasn’t their fault. As the British mandate was drawing to a close, people were found to testify that it had always been the intention behind Balfour, to allow a Jewish ‘state’ and not just a ‘homeland’ to be erected on this land which wasn’t theirs to begin with. Theirs, being the British.

“The phrase ‘the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people’ was intended and understood by all concerned to mean at the time of the Balfour Declaration that Palestine would ultimately become a ‘Jewish Commonwealth’ or a ‘Jewish State’, if only Jews came and settled there in sufficient numbers.”

It seems obvious that from the very start, the whole matter of a Jewish return to Palestine was purposely left poorly defined, giving everyone a different vision of what was to be. The indigenous people could feel assured that they would not be molested or displaced. The incoming Jews could feel, after centuries of persecution by Christians, they finally had a land where they would be safe. For both the Arabs and the Jews, nothing could have been further from the truth.

We in the Western world have looked on the state of Israel with wonder. It is our ‘wunderkind,’ our miracle child. We forget that Israel is the child we were stuck with, the child we never wanted, the child we abused to console ourselves with having to put up with him. He turned out to be smarter than us, richer than us, even more magnanimous and fairer than us. He actually had the nerve to lecture us on the meaning of the Gospel, which he himself never accepted. So we were happy to see him go, to take over lands that we never owned but gave to him anyway, lands which he claimed were his by divine right. As long as Israel didn’t want to pile up in some corner of our land and carve out a state, we were happy to support him. We gave him carte blanche to do whatever he saw fit in his new digs.

Yet we are confused and hurt by the abuse, mostly verbal, that we suffer from the people Israel has displaced. Don’t they understand what we have done for them? We gave the Jews a homeland where they could rule the roost. Israel produces prosperity in a depressed and neglected region. They’ve made ‘the desert bloom.’ The people who lived there before Israel repossessed their land had little. Israel’s arrival should have meant prosperity for everyone. It’s not our fault the Arabs wouldn’t cooperate and just want to make trouble. We don’t see, we cannot see, the point of all this violence and ‘intifada’. We’ve never been dispossessed of our land. We’ve never even been invaded. Israel is doing no more than taking over what it deserves, just as we in America took the lands of primitive people who were wasting it, so that we could be prosperous. It’s not our fault that most of the people we displaced died off somehow. It wasn’t genocide. It was just our ‘manifest destiny,’ just as the return to Palestine was Israel’s. Anyway, it’s not our problem.

Yes, I understand. But it is our problem. What’s going on in Israel/Palestine today, and what has been happening there since at least 1948, is our problem. Why? Because the majority of the Jews who run the state of Israel and determine its policies are our Jews. Yes, they’re our Jews, and so what’s happening there is our problem. It isn’t as if the indigenous Jews had conquered the land from the indigenous non-Jews and set up a state. No, it’s foreign Jews, and most of them at the outset coming from Europe and North America, bringing with them into the ‘third world’ the advantages of the ‘first world’ and using these to subject and ultimately displace the original inhabitants. Is it any wonder that Arabs in general see the state of Israel as just another form of Western imperialism, and Israel’s ‘management’ of the Arab residents of the Holy Land another form of silently sanctioned apartheid?

We would never put up with this, if it happened to us. Perhaps we innocently displaced the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, and some of them survived our accidental genocide. What if they took back their land? The greenway in front of my house affords me a lovely, unobstructed view of the Columbia Gorge. One day, the descendants of a tribe of Indians that used to live ‘on my block’ roll up in their Hummers and begin to set up camp on that greenway. Their vehicles block my view and my driveway. Their loud cries and chanting and drumming, and the smoke of their fires, keeps me awake nights and drifts into my house when I forget to close the windows. I am afraid to go to work and leave my house, because they might break in and steal my stuff. Wait a minute! They’re digging up my lawn and planting maize! What gives?

I am sorry, very sorry, for all the suffering that has fallen upon the Jews through history and until today. I am sorry too for all the suffering that the Arabs and other original inhabitants of the Holy Land (for now I no longer know what to call it, but my Lord once walked there) have endured until now. I cannot take sides. I love the Jews, and I love the Arabs. But I also love honesty, integrity, and justice. I do not love those whom the prophets have castigated for their crimes, ‘Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field until everywhere belongs to them and they are the sole inhabitants of the land’ (Isaiah 5:8 JB).

The prophetic word is not to be abused by our speculations or to legitimatize injustice, but to drive us forward into judgment, not of others, but of ourselves. Christians have heretofore abused the utterances of Yahweh to justify hateful treatment of those who are different from them, but the Jews are no stranger to this behavior either. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

I have no answer, no solution, to the birth pangs of the present age. I can only wait, hope and pray for deliverance. Yes, I can work for it too, but all that you or I can do is nothing compared with what God, the Almighty, is already doing. Our Jews, our problem, yes. That’s all I can see right now. Waiting with mercy to others, faith in God, and hope for salvation, that’s what I try do.

Oh, and one more thing. Try to speak the truth.

There is a postscript.

Where shall the Prince of Peace go?

Why do (some) Christians support the state of Israel unconditionally?
I mean, how can anyone miss the fact that contemporary ‘Christian’ media and ‘ministries’ stand one hundred (and forty-four thousand) per cent behind Israel, no matter what it does? These same people (and many others, non-religious, even non-Christian, but influenced by them) minimize Israeli self-defense manoeuvres and maximize the self-defense acts, some of them truly horrendous, of the indigenous peoples of Palestine (and their allies). They say things like, ‘they got him outnumbered about a million to one, he got no place to escape to, no place to run,’ emphasizing Israel’s claim to a tiny slip of land smack dab in the middle of millions of square kilometers of Arab-dominated real estate. They ask, ‘Why can’t the Arabs leave Israel alone? All they want is the land God gave them.’ Yes, the last statement poses a very good question that these folks entirely miss, ‘the land God gave them.’

What is not hard to miss, if you read the Old Testament of the Bible, is that in the process of choosing the Jews and hand-crafting them to be a people worthy of Himself, God has them do many things that today are considered crimes against humanity, and indeed they are. The God of the Old Testament can be pretty harsh. Yes, there is capital punishment for acts we now consider normal and acceptable. Yes, there is genocide. But as Christians, what do we then make of Christ’s saying, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,’ or again, ‘the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does’? Is this God ‘the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ then the same, or not the same, as the Old Testamental ‘Jehovah’?

Good question, but one that the Church long ago decided (conforming to the Mind of Christ) and answered for us (even though we weren’t asked to agree or disagree)—God is God, the Old Testamental Jehovah is the Father of Jesus Christ. Perhaps not pertinent to the topic, we also found out that this One God whom the Jews worshiped at Sinai is at least a triad, the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, and nearly two thousand years later, this fundamental discovery is still the ground of Truth in the Church, the pattern and proof of our communal life on earth, and our deification in the world to come.

The state of Israel, again defended by its Christian cheerleaders, has every right to have the whole land of Canaan, because God gave it to the people of Israel forever. Little does it matter that when their Messiah came to them, the one Christians worship as not only man but God, the Savior of the whole human race, their leaders rejected Him, as did many of the people. Little does it matter that, following the strictest interpretation of the scriptures, those in Israel who rejected Jesus of Nazareth continued to fight on, against Rome, against the world, to secure their right to the land.

Little does it matter that their great and glorious Temple (though it never had either the Divine Presence—that is, the Cloud—or the Ark of the Covenant with its Mercy Seat) was utterly destroyed by the Romans, so that Israel would never again be a power, and a troublemaker, in the world. The Christian supporters of Israel hang their hopes on a restored Israel ‘in the land’ and a ‘Third Temple’ which both must occur and be built in order for the second coming of Christ to take place. As if we could do anything to prevent or promote the Parousía of our living, resurrected Lord!

The problems created by the establishment of the state of Israel in the land of Canaan have grown larger and more menacing than anyone could have thought possible. The ultra-fundamentalists among the Christians that have created a new form of Zionism, ‘messianic’ they name it, rejoice as they see the region, and the world, heading for the edge of the abyss, the borderlands of Armageddon, and they can’t wait to take their places on the winning side. Little does it matter that Zionism is essentially an atheistic or at least agnostic movement, purely social, economic, and political, and that ‘religious’ Jews have only accommodated themselves to it, since it has provided for them a protective enclosure in which to practice their faith without fear of ‘Christian’ persecution.

Little does it matter that thousands of indigenous people, mostly Arab in language and Islamic in faith, but also including the original Christian inhabitants of Palestine, have been bullied and terrorized out of their homeland, all in the name of fulfillment of prophecy and the promise, the ‘eternal covenant’ between Israel and their God. This is just ‘what has to happen’ because Israel has title to that land. Little does it matter that the secular Israeli state will, in the end if no one or nothing stops it, completely empty the land of its indigenous inhabitants, no matter what it takes. Little does it matter, especially to the Christian Zionists, that the indigenous Church, the Orthodox both Greek and Latin, is being depopulated in a legalized war of attrition, as long as their adherents, ‘born again’ prophecy-believing messianic Christians, continue to grow strong. But in the end it will come to, little does it matter that Christ has been excluded from the Holy Land.

Then, where shall the Prince of Peace go?

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Apostolic Rule

The holy apostle Paul writes, ‘Be united in following my rule of life. Take as your models everybody who is already doing this and study them as you used to study us’ (Philippians 3:17). The little manual which follows, entitled The Apostolic Rule, is the product of my first years as an adult Christian, when I was being grounded in the Word of God by reading it constantly every day. My bible was the Jerusalem Bible, first published in English in 1966, the work of the School of Biblical Studies in Jerusalem. I was drawn to this version because it was in modern English and charged with an energy that brought the words to life in a way that I had never experienced before. The use of the name Yahweh in the Old Testament made my contact with the Lord immediate and concrete and, strangely, unreligious. The way that the Old Testament apocryphal books are smoothly integrated into the Jerusalem Bible also appealed to me. Finally, the book of Psalms became my daily prayerbook, translated as they are with poetic rhythm and compelling imagery. Although I sometimes read The New English Bible, the Good News Bible, and The Living Bible, to gain further insight, the Jerusalem Bible continues to speak the Word of God to me with directness and clarity, and it is from this version that I collected the extracts that became The Apostolic Rule.

Speaking of the words of divine scripture, the Word of God declares in Psalm 19, that ‘more desirable than gold, even than the finest gold, His words are sweeter than honey, even than honey that drips from the comb. Thus Your servant is formed by them, observance brings great reward’ (Psalm 19:10-11). And further, in the prophet Isaiah, ‘I have not spoken in secret in some corner of a darkned land! I, the Lord, speak with directness! I express Myself with clarity!’ (Isaiah 45:19).

As I read the apostolic writings, the letters of Paul, of Peter, John, James the brother of the Lord, and Jude, it became clear to me that the rule of Christian life was contained in them. As I studied the epistles over and over, certain verses and passages began to stand out as powerful utterances and expressions of this rule. I copied them out in a little notebook and divided them into ‘chapters’ called by the name of the epistle where they were written, such as ‘The Roman Rule’ from the letter to the Romans. The verses found in Paul’s letters to individuals I grouped under the apostle’s name, as ‘The Pauline Rule,’ even though he also wrote letters to the churches. This is the plan I followed, harvesting powerful living words from every one of the epistles from Romans to Jude.

Now, please notice that I am not calling this manual ‘The Apostolic Rules’ in the plural, because it is not the following of rules that makes a Christian life. The ‘rule’ of Christian life referred to by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians is more like a ruler (or gauge, as we might call it today), a standard against which we compare our life, or perhaps a specific pattern on which we model our life. That seems to be what the apostle is trying to tell us.

The verses and passages that I collected in my notebook were therefore not normally expressed as ‘rules’ but rather in the form of (1) concrete commands, (2) definitions, (3) exhortations, and (4) reasons for behavior. The first four passages in ‘The Roman Rule’ are examples of exactly these forms.

Sometimes a verse is removed from its context because that part of the passage brings out the meaning better than does the whole. It should focus our attention on what is essential and suggest to us a plan of action. No comments clutter the text of the verses presented, because ‘the anointing He gave you teaches you everything’ (1 John 2:27).  It is important to remember that reading a manual like this one is never a substitute for studying the bible itself, in which we will always find the life-giving promises of the Word of God, who says, ‘If you make My word your home, you will indeed be My disciples’ (John 8:31). ‘And My Father will love you, and We shall come to you and make Our home with you’ (John 14:23).

Turning back to Psalm 19, we read, ‘The Law of Yahweh is perfect, new life for the soul; the decree of Yahweh is trustworthy, wisdom for the simple. The precepts of Yahweh are upright, joy for the heart; the commandment of Yahweh is clear, light for the eyes. The fear of Yahweh is pure, lasting for ever; the judgments of Yahweh are true, righteous every one, more desirable than gold, even than the finest gold; His words are sweeter than honey, even than honey that drips from the comb. Thus Your servant is formed by them, observance brings great reward. But who can detect his own failings? Wash out my hidden faults, and from pride preserve Your servant, never let it dominate me. So shall I be above reproach, free from grave sin. May the words of my mouth always find favor, and the whispering of my heart, in Your presence, Yahweh, my Rock, my Redeemer!’ (Psalm 19:7-14).

The Apostolic Rule — Passages pulled from all the epistles of the New Testament and organized by book, that reveal how simple and direct are the instructions that the apostles have left us about how to live the Christian life. Click HERE to download a PDF of the entire booklet (40 pages) which you can print out.
Click the links below to read each chapter on line.

The Apostolic Rule: 

Bless my enemies

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Enemies have driven me into your embrace more than friends have.
Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.
Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world.
Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an un-hunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself.
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments.
They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself.
They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish.
Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf. Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.
WheneverI have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.
Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.
Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.
Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of your garment.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Bless them and multiply them;
multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:
so that my fleeing to You may have no return;
so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;
so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;
so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger;
so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven; ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows,
that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.
One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.
It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good
and who has done me more evil in the world:
friends or enemies.

Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies.
A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand.
But a son blesses them, for he understands.
For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life.
Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.

Bless my enemies, O Lord.
Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Absolute

Remember the Good News that I carry, ‘Jesus Christ risen from the dead, sprung from the race of David’.
2 Timothy 2:8 Jerusalem Bible

Μνημονευε Ιησουν Χριστον εγηγερμενον εκ νεκρων εκ σπερματος Δαυιδ κατα το ευαγγελιον μου

“Truth is so absolute, so real, so personal…”

We have grown so accustomed to be told that what we believe or know to be true is just our opinion, that we have retreated into a subservience, into a state of submission, to the prevailing culture, where there are no absolutes in anything.

Yet, most of the facts of our everyday existence, as well as the findings of hard science and the immutable laws of mathematics, are absolute truths. We fail to notice this, or else are forced to think that these are ‘objective’ while everything else is ‘subjective.’

The world wants us to believe that there are no either/ors in the world of truth, only a continuum of opinions, infinite at both extremes, and as long as we’re willing to be located at some point on that continuum, smiling in both directions, they are happy.

Yet, if we are Christians, it is not because we belong to a ‘faith tradition’ but because we have come to know a Person, and we have evidence that He has come to know us, and not only come to know us, but has changed us in a very absolute way.

Something called ‘the Good News’ really exists. It has an ‘objective’ reality. It is not something we made up, nothing we could have invented, any more than we could have invented the flow of history or the principles of mathematics. It’s real ‘all on its own.’

Yet, some Christians think that it’s their private possession, a kind of consolation prize for having to put up with living in such a contrary and sinful world. Owning it justifies them in feeling superior, or embattled, foxes unable to eat the wild grapes.

This Good News is absolute, is real, and is personal, no matter how you look at it. Jesus Christ risen from the dead, sprung from the race of David. Either it’s true, absolutely true, real and personal, or it’s simply false, a personal opinion, an assertion.

If it is true, why are we not shouting it from the housetops? If it’s true, why are we not living as if it really happened? If it is true, why do we let people tell us, ‘it’s your opinion, it’s just a story, like every thing else that’s too good to be true’?

No, brothers. There is absolute Truth. You can’t own it. He owns you. It’s not a spade to dig with, unless you dig your own grave. It’s not a crown for you to wear, but one for you to cast at His feet. Never surrender to the lie, not even by being nice.

There is absolute Truth. He is there, always, and He is with those who accept Him. He has made them the children of God. There is also the lie, and the father of lies, and however he dresses it up, the lie is still what it is, a denial of Him who is.

As holy apostle John writes,
‘Children, be on your guard against false gods.’

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Most of all, trust

So it's easy, you say, to not believe in God, to tell people you don't believe, and to say you don't care what others think. Do you really think it's as easy as that? Without knowing for sure whether something or someone does or doesn't exist, to just say, 'I don't believe'? Do you think that by not believing in God, He (or she, or it) will just go away? Well, if God doesn't exist, yes, that works just fine. But, what if He does?

You can no more throw away the floor that you're standing on than throw away God. Whether or not you can see Him, or hear Him, it is He that is holding you up, He that is the ground under your feet that lets you stand at all. Ever try to stand on thin air? It simply doesn't work. If you've nothing to stand on, you don't stand at all. But aha! you are standing, I see! So, there has to be something under you.

True, if you're blind you can't see the floor, but you're still standing on it, and if you just bend down, you can touch it. You can feel its texture. You can't know its color, maybe, but you can tell if its hard or soft, hot or cold, wet or dry. Yes, even a blind person can tell a lot about something just by feeling it.

But there's sound too. The floor doesn't make much sound when you walk on it, just a squeak here and there, now and then. But if you fall flat on your face against it—now, there's something more than just sound! Ouch! Yes, you can feel the floor very well when it meets you face to face, even if you can't see it, and there's the sound—actually two sounds: the thud of you hitting the floor, and your own voice cursing the darkness.

So much for floors. God, if He does exist, is certainly more than a floor. The bible says He is the ground of our being. If you'd ever read the book and take what it says seriously, you might be in for a surprise. Almost everything about God that makes you not like Him, not be interested in Him, not want to believe in Him, is simply not there.

Oh yes, you can read your own ideas into those ancient words, and pat yourself on the back, and be smug and tell Him 'I told you so' and 'I knew it all along—you hate me.' But you've muzzled the ox while it's treading out the corn, and you're the ox! Everything that God has placed in the manger is for us, His animals, to eat. If it were just ordinary corn, we should've been satisfied. But no, He has filled the manger with—Himself!

So that old, dust-covered book that someone (maybe a parent who loves you) gave you and which you've been using as a book-end or a coaster for your drink is actually a manger full of food, full of the most delicious food, but all along you've believed it was just full of damp straw and maybe a moldy turnip or two, and you're still not about to eat from it, because that's all you believe is in there.

Ah yes, back to not believing in God. Anyone can say that, but if you actually try to walk that road you'll find, not that it leads nowhere, but that it declines into oblivion, not like a smudged impressionist painting of God-knows-what, but a mental tunnel that gets narrower and darker as you are pulled into it. Yes, I did say pulled. Black holes are not only found in the depths of outer space, but inside our depths as well.

That's because—I know you didn't ask and could care less, but—everything that we can see, hear, taste, feel and touch outside ourselves has a counterpart, a mirror image, inside us. Even that dusty old book I mentioned is inside you, even though you're not interested in reading it, outside or inside. But that's okay, because like the God you say you don't believe in, that book isn't going to go away either. It can't. If it did, you'd have nothing to stand on. And here you are, still standing.

So the time is Easter, and the tra-la-la of spring and chocolate bunnies and colored eggs rolling down grassy slopes has infiltrated and camouflaged the event that remakes all of time and space, all of nature, everything visible and invisible, yes, even you. Everyone fails in their flying leap to adulthood the first time they try—everyone. And most people continue failing on and off for a long while, but that's part of the training. Yes, the God you say you don't believe in is, has been, and will be training you for a very long time.

You're in something more than a foreign language class that you can pretend to take and then forget as soon as you graduate. No, you're going to be learning His language for a very, very long time. You'll never be able to speak it fluently by just reading the dialogs to yourself. You actually have to try speaking what you want to say, and to Him. Not too soon nor too late, one of these days, the God you don't believe in will start talking to you because you've learned enough of His language to start to understand.

I hope when that happens you won't do what I tried to do—tell Him I knew He was there but didn't want to believe because I had too much invested in things I liked that I didn't want to give up. If you hear such things going through your mind or passing your lips when you finally stand before Him and not only hear but feel His voice, you'll know what to do. I did, and I'm no different from you. I couldn't believe in Him until I knew for sure that He believed in me. After that, it wasn't a question of belief anymore at all. Knowing, yes maybe, but most of all, trust.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

But whom do you trust?

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request.
“Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.”
John 12:20 NIV

For most church-going Christians, the main service on a Sunday is usually our only opportunity to hear the Word of God in the context of worship. This is a matter of the highest importance for the Orthodox Christian, because according to our belief, the Word of God can only be fully and correctly understood in the context of worship. That’s why Orthodoxy has two primary meanings to us, right-thinking, and right-worshipping.

For any Christian who goes to church, the main service is where you go “to see Jesus,” or as Bonhoeffer puts it, to bring yourself to a place “where faith is possible.” In many churches, the proclamation of the good news, the gospel, consists either in a combination of bible readings and a sermon, or a sermon alone containing a series of bible texts along with their explanation. In either case, the preacher must realize what great responsibility he has to show the people Jesus, and how brief a time he has to do that.


One Sunday morning at Aghía Triás, my family church, the scripture texts were Galatians 2:16-20 and Luke 8:41-56. As an added bonus, we were commemorating Nektarios of Ægina, a recent “canonized” saint famous for his gift of healing, especially cancer. The message of the Galatians portion can be summed up in verse 21 which was not read, “If the law can justify us, there is no point in the death of Christ.” The gospel reading was the story of the woman with the hemorrhage, and the raising to life of the dead daughter of Jairus, a Jewish synagogue official. The final verse of the Luke portion was “Her parents were astonished, but He ordered them not to tell anyone what had happened.”

Well, as it turns out, our preacher that morning listened to Jesus’ instructions, and didn’t tell us anything about the raising of Jairus’ daughter, or even enlighten us further on what holy apostle Paul wrote about the place of the law in a Christian’s life. No, he didn’t preach anything as homely as that. Instead, we were treated to a session on self-realization, finding out who we really are, and then sticking to our guns through thick and thin, no matter what people might think of us.

What did I learn from the sermon? A lot of things, actually.
Our preacher had been to Greece, where he tried to buy an iced coffee milk at a kiosk, but ended up asking the woman if he could sell her a cup of coffee. Bad Greek! He also was at the school in Athens that Nektarios, the saint of the day, had once directed. While there, he was attacked by a giant cockroach just as we was beginning to pray at a proskynitárion (prayer station). Bad bug!


When he finally finished his stories and started preaching, we were treated to a profound verse from the poet Hafiz, “of the Muslim tradition,” who wrote that we should have our chairs pulled out from under us, so that we could fall on God, and find out who we really are. Amazing! I didn’t know that Islam had so much to offer us Christian Orthodox.

From there, the sermon led us onwards and upwards to the feet of Nektarios the saint. Not mentioning anything, really, about the saint’s life of intercession for the sick, our preacher told the story of Nektarios from a political angle, how he was the promising successor to Patriarch Sophronios II of Alexandria but through court gossip and slander was demoted and exiled, even though “the people of Alexandria loved him.” Nektarios showed his mettle, though, in being himself, knowing who he really was, and wasn’t bothered in the least by his wrongful dumping by the patriarch. He went to head the school in Athens. Later, he quietly ordained the first two Greek Orthodox deaconesses in modern times, an abbess and a nun from a convent that he was in charge of. He actually took them “into the altar,” where women must not go according to church rules, and ordained them, putting the deacon’s vestments on them and everything. Of course, that got him in trouble, but he didn’t care, and he didn’t back down. He was right, and the church of those days was wrong. This happened long before any other churches were ordaining women to the ministry.

As far as I could tell—and I was listening to the preacher while praying the psalms as I often do during sermons—the message our preacher decided to use his precious twenty minutes with us per week on, was that (1) we should discover who we really are, (2) follow whatever we know is right, (3) stand our ground and (4) not back down in the face of opposition from the world. Nektarios was an example of that. Hafiz demonstrates that even the Muslims do as much. Did I get the message right? I hope so.

But what I really wanted to hear was Jesus’ word to me that day. And maybe I did!

Towards the end of his sermon, the preacher took us back to the gospel account. He encouraged us with the words that Jesus spoke to Jairus, “Do not be afraid, only trust…” So that’s what it all boils down to, trust. And I thought to myself, and asked again my old question, “But whom do you trust?”

Monday, July 21, 2014

Not quite ready-made

Πιστεύω εις ένα Θεόν, Πατέρα, Παντοκράτορα, ποιητήν ουρανού και γής…
I trust in one God, Father, Almighty, Poet of heaven and earth…
Symbol of Nicaea

People can be beautiful, well-born, well-connected, well-educated, healthy, prosperous, popular. They can be loved, respected, obeyed and even feared (if that’s their wish). They can have everything that they have ever wanted, dreamed of, desired and adored. In spite of all this, they can still be unhappy, depressed, dissatisfied, and even desperate (cf. Ecclesiastes 2). We’ve seen it in novels and movies, heard it sung in songs, met it firsthand in the people around us and, worst of all, experienced it in ourselves. Whether we are beautiful or not, noble or not, famous or not, sophisticated or not, healthy or not, wealthy or not, loved or not, we still find ourselves unhappy, depressed, dissatisfied, and even desperate at times.

This is no accident, as if the Poet of heaven and earth had failed to write us as perfectly complete poems. His poetry, unlike ours, does not simply get written on a page and then wait for a voice to bring it to life. No, His poems once written are living beings, taking on His life, having voices of their own. Voices and, yes, wills, of their own. The poems of the Poet of heaven and earth are alive with His life, and He writes them not quite ready-made. Why is this? Because He wants to see how His poems will fulfill themselves, what lines they will add to present themselves, complete and, yes, perfect before Him and before the whole Universe.

Given everything we need, we are commanded to be fruitful and multiply (cf. Genesis 1:28). Handing over to us His treasures (cf. Matthew 25:14-30), we are commanded to invest them. He goes away, He steps back, He opens for us a room in time and space from which He withdraws, and He watches from behind our wall (cf. Song of Songs, 2:9), to see what we will do. He watches, not waiting for mistakes to correct and punish, but to see what we will do with what He has bestowed on us, each of us receiving a completely unique nature. He wants to see what we will do with that nature, how we will fill the absence. Will it be with a longing for His presence, or with a lust for nothingness. For only He can fill the place in our lives from which He has withdrawn Himself.

What a love, what a trust the Poet of heaven and earth has, that He writes His poems with such life that they become living themselves, that He writes them unfinished, so that they may finish themselves and return to Him a gift that only they can offer. The Poet of heaven and earth is like a husband who withdraws, giving his bride the freedom to love him because she wants to, not because she must, waiting to see her response when he puts his hand through the notch in her door. “My lover thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him” (Song of Songs, 5:4). Will she get up quickly, and run to open to him? Will she delay, and then have to search for him?

Yes, Father, Almighty, the Poet of heaven and earth, and the Divine Logos, and we His poems, written unfinished, so we can complete ourselves by the Voice of the Spirit, the audience hall the Universe, the angels waiting for the Recitation to begin, wondering, hushed in expectation, what will be heard from us on the Last Day (cf. 1 Peter 1:12), what missing lines will be found, what hidden treasures brought to light?

Glory to You, O God, glory to You, who have shown us the Light!
Δόξα σοι ο Θεος, δόξα σοι τω δείξαντι το φως!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rescued by wedding guests

Whenever I return to a stint of reading the early fathers, that is, those before and just after the peace of the Church wrought by Constantine, I’m always struck by their modernity and the freshness that leaps out at me as I read. It makes me wonder just what ‘modern’ means.

I’ve read somewhere that the beginning of ‘modern’ times occurred in different centuries in different places. Some say in Europe they began in AD 1300 with Dante, others that Francis of Assisi is the first ‘modern’ man in the West: it all depends on when the writer thinks the medieval age ended. In the Far East, modern times are said to have begun during the Northern Sung dynasty, around the year AD 1000, and the criteria are such things as the appearance of printing, paper money, and machinery.

In my view, what I mean as ‘modern’ has to do with machinery definitely, but even more with the frank and unafraid willingness to question everything to get at the root of truth. This is something that I think we lost during the ‘Church Age’ in the West, when other priorities were substituted for it. The religiosity of medieval Christianity did not even make room for real questions to be asked, hence, the stagnation that took centuries to overcome.

Back to my topic, the written testimonies of the early Christians.

Eusebius’ History of the Church was my leisure reading matter this morning. His text reads as fluently and frankly as if it were written just yesterday, and the events he recounts are both easy to picture and believe as accurate. What a far cry from the miracle stories of Christian piety, always avid to believe anything as long as it’s monstrous—like St Nicholas of Myra reassembling and revivifying the bodies of some boys who had been hacked to pieces and concealed in barrels of pickles—or was it wine?

I read for a long while about the Church Father Origen of Alexandria who escaped being canonized as Saint Origen for some of his eccentricities of belief or at least of expression. One of his funnier speculations was that our resurrection bodies would be perfect spheres, but he also speculated on pre-existence of the soul and other ideas bordering on pagan philosophy. This speculation, in spite of his sufferings in the Decian persecution, earned him the indignity of being a suspect of heresy. Looking at him through the ‘modern’ approach that one finds in Eusebius’ history, I’d say that Origen deserves better from his ‘carping critics’ as Eusebius calls them. I guess Origen will just have to be classed with Martin Luther, who also falls under the axe of true piety, as he cries out,Let the saints canonize themselves!’

Now, for the real topic, a story that I found both exciting and interesting, written in History of the Church, Book 6, Chapter 40, entitled What happened to Dionysius. The account itself was written in a letter by Dionysius, and it is quoted in the book.

I speak as in the presence of God, who knows whether I am lying. I did not act on my own judgement or without God when I made my escape; but even before that, when Decius announced his persecution, Sabinus then and there dispatched a frumentarius to hunt me out, and I stayed at home for four days waiting for him to arrive. But though he went round searching every spot—roads, rivers, fields—where he guessed I was hiding or walking, he was smitten with blindness and did not find the house; he never imagined that when an object of persecution I should stay at home! It was only after four days, when God commanded me to go elsewhere, and by a miracle made it possible, that I set out along with the boys and many of the brethren. That this was indeed a work of divine providence was proved by what followed, when perhaps we were of use to some.

Let me interject two observations:

Dionysius tells, almost casually as if it were nothing remarkable, that God commanded him to go elsewhere. These early Christians like us had, and knew they had, direct access to God, without having to resort to a chain of command as later develops in the Church, eventually making it unimaginable in the Dark Ages that anyone but a perfect saint could actually talk to God and get His personal attention, as does Dionysius. This, to me, is a sign of modernity.

The other thing I want to notice is his use of the word miracle. As he continues to tell his story, the miraculous aspect reveals itself to be the acknowledgment that God was personally and intimately directing the flow of events. This too strikes me as modern, that is, frank and honest, not given to exaggeration or tale-spinning.

Now, to finish the story, Dionysius continues…

About sunset, my companions and I were caught by the soldiers and taken to Taposiris; but by the purpose of God it happened that Timothy was absent and was not caught. When he arrived later, he found the house empty except for a guard of servants, and learnt that we had been captured without hope of release…

And how was God’s wonderful mercy shown? You shall hear the truth. As Timothy fled distracted, he was met by one of the villagers on his way to attend a wedding-feast—which in those parts meant an all-night celebration—who asked why he was in such a hurry. He told the truth without hesitation, whereupon the other went in and informed the guests as they reclined at table. With one accord, as if at a signal, they all sprang to their feet, came as fast as their legs could carry them, and burst in where we were with such terrifying shouts that the soldiers guarding us instantly took to their heels. Then, they stood over us, as we lay on bare mattresses.

At first, God knows, I thought they were bandits who had come to plunder and steal, so I stayed on the bed. I had nothing on but a linen shirt; my other clothes that were lying near I held out to them. But they told me to get up and make a bolt for it. Then I realised what they had come for, and called out, begging and beseeching them to go away and let us be. If they wanted to do me a good turn, they had better forestall my captors and cut off my head themselves. While I shouted like this, they pulled me up by force, as my companions who shared all my adventures know. I let myself fall on my back to the floor, but they grasped me by hands and feet and dragged me out, followed by those who witnessed the whole scene, Gaius, Faustus, Peter, and Paul, who picked me up and carried me out of the village, set me on a donkey bareback, and led me away.


Now, in conclusion I ask you, brethren, isn’t this a great story? Doesn’t it ring true, and even entertain us in a way that doesn’t offend true piety, by the candid artlessness of the author? Here we have an example of what a Christian was like in the third century, before the beginning of the Church Age. There’s a lot here to be learned, and also to help us examine ourselves, to make sure that the faith that we have is the same as that of these early Christians. Reading books like these makes me think that what we have known as the ‘modern’ age has not so much to do with an era of chrónos time, but rather with moments of kairós time scattered through human history.

If this be true, what of those who call the present ‘post-modern’? Must we, like Dionysius, have to be yanked out of our resignation by Christ’s wedding guests, flung bareback on an ass, and set free?

She points the way

Mary of Nazareth was invited to the wedding in Cana. Her son Jesus and His disciples were also invited. This shows that if you invite Jesus into a situation, anything can happen. This shows that Jesus will come to as mundane a thing as a village wedding. This shows that no one and nothing is unimportant to Him.

Things don’t go as expected. They run out of wine. Mary turns to Jesus and says, “They have no more wine.” She knows her own son. She knows what He can do. She bore Him, she raised Him. It wasn’t as if she was going to force Him to do anything, but three things are being demonstrated here.

She is His mother, so as a son He will honor her by doing what she asks. She trusts Him to do what is right. Without even having to ask Him, she merely brings it to His attention, saying in effect “Thy will be done” in this situation. She believes that He is the Son of God, and that He can do all.

His response, “What has this got to do with you and me?” draws out the fact that what happens next is the result of man (in this case woman) and God working together. When He says, “My time has not yet come,” demonstrates that faith can even move mountains, “If you undo your will for the will of heaven, heaven will undo its will for yours.”

John has to record this miracle, because it’s the first of the miracles of Jesus, and the first of anything always shows the characteristics of all the rest: A miracle of Jesus always has an objective beyond itself. It is never done just for show, as a magic trick is. It never does anything that is not already being done in the natural world, though in a different way, as regards time or sequence.

In the miracle of changing the water to wine, the objective beyond itself was to reveal the Son of God to His disciples, to initiate their faith in Him. The miracle was not made into a spectacle. Only the man who brought the new wine to the master of ceremonies knew exactly what had happened. The disciples would have noticed something had happened, and the truth of it would have circulated only among them. Water does not normally change into wine without going through several more natural steps: being absorbed into the grape vines, being stored in the grapes, being fermented with the juice of the grapes, and being stored in wineskins to preserve it from changing further into vinegar. Jesus merely eliminates some of the steps.

Is the focus on Mary or on her divine Son Jesus of Nazareth in this story? Or is the focus on the miracle? Each part of the story—a true story by the way, not a didactic myth—is of equal importance.

What is important here is to understand that nothing happens without the synergy between man and God. If God willed to do all without man’s participation, we would not have been created. God has chosen to include us in His divine plan so intimately that He comes to dwell in our midst, not a spiritual presence only—a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night—but as one of us. When He comes to live as one of us, He follows His commandments perfectly, even to the point of honoring his mother. What draws Him into participation in the life of man is… our invitation, our trusting His righteousness, our bringing to His attention our concerns, our belief that He can do all, our doing what He asks of us.

As always, Mary of Nazareth, the first Christian, shows us the way, shows us her Divine Son, who He is, what He does, what He wills. That is why one of the ikons of Christ’s humanity showing His mother holding him in her lap and pointing towards Him is called Οδηγήτρια, Odigítria or “She points the Way.”
True to her prophecy, we are among those generations who call her “blessed” till the end of time, and for good reason. She has followed Him to the uttermost, and so He has glorified her in Himself, just as He will glorify all those who, imitating her faith, will be glorified above the denizens of mere earth, and raised on high, will live in the family of the Holy Triad forever.

Life shall go for life

And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Deuteronomy 19:21

Things take time. The saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Another saying I learned from my mentor when I was catechized into the Church, “A fast change in Orthodoxy is one that takes about four hundred years.” I noticed, when studying Rabbinical Judaism, that converts are not readily received. A man approaches the rabbi and says, “I want to become one of you,” and the rabbi rebuffs him, scorns him even, and tells him to go away. The man is undaunted; he comes back, gives it another try. The rabbi receives him a bit more kindly, but explains to him that becoming a Jew won’t be good for him: Jews are plagued by so many persecutions; he surely won’t be able to take it. Again, he is rebuffed, and sent away. The man is confused, but determined. He returns, insisting to the rabbi that he is serious and begins to show reasons why he wants to be one of the chosen people. The rabbi listens a little longer, challenges him again, but lets him stay, just this once. Gradually, the persistence of the convert and the reluctance of the rabbi results in either final acceptance or final rejection. The process takes time.

The Orthodox Church in America, not the jurisdiction but the fact, also by and large throws obstacles in the way of converts racing to the finish line, to slow them down a bit, while at the same time offering hospitality, the “love of strangers” to those who come hesitantly, meekly, to observe the ways of Orthodoxy. It is not as some have unjustly criticized, a convert-hungry, mechanical contraption that sucks in converts like a whale feeding on plankton. A true convert coming to Orthodoxy is often like Jonah, fleeing from God only to be swallowed and caught in the belly of a whale—and that’s no plankton! Unlike Jonah, however, the convert is not spewn out to languish in self-pity under a withering vine, upset because “outsiders” are repenting and being saved. Rather he or she is spewn out of the Orthodox incubator, the process of formal and informal catechesis, to be sent to others, as they are now “in Christ,” as His witnesses.
We are all familiar with the high profile evangelistic crusades wherein a preacher comes and exhorts the audience to turn from their sins and accept Christ, and then people start streaming up to do just that, and to be prayed over, and ostensibly start their new life in Christ. Whatever is really happening in these crusades, God knows. But the world looks on, uncomprehending, because what it often sees is what Christ described as “seed falling among thorns,” and it is not convinced. The world wants it all right now, and expects that if Christ is the God that His followers claim He is, that’s how it should work. The truth is quite different. Conversion to Christ and life in Him may be instigated by a lightning strike, but that isn’t how it is maintained, grows, and bears fruit. Salvation is a process.
It takes time.

The law of Torah cited above from the book of Deuteronomy is a familiar one. We’ve all heard it at least in its shortened form, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” We all know this has something to do with crime and punishment, or with justice, but certainly not with mercy. It seems very unmerciful, in fact. If we know our bibles, we remember that Christ used this scripture to build upon it His teaching that we should “turn the other cheek” if we are struck on one. We think that is the end of it. Nothing more needs to be said. It’s just an ideal we are supposed to strive for, but rarely succeed. We’re all too ready to smite the offender, give “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” and Christ will just have to put up with us, so we bring the issue to happy closure by asking for His forgiveness.
“Lord, have mercy.”

Why do I cite this bible verse? Well, it means something entirely different to me. To me, it is linked to what holy apostle John writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). To me, this is what life for life means, indeed, even what the other incidentals mean, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Since Christ gave life for life, saving us, we too sharing in His forbearance, mercy and love, can also give life for life. Ours.
What does this mean?

Things take time. The world teaches us that “time is money,” and most of us, unconsciously at least, have believed this saying. We think we own our time, that we own ourselves, but scripture says, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price.” This buying of souls for eternal life goes on even today, because Christ is in our midst, He is among us. In us, He walks through the world seeking His lost sheep. When He finds them, He cares for them. He doesn’t just pick them up, hurry over to the sheep pen, and drop them in. No, He doesn’t treat us like that, but He remains with us, at our side, to guide and restore us, to save us.

Following Jesus, this is what we also do, no matter how long it takes.

Love is like the feet

Love is the hallmark of the true Church—nothing else!—and where love is, God is, Christ is, the Holy Spirit is. Christ does not tell us in the gospels, "Make sure each other is believing in exactly the right doctrine," but rather ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’

I am not saying that doctrine is unimportant, but that it is secondary.

Love is like the feet, very humble, but they're the parts of the body that enable you to follow Jesus, they lead you to Him.

Doctrine is like the head, full of itself, often lost in the clouds of speculation, often misguiding the feet, often putting up "mental roadblocks" where the feet know better, where the feet would go if not restrained.

No one has ever walked by using his head as the organ of locomotion. If you don't have feet, then you must use a wheelchair, but you still don't hop along on your head.

The church I belong to is the one where we are all of one mind because we are all of one loving heart.

The mind of Christ is the only mind that is not flawed, the only mind that does not fantasize, lie or lead astray, or prevent the blessed feet from walking after Him.

The church I belong to is really that one, you and me, and our Lord, Master and Savior is here with us, among us, and within us,
He pitched His tent among us and became man,’ so that we might pitch our tent in the heavenlies, and there abide forever in the wedding feast of the Lamb.

What does Christ see when He looks upon the Church?

Nothing and no one that He hasn't placed there.
Whatever and whoever is of the world is as invisible to us, as we are to it and to them.

The work of an historian

Since when is the Gospel a guardian of the one true faith, the opponent of all false religions, the tool of God’s vengeance and wrath on the pagans? Yet in the historical record, we find that Christianity, which owes its very existence to the Gospel, is often found ‘beating… plowshares into swords and… pruning hooks into spears,’ and ‘weaklings’ saying ‘that they are warriors’ (Joel 3:10). While it aggresses, it seems to forget that the Gospel is ‘good news’ and that Jesus came ‘to seek and save those who are lost’ (Luke 19:10). This happens not only on a grand scale, nation against nation (Christians against Jews or Muslims), even confession against confession (Christians ‘crusading’ against each other) under institutional direction, but even more often on a small scale, man against man, under no leadership at all.

What do I mean by this? What I mean is, Christianity is whatever people call Christianity. Sometimes it has little or nothing to do with the Gospel or with Jesus Christ at all. Often it is just a cover for other motives, none of them honest, though usually hidden from their owners by what can be called ‘invincible ignorance.’

Ironically this ignorance comes from people reading the Bible and fitting its contents to what they already have in mind, whether doctrines only or actions as well, since the one often leads to the other. How is this possible? The Bible is supposed to be the source of all wisdom, knowledge and blessing. How can reading the Bible result in the kind of ignorance that produces fanaticism? Easy, ‘the Bible says what I want it to say,’ and it’s infallible, so if you disagree, you’re wrong.

The historian, especially the Christian historian, has his work cut out for him. If there is a Christianity different from the one that writes big in the world, where is it? How do you find it? Is it documented? ‘Because, if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.’ No, not really. This popular but cynical saying is absolutely false. Lots of things happen that are never documented. In fact, most things aren’t, yet they happen anyway. The historian, though, does have a real job to do, if he is honest. To collect the facts and interpret them in a constructive and honest way.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

επι της γης … εν τοις ουρανοις

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. 
Matthew 16:13-20

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” 
Matthew 28:16-20

Upon the earth… in the heavens. What kind of power the Son of God has granted to us! Who is He giving this power to? Is it just to the apostle Peter, or is it to the Pope (who some say is the successor of that apostle), or is it to all of us? On this question hinges not only the history of Europe for the last two thousand years, but the history of everyone of us, not just in Europe, but all over the world.

We can take a very literal view of this and conclude that it is only the apostle, or we can accept the historic view and conclude that it is to the Church in all its forms, especially in the form we personally adhere to. Many of us will excuse ourselves and be resigned ‘not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.’ ‘After all,’ we think, ‘Christ commanded this,’ forgetting that He had yet to be risen from the dead.

The gates of Hades. ‘How does this fit into what Christ is telling us? Didn’t He demolish those gates by His resurrection? If He did, how could they overcome the Church?’ We can play this game all day long, all our lives, batting around bible verses, thinking that we are saved or even just safe, enclosed within the strong walls of the Church, because someone has been given the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Someone else, not us. We are not worthy. We don’t have enough faith. He can’t be speaking to us. Otherwise, there would be no need for pastors, preachers, popes and presidents. History is history. We absolve ourselves and disappear into the kingdom of crowds, having exchanged our glory for shame. Whatever else is true about Christ, the Church, or ourselves, ‘that man is you’ doesn’t apply to us.

The unbelieving world is happy with this, and with us. They can feel justified by their own righteousness, having rejected the righteousness that comes from faith. They need neither Christ nor the Church. Being a Christian is just belonging to another club. We’ve given them the proof by not giving them ‘the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.’ How could we have, if the Truth is not in us?

Yet, in spite of what we have done or have not done with the good news that Christ gives, not gave, into our hands, and whether or not we recognize Him who stands in our midst among the golden lampstands, He still walks in the world seeking His lost sheep, still sows His good seed in fields we sow with tares, still buries the treasures of the Kingdom of Heaven where they will be found by those who seek.

His commandments are still with us, they are living, not dead, written in our flesh, not in stone, waiting for our resurrection at the sound of the trumpet, the same which sounded for John the Revelator, summoning him to attend to the vision of Him who was, who is, and who is to come, the same who says to us, ‘surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ He is here, with us, now, everywhere.

Upon the earth… in the heavens, ‘…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ It is the picture of progression. It is sown as a fleshly body, it is harvested as a spiritual body. These are words spoken to us, by Him who is ‘in the heavens’ yet walks ‘upon the earth’, that whatever we do upon the earth is done in the heavens.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…”