Sunday, November 30, 2014

We are set free

‘Words… words, Bernardo!
There was a time when I believed in words!’


Francesco di Bernardone, in the cold of a snowy winter morning standing barefoot atop the stone wall of the ancient, consecrated ruin of San Damiano church, where he was carefully placing stones to rebuild it, responded to his sincere but confused best friend, Bernardo da Quintavalle, a knight just returned home from the Crusades, who had ambiguously offered, ‘I want to help you,’ without really understanding what that help would mean.

What started out as a vague offer of help spoken out of sympathy, in the end became a life-long devotion not only to his friend, but to a life of poverty and chastity, following the example of Jesus Christ.

How little we know what the words we think and say really mean. We live in mental and emotional worlds whose boundaries and rules are maintained by words that we have established by repeated use, half the time knowing that they were never intentional, never what we really wanted to say or think, but were forced to, by words coming at us like an armed assault by others. An army of words can capture whole nations to harness them for good or evil.

A most difficult word is ‘love’, because to say it unhinges huge doors and evokes from ourselves and others immense commitments, most of which we do not understand and cannot truly fulfill. When this becomes clear to us, gradually, we find ourselves saying ‘love’ with new meaning, or even with no meaning at all. The doors we removed from the walls of our hearts, once doorways lavished with garlands, become gaping holes resulting from bombardment.

Technically, our words can be quite specific when we speak of concrete things. It’s when we use them to express immaterial things that we get into trouble. Yet social life, even inner life, without them is impossible. It is here that words can become means of unity or division, both resulting from their vagueness and liquidity. Here words are either symbolic, bringing together, or diabolic, splitting apart, ‘a time for throwing stones away, a time for gathering them up’ (Ecclesiastes 3:5).

Hence we have to call the confession of the Christian faith the ‘symbol’ of Nicaea, not the ‘creed’ as many others do. It is not the Truth, but speaking its words unites us to the Truth in a way that mouthing the words of a mere belief system cannot do. We needn’t have to call upon God to distract us from building heaven-reaching towers by dividing our tongues as at Babel. It is obvious that we have already divided our own tongues. That’s why He reverses our work with the Nicene symbol.

So we are captive to the words we speak whether in knowledge or ignorance, whether in clarity or cloud, and what results from our captivity is either heaven on earth, or hell, but mostly in between. The Lord says openly, ‘So I tell you this, that for every unfounded word men utter they will answer on Judgment Day, since it is by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words condemned’ (Matthew 12:37). Calling the Word of God to mind, in fact living in Him, from captivity we are set free.

Asleep in our boat

Sometimes I wonder, when Jesus fell asleep with His head on a cushion in the disciples' fishing boat, what was He doing? He must have gone out countless times with them on that fickle lake, in clear weather and in foul, by night and by day. Did He often just fall asleep? Was He tired, or just bored with what was going on? Of Him, if of no one else, this saying is at least true, ‘I sleep, but my heart is awake,’ yet He is not the Bride (who speaks these words in the Song of Songs), but the Beloved whom the psalmist extols, ‘of all men You are the most handsome, Your lips are moist with grace, for God has blessed You forever’ (Psalm 45:2 Jerusalem Bible).

When the Word and Son of God became man, was that too a kind of ‘sleep in the boat’?
I mean, while reclining and growing in the womb of the Theotokos, He was asleep, yet the worlds continued to run their courses, and nature renewed itself as it always does, even though the Lord who creates, sustains and (yes!) destroys all things was hidden in a cleft, not of rock, but of human flesh.

Of course, how could someone not record that day when sleeping, they had to rouse Him? They needed His help. The wind and the waves were getting the best of them. They were in danger of capsizing. If He didn't wake up and do something, He would have to swim for His life as well. Or would He? Does He only pretend to be asleep, so we have to go to the trouble to rouse Him?

Perfect trust met perfect care on that day. He who slept for our sake in the Woman's virgin womb, and slept for our sake in the rich man's unused tomb, slept also for the sake of His disciples in that boat. Strong as that vessel was, they knew it could not withstand the tempest raging around them. They woke Him. ‘Master, don't you care? We're going down!’ We know how that story, and all the others written about that Man, ends.

Yet here we are in our boat, our fishing boat, the Holy Church, and the sea is getting very rough as we can see. The disciples have forgotten all about fishing. Some are attending to the management of the rudder and sail, some are counting the moneys garnished from the last catch, a few are mending nets, and all are worrying, mostly without admitting it, about the raging tempest around them. Do we know who it is that is asleep in our boat?

Commandments

Originally, the Torah, the Law, comprised only two commandments. The first commandment that the Lord gave to our first parents Adam and Eve was in fact not even spoken to them as a commandment, but said over them as a blessing. “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground”
(Genesis 1:28). The first of God’s commandments to us was a positive commandment, and contained within it abundant blessings.

The second commandment was different. It was a negative commandment, the first of the ‘Thou shalt nots,’ and moreover, it was spoken only to the Man. Why is this? Well, Woman had not yet been pulled out of Man; she was still hidden within him. The mystery of the Two becoming One had not yet been revealed. In this first example of the Great Reversal that seems to meet us everywhere we look, the second commandment now becomes the first, according to time, and the Man and the Woman he bore within him must learn obedience before blessing.

But at the beginning there were only these two commandments:
“You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17), a negative commandment, God’s naked will revealed for Man, so he could know God’s mind as a child knows the mind of its father. And then, “Be fruitful, and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) and the rest of the commandment and blessing that is carried within it, when faithfully carried out: ownership, lordship, and mastery, of the outer world but, yes, of the inner world as well.

Following the two commandments, Man is created free.

This is not what happened. Before the second commandment could even take effect, the first was broken and, as scripture says, to break one commandment is to break them all. At the time, there was only one other commandment that also fell by Man’s disobedience: What should have been mankind’s glory thus became his shame, and the water of life in him became a poisonous spring, that everyone who has ever drunk from it has come to know and, against his will, fallen sick, irremediably sick, with sin and death. Thus the Physician of souls appeared, to save us.

Breaking two commandments, then ten were revealed to replace them and hold back, as much as possible, the flood of sin and death, but even these were broken, and could not effect the cure. Within themselves, within the Torah, the Law, was prophesied the coming of the Physician who would cure this sickness, death. But those who read the words overlooked Him, and instead they planted a hedge around the Torah to protect it: the Ten Words that God gave at Sinai were multiplied into six hundred thirteen mitzvot, commandments that no one could keep.

Finally, our last Parent was born of His Mother without a father, begotten by His Father without a mother, and the overlooked Physician became the rejected Messiah. A new Adam came seeking His lost Bride, a new Eve, though when He found the first of them—for they would be multitudes—she was His own Mother, who now became the new Mother of all living, whom He gave to His own beloved disciple as Mother, revealing for all time who He is, who She is, and who We are. And the Torah which He wraps around Him as a cloak because He is the only one who ever fulfilled all of it, He wears worthily as He stands before His Father and Our Father, interceding for us.

Having broken first two, then ten, then six hundred commandments, we have been delivered from our disobedience, and again, just two commandments have been laid upon us, this time both comprising blessing. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Glory to You, O God! Glory to You!

Friday, November 28, 2014

What will he say?

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

Universally—but how does it happen?—people ‘believe’ in an unseen Power or powers, whatever they call it, whatever they think it is. All of that comes from the society they are born into, all of that is the cultural ‘religion’ that they just accept. It supports and gives meaning to their natural, innate belief. Being an atheist is something that takes effort. It almost never begins in childhood. It is a mental state and philosophical stance that is as unnatural as some of its religious opposites, asceticism, for example. It is as unnatural and difficult of execution as Christ’s invitation to ‘take up your cross and follow Me.’ (Matthew 16:24).

Atheism is thus, for those who try to uphold it, a kind of burden. An atheist would prefer—if he or she could—to believe in God, but that would be too easy. Society and family expects it, sometimes rewards it, but his own obsessive, existential self-denial forces him to follow his single-minded train of thought—there is no God—and so annihilate all meaning, all truth, all beauty, all love. Because none of these—meaning, truth, beauty, and love—can exist without acknowledging the unseen Power, the God who must be, who has to be, always ‘there,’ creating, watching, sustaining us and the whole universe.

Take that Power away, and even our faculties of sight, sound, and touch, are idiocy, our thinking madness, and the universe we find ourselves in is revealed in all its sheer terror to be dark, silent, intangible and without significance. The child wonders, where does the world go, how does it continue, when he shuts his eyes, covers his ears, or simply falls asleep? And, when that happens, where does he go? Someone must be ‘there’ to know everything and everyone is still there. As we grow up from childhood into adulthood we can forget our first experience of the world as it appeared when we first opened our eyes.

Then, we were engulfed in the glory of undiluted beauty, and we moved unself-consciously from wonder to wonder, love being a nourishing cup we lifted to our lips or, even earlier, had gently coaxed into our hungry mouths. Faith was total, overcome as we were by the sensation of being held, carried, not against our will—for we little knew anything we wanted but what was given—but ‘with the flow.’ The flow of what? The flow, just the flow of events and sensations that were the borders of our ‘known universe.’ We were as unconscious of religion as we were of God or Power, yet we knew and enjoyed the unseen Provider.

The adulthood we find ourselves forced into, comes with—indeed is defined by—a series of assaults by unnatural expectation, commanding us to deny ourselves. We resent this unasked-for education at first, but then find ways to make it ‘work’ for us. Fighting against it from the start, all of us finally become imbued with the spirit of our unnatural enemy. Then dichotomies surface, and we enter the kingdom of choice, where we must pay the tax to Caesar, and render to God what we owe Him because, at some point, we were apprised that He is there. What we did with that knowledge paved our path, either away from, or towards, happiness.

So where does that leave the unbeliever, the atheist? Though the evidences of a God cannot be measured and handled in quite the same way as scientific facts, if He does indeed exist, to know Him in more than a ‘gut feeling’ way requires very much a scientific attitude. In this sense, the advent of modern humanism is a blessing, because it makes possible the rigorous discernment which at least the Christian scriptures require. If the atheist is rejecting and removing himself from only the superstitious and half-baked ideas of nominal or enthusiastic believers—both extremes of the same ignorance—then he has not yet rejected God.

For the real God, if He is to exist, can be nothing other than the Original of which everyone is the reflection or reverberation on a lesser scale. This is the meaning of ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness, and let them have dominion…’ (Genesis 1:26). And it is exactly this dominion which gives humanity the mental abilities to explore, dissect and understand the created universe to the uttermost, studying the facts of nature in counterpoint to experiencing the acts of super-nature, that is, the Divine Nature, God. Thus, what science really is, and what religion really is, are reflexions of the unseen Power as human beings.

The choice, if there still is one, is no longer between theist and atheist. Believer and unbeliever, not this either, for no one can live a moment without some kind of belief, if only in an idea. Interest and disinterest, maybe, for one can choose to look at or ignore a beautiful sunrise, sunset, or rainbow-infested cloud, and again, choose further, whether to appreciate it or not. What the professed atheist can claim to disbelieve does not in fact exist, yet that will not insulate him from Him Who does. And the Day that he fears will in fact arrive, when the atheist cannot continue to sleep under covers, but will have to awake, as everyone else does, and look upon the Face that longed to look upon his.

Then, what will he say?

Black Friday

‘We've learned over the years,
you have to stand in line early and pray,’ Sam said.
Black Friday. I shudder to think of it, but then, here I am, calm and peaceful and undisturbed by the noise and heat of human desire, blind want, rushing to satisfy itself in the annual monetary coronary and ‘vanity fair’ of the day after Thanksgiving. Seated beside an open window, listening to the gentle movement of tree branches in the wind under an overcast sky, I think, and I write, with only my empty coffee cup now as a witness.

For me it has been a quiet, pleasant morning. No intensely red sunrise today, or golden capped Mount Hood reflecting the first rays. The morning started out gray and has stayed that way, but no rain. We will have more of that as we approach the winter months, and then snow too, but today nothing more than soft twilight, perhaps all day, under the ‘waters above the firmament.’ I relax and muse while others work, selling and buying.

Everything in creation mirrors the saving passion of the ‘Lamb slain before the foundation of the world,’ in greater or lesser similitude, if we only have eyes to see. In Orthodoxy, we memorialize, we re-enact and remember, Christ’s last week on earth as an unresurrected man, in the week leading up to Easter, calling it Holy Week and, of course, the day of His resurrection, Pascha, that is, Passover, for He has made the true Passover journey.

Then—even though for most it is an impossible ideal—we superimpose on every week of the year a remembrance and make attempts at memorializing that same final week of our Lord: Wednesday, the day of His betrayal by Judas, and Friday, the day of His death by crucifixion, we set aside as meatless days, in symbol reliving the grief of these events from their occurrence until this moment, as they still affect the flow of time and space.

The Thursday of His last week, when He celebrated His mystical supper with His disciples, has been set aside in most cultures until the present one of ‘thank God it’s Friday’ indulgence, as the proper day for feasting and getting together—hence, the placing of the American holiday of Thanksgiving on a Thursday. Unable to sustain such a break in the new culture of three-day weekend Mondays, Canada moves the holiday there for convenience.

But the pattern unrecognized by the world which yet underlies its creation and preservation and will someday close its doors finally and utterly, that holy week of the rending of our old nature by the God-man, and the mending of it again by sutures not sewn by human hands, yes, that even gives form and function to this week, the feast of Thanksgiving, followed by the fast of Black Friday, when we forego food and even sleep to be ‘first in line.’

How strange that two weeks can be so closely linked without being recognized! The first is God’s answer to our question, and is the second, perhaps, our answer to His, ‘Do you love Me?’ In the depths of human nature is the same longing in everyone—life, love, joy. These can be ours by returning to the Source, our heavenly Father, in the way He provides, the royal road of the Cross of our heavenly Brother, Jesus Christ, following the heavenly, life-creating Spirit.

This week, and the nearly thirty days that follow from it, reveal to ourselves and to others ‘where our treasure is’ and where too our hearts. ‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!’ intones the priest. ‘It is meet and right!’ we respond, tracing the cross on our breasts, participating knowingly or unknowingly in the sacrifice made for the sins of the whole world, even ours. Do we understand, that all we can ever purchase or possess will never be a better buy?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

If that isn’t mercy

Another ‘last day’ of another year, this time, a year that has no name. I mean, it’s not the Civil year that runs from January 1st to December 31st. It isn’t the Jewish or the Orthodox Christian year that begin with the autumn crescent or on September 1st either. Nor is it the Islamic year whose beginning and end migrate through the seasons of time on the heels of the moon. And it’s not the ‘natural’ year that runs between the vernal equinoxes. No, it’s an untitled year, an unnamed year, and today is its last day.

After today comes what used to be, in America, a day of complete and utter withdrawal from worldly pursuits. Without knowing what we were doing, we followed the advice repeated for centuries among ‘Christians of true worship’… ‘Lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all.’ Well, we used to do something like that—‘lay aside all earthly cares’—and, if we left the house at all, it wasn’t to shopping or to work, but to travel to be with our families for the holiday.

And yes, this day—I’m now talking about ‘Thanksgiving Day’—was dedicated to being with our families and loved ones, and to feeling thankful, and to expressing that gratitude in many ways, even if we weren’t ‘religious.’ This being with our families and in a manner different from most other gatherings was really, though mystically, equivalent to ‘receiving the King of all.’ We don’t have to be theologians of a very high order to know when we are being welcomed and loved, or ‘in the presence of the King.’

Yes, we have arrived at last at the final day of—I just thought of its name—the normal year, that part of the three hundred sixty-five days when we do normal things and live normal lives. We go to work, to school, to the club, to church or synagogue, to the movies. We watch sports, sit coms, game shows and cartoons on TV. We eat normal foods, wear normal clothes, we normally keep regular hours and follow normal routines. All that is about to change for four blessèd weeks. Did I say ‘blessèd’? Well, we’ll see.

Starting day after tomorrow, after ‘Turkey Day,’ we enter a mercantile tunnel to Christmas. In many places this starts the evening before, unintentionally in sync with the holy and divine scriptures (which almost no one reads) wherein is written ‘and there was evening, and there was morning, one day.’ That day is called ‘Black Friday’ because many merchants whose ledgers have stayed in the red most of the year will see black at last, a profit or at least a break even. What incredible faith! or good credit.

The next thirty days are a time all of its own, as a different set of priorities takes over our lives. For a nation that usually hates tradition—except that of making money—there is a remarkable, though temporary, indulgence in it. For the world the time about to be entered partakes of kairós,’ the eternal and acceptable, in contrast to chronological, time. It is signaled by an almost universal dispensation of ‘cháris,’ grace, that is, divine, free love. Even without knowing the Giver, we still receive the Gift.

If that isn’t mercy, I don’t know what is.

Monday, November 24, 2014

In a mirror dimly

Thinking about faith and doubt, if they are religious, people tend to praise the first and blame the second. I mean, they think faith is good and doubt bad. They assume that they have faith, maybe not wonder-working faith like some of the saints had, but at least enough faith to get by, to qualify them as believers, and they outwardly pity and inwardly scorn those whom they imagine imprisoned in doubt, such as agnostics, atheists, and other unbelievers. Sometimes they combat with them, not so much to ‘save’ them as to conquer them, to prove that they’re wrong.

But this is not the way it is. Faith and doubt co-exist in every soul, and neither understands the other very much, but they are not enemies as much as they are spiritual midwives appointed by God to help deliver us, yes, to deliver us who have been born of the flesh once, but must also experience a second birth, of the spirit. One cannot believe without first doubting. Faith emerges from doubt. It is a seed planted in the dark soil that sprouts in the blind warmth of the sun, and breaks out to send up a shoot that greens and branches, leafs, flowers and bears fruit.

What some people call doubt, being misguided by ‘popular’ religion, is actually not doubt but ‘unknowing.’ One can have faith and still not know that God exists in a specific form. One may conceive of God as a force instead of a person, for example, and still have faith, even miraculous faith, because God’s mercy is not limited by either our knowledge or our understanding. Even the greatest saints, those who know Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior of the world, those of the greatest faith, still have doubt—unknowing—because the human mind has limits.

Some people say, ‘I know God,’ or ‘I know the Lord,’ without qualification, or with it. They think this is a very great thing, and they contrast themselves with others ‘who don’t know the Lord’ and hence are not saved. This is a way of talking that easily passes for faith, but is only a cosmetic applied to prevent ourselves and others from seeing how ignorant we really are. The important thing is not that we know God, but that He knows us. On our side we can know Him very little, but what we can do is acknowledge Him before men and to ourselves, by obeying His commandments.

Christ knows what He is dealing with when it comes to us. He knows we are a barren wasteland full of noxious weeds, arid, wind-swept, and forbidding. There we are, a desert of doubt, yet that does not dissuade Him from coming to us, planting His divine seed in hope that it will take root and choke the weeds in us. He comes and waters us, nurturing us not only with what is natural but with what is supernatural, His own blood. The winds that blew us cold and dry, those ‘lords of the air’ He silences with a word, and He raises us from dark doubt into the light of faith.

Brethren, if you doubt, do not be afraid, but accept all from God’s hand. That acceptance, even of doubt, is reliance on the unseen, unknown and unknowable God, which He will, when it pleases Him, without our help, reward with all that He wills for us, even faith, that contract between Creator and creature that we were created for. The Bride is for the Bridegroom, and in each one of us, He is willing to come, though it be in the darkest night, ‘for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now we know in part; then we shall know fully, even as we have been fully known’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

God's work of art

It seems to me that this blessing, and the amplification which follows it, are the essence of the Christian's life in the world—that is, if he or she is not just a believer, but also a disciple of Jesus—and that to read these words and to know by experience that they are true, is wisdom.

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
give you a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed,
to bring you to full knowledge of Him.

May He enlighten the eyes of your mind
so that you can see what hope His call holds for you,
what rich glories He has promised the saints will inherit
and how infinitely great is the power
that He has exercised for us believers.

This you can tell from the strength of His power at work in Christ,
when He used it to raise Him from the dead
and to make Him sit at His right hand, in heaven,
far above every Sovereignty, Authority, Power, or Domination,
or any other name that can be named,
not only in this age but also in the age to come.

He has put all things under His feet,
and made Him, as the Ruler of everything,
the Head of the Church,
which is His Body,
the fullness of Him who fills the whole creation.

And you were dead,
through the crimes and sins in which you used to live

when you were following the way of this world,
obeying the ruler who governs the air,
the spirit who is at work in the rebellious.


We all were among them too in the past,
living sensual lives, ruled entirely by our own physical desires
and our own ideas,
so that by nature
we were as much under God's anger as the rest of the world.


But God loved us with so much love
that He was generous with His mercy:

When we were dead through our sins,
He brought us to life with Christ—

it is through grace that you have been saved—
and raised us up with Him and gave us a place with Him
in heaven, in Christ Jesus.

This was to show for all ages to come,
through His goodness to us in Christ Jesus,
how infinitely rich He is in grace.

Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith;
not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God;
not by anything that you have done,
so that nobody can claim the credit.


We are God's work of art, created in Christ Jesus
to live the good life as from the beginning
He had meant us to live it.


Ephesians 1:17 - 2:10 Jerusalem Bible

Saturday, November 22, 2014

He comes

The media continues to mock and ridicule Christians, as it has been doing for the last forty years or so, with an emphasis on believers in the American South. And why not? If believers show themselves to be fools, why shouldn’t the world mock them? But there are more ways than one to be martyrs for Jesus Christ, and more ways than one to be fools.

The more that a follower of Jesus witnesses for Him to the world purely and simply by living his life in Christ before the eyes of the world, without apology or defence, but with a ready willingness to give the answer when he is asked, the more the world will marginalize and isolate him from themselves. It is the world that erects the border wall of separation, not the disciple.

There is another kind of believer, though not in Jesus, but in some idol that he sets up and calls Jesus. He lives his life not in Christ but in a strictly circumscribed set of prohibitions which separate him at almost every juncture from everyone else, from everyone who is not likewise bounded. He erects the border wall of separation, or rather he paints himself into a corner, and spits at all who pass.

The more that a follower of Jesus thinks, speaks and acts according to the tradition handed over to him by Christ and the holy apostles through the written Word, the Holy Scriptures, without compromising what is not negotiable, without dissimulation but also without provocation, the more the world will consider him a fool, but a dangerous one, again one who must be marginalized and ignored.

There is another kind of believer, though his belief is no more than that, a kind of blind acceptance of, not the apostolic tradition but, the rootless, shallow concoctions of human rebelliousness and pride, combined with a kind of spiritual sloth and eagerness to exalt whatever is not costly, who has no inkling of what faith is, only vain talking. Him the world does not fear, but defames and mocks.

Though the world is evil and willingly fights against the saints, it does so by stealth, by indirection, in hidden ways, ashamed already of its own certain defeat, which the Son of God has accomplished in His death and resurrection, hidden from the world, but still known by it. Rarely does it publicise its attacks on the saints because of this knowledge of its certain defeat. Already it cries out, “Rocks fall on us, and hide us from the wrath of the Lamb!”

But when the world fights against the shadows that it has produced through its own subtle instigation and sly inventiveness, dressing itself up in costume of ‘believers’ or ‘Christianity’ so that it can do mock battle with these wraiths and show them defeated, it is only the serpent devouring its own tail, it is only the circus raised up to amuse itself publicly because in secret it is full of dread for the punishment that is to come. Who as gentle as the Lamb, who so meek? Yet, He roars as a Lion out of Zion, and He comes, He comes to judge the earth with Justice, and the nations with His Truth.

Easier said than done

The Nativity Fast, observed from the 15th of November through the night of the 24th of December, is the last of the four fasts of Holy Church, and probably the hardest to faithfully keep. Why? It shouldn't be. The rules are very relaxed. On the Greek calendar hanging on my kitchen wall the fish symbol (fish permitted) occurs on at least half the days, and the grape symbol (wine and olive oil permitted) on perhaps another quarter more, the rest being marked with a cross (strict fast). But it is hard to keep. We do not live in an Orthodox world, even if some of us live in a 'Christian' one. Wherever we find ourselves, except within the walls of a monastery, there will be tugs to join the party. Which party? The ongoing Christmas and End of Year festivities. Family, friends, co-workers, business associates, school mates. Everyone is celebrating. How does one get out of that without offending someone? And who's going to be offended if we don't keep the fast?

In America, we have an additional problem, unless we're on the 'old calendar.' The greatest American family holiday (yes, even holy day), Thanksgiving, also known as 'turkey day,' falls near the beginning of the Nativity Fast. And what's on the menu? Turkey, turkey, and more turkey. This is the holiday when America outdoes itself in the eating category. Unless you celebrate it nearly alone and with an 'out of the box' turkey roast, you will have lots of leftovers. That is intentional. That way you and the family can have enough for turkey sandwiches for almost a week after the Thursday of the feast. What to do with all that meat, my Orthodox brethren? Isn't it bad enough we broke the fast to celebrate the holiday, but now we have all these leftovers? Well, years ago my spiritual father told me, 'Just keep eating it till it's all gone, and then resume the fast.' 'Even on the Friday?' I asked. 'Even on the Friday,' he replied. That's ikonomía for you!

Back to the problem, the pre-celebration of Christmas (or of the winter solstice, or of the year's end, if you're in a very secular context) will always preempt the keeping of the Nativity Fast, sometimes even in 'Orthodox' countries. To keep the fast we will have to duck out of sight when hands are being raised as to 'who's coming to the party?' and we'll have to keep close watch on our cell phones to see who's calling—it might be another invitation. The alternative is to just graciously give in. That's what I usually do, although thankfully, I am a social recluse as a matter of fact, and people rarely ask me out, even to lunch. Through all this dissipating activity, who's to blame if we don't keep the fast? We will give it a half-hearted try, and be relieved when it's all over after attending the Nativity evening liturgy. Then we can eat all those same foods again that we just stuffed ourselves with the preceding nearly forty days. Ever wonder why we miss the feeling of ending this Fast?

The reality can be quite different than what I have described. The Nativity Fast, just like the other three seasonal fasts, doesn't have to focus on food. In fact, it shouldn't. We're reminded by Holy Church that we should not fast from food if we are not praying and giving alms, that is, helping the poor. 'What poor?' There we go again, trying to let ourselves off the hook. 'Don't I pray enough already?' Well, the Church offers more services than usual during the four fasts to give us more opportunities to pray together. 'Well, I just like to pray at home, alone, as I always do.' 'That's okay too. Just do it!' as my spiritual father used to say. All of this boils down to a case of 'reality versus unreality,' exactly the kind of mental conflict we all like to avoid. When we see it coming, we tell ourselves to just 'turn up the music,' so we can forget that this least of all moral issues is pressing us. What moral issues? Well, if nothing else, the Nativity Fast reminds us of the moral issue of the sacrifice of the unborn.

In fact, everything we do hinges on moral issues, whether we are aware of this or not. We go through life thinking we are making choices based on what we believe are good reasons, often without ever realising that the correct choices have already been made. Already made? You mean, there's no such thing as free will, free choice? Well, yes and no. We do have free will, but what we do with it when we ignore pre-existing morality, the 'real right and wrong' as C. S. Lewis puts it, is usually a disaster, even when we are personally untouched by the result (at least we feel we're untouched—it wasn't my baby!). It is, in fact, choice that defines all personal beings from the higher animals, through humans, up to the bodyless powers (the angels). So we have a choice, from finding a mate, to buying a house or car, to voting for a candidate, to cheating on our taxes, our spouses, or our God. Yes, it all comes down to choice. What will I do with the Fast this Christmas?

See also Guidelines for the Nativity Fast

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Keep close to Him

Christ the Healer. Acrylic and gold leaf on birch panel. 18x24"
Installation in Prayer Chapel at IU Health Goshen Hospital, Goshen, Indiana.
There’s no doubt that the human race is very, very sick. The way to cure it, however, is not to chop off heads, segregate and imprison women, restrict freedom of speech, movement, or assembly, or persecute sexual and religious minorities. The way to cure it is also not to engorge it with pharmaceuticals or graft it with laboratory-grown replacement parts, neither to give it more work or more leisure, nor especially to try to socially engineer it with subliminally loaded entertainment.

The sickness is moral, yes, as well as physical, but like the human body which cures itself of most ailments if simply left alone, the human race’s cure lies within itself, available not only to the learned or wealthy or otherwise amply privileged, but to all without exception. The human conscience is the beginning of the cure, and the grace of God, however dispensed but derived from the Word of God, is the end of it. Christ is not yet irrelevant or insolvent but remains essential to the life of the world.

Leave aside all human machinations, even, no, especially those that are laden with ‘gospel’ language and speak of ‘victory’ as if they have won it. These seek to hook men not with Christ’s truth but their vain opinions, and to make a spectacle and a business of religion, trapping themselves and their hearers in corruption. Let God be praised in your humble submission to His will as you seek His Kingdom and His righteousness, not your own. He has been victorious in the only war worth waging.

Keep close to Him.

Brotherly love

How good, how delightful it is
for all to live together like brothers:
fine as oil on the head,
running down the beard,
running down Aaron's beard
to the collar of his robes;
copious as a Hermon dew
falling on the heights of Zion,
where Yahweh confers His blessing,
everlasting life.
Jerusalem Bible

Many of my Protestant and Orthodox friends have pretty serious problems with Roman Catholicism, and they don’t understand why I don’t, and why I don’t place Roman Catholics in a separate category ‘from us.’ Well, truthfully, I do have problems with Roman Catholicism because of the doctrines that it has added to the ancient faith. I also have problems with Protestantism in its various forms and in different degrees, depending on how much of the ancient faith it has defied, neglected, or abandoned. And with Orthodoxy, well, what can I say? I do have problems with it sometimes too, because at its worst it can be very childish, contrary, and spiritually stingy. For all that it has been given, it ought to be childlike, trusting, and dependably merciful, all the time. But—thank God!—it’s all too human, and sooner or later it comes to its senses and admits, ‘among sinners, we are chief.’

Back to why I don’t shun and visibly disapprove of Catholics, or for that matter, others even more different from ‘us Christians,’ such as Mormons, JW’s, Jews and Muslims, all of whom claim to worship the ‘One God.’ Well, there is no easy answer to this question.

I call everyone I meet ‘brother’ or ‘sister,’ inwardly if not audibly (it might offend some of them), because Christ calls everyone brother or sister without qualification. It also does no one any good to emphasize our differences. Though we don’t usually kill each other bodily when we don’t agree, we often still do socially and spiritually. Peace and a spirit of cooperation are sacrificed to mere ideas, our own which we think true, and we break the second of the two great commandments, to love our neighbor. We must not realize who our neighbor is, otherwise we wouldn’t treat Him like this. ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of these, that you do unto Me.’

Especially with other believers in Christ, regardless of their doctrinal positions, if we must differ with them, let us do so fraternally, remembering that from Christ’s perspective, ‘orthodoxy doesn’t exist,’ only ‘love which covers all offenses.’ All offenses, much to our dismay, includes the most horrendous—lying, thieving, robbery, rape, assault, even murder—so let’s be happy to exercise ourselves spiritually by loving others who only differ from us in beliefs or customs, and treat them in the same friendly way that Christ treats us. That seems the least we can do.

Don’t just agree with these thoughts mentally, but act on them whenever you can. Holy apostle Paul writes, ‘Test yourselves. Make sure that you are in the faith,’ and James, the brother of the Lord adds, ‘don’t just say you believe, do something!’

Without pressing against the obstacle of our mortal flesh, we can never become spiritually strong or morally healthy. Therefore, let us do as holy Paul entreats, and test ourselves. This is not a doctrinal ‘multiple choice,’ but a moral probe into our hearts. Who or what do we have in there?

Let none of us be found sleeping when the Lord comes, ‘for the time is close.’ Let Him find us as we were when He left us, when He ascended on high: united, loving each other as He loves us, and looking earnestly upwards, so as to receive our sight.

Save, O Lord, Your people, and bless Your inheritance!

Oh so smart

It must be very humbling to have to admit that one of the guiding principles of one’s life came not from the Bible but from a mere movie. And not from a religious movie like The Greatest Story Ever Told or the Ten Commandments, but from a film that maybe few have heard of, and few would consider a ‘religious’ movie, if they had. Of course, that’s because it isn’t a religious movie.

I had never even heard of this film until about seven or eight years ago, when it was suggested to me by an old friend with whom I had worked on and off for twenty years or more. This friend was christened Episcopalian but he rejects that and all churches, and doesn’t even call himself a Christian, but the odd thing is, for the most part he acts like one.

When a childhood friend was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, this friend did not ‘let him slip away’ but instead, as his disease worsened, stepped up the content of his friendship. When the man’s wife, unable to cope with an ‘unusable husband’ abandoned him, got a divorce, and disappeared, this friend I am talking about, well, he did the unthinkable.

By night and day, and every day, he assisted his stricken, abandoned friend, turning his body over in his bed, bathing, feeding, and in general helping him through what would soon be over. Finally—and I don’t know the details, but assume this—the dying man went to a full care facility, because the care he now needed was too constant, and then, according to God’s mercy, he was taken.

Neither my friend, nor the other to whom he was the greatest friend, were or are ‘Christians’, nor sinless, nor perfect, and so ‘religion’ doesn’t know what to do with such people. If pressed to remark, the religious might say anything ranging from pious platitudes, to vague hopes, ‘God have mercy on them,’ all the way to ‘black and white’ pronouncements, ‘no, sorry—unsaved.’

Come Judgment Day, as C. S. Lewis observes, there will be surprises.

Back to the movie that my friend suggested, an old film starring Jimmy Stewart that I’d never seen or heard of before, and ‘black and white,’ but in a different sense, he presented me with a copy and I watched it—once only—and it was enough for me. In this film I encountered in a most unexpected way a truth that is usually missed in religious training, precisely because it’s not religious.

Aside from the plot of this film, these words stood out for me when I first heard them, and they have played out in my life ever since then, every day. ‘Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, “In this world, Elwood, you must be…” she always called me Elwood, “…In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.’

Now, if any of you are avid movie watchers, especially of the classics, you have probably already guessed that the movie I’m talking about is Harvey. In fact, you probably recognized it from the title of the post, and then of course, the still shot was a dead giveaway. Why do we call things like an obvious hint a ‘dead giveaway’? In this case, for me, this film was a live giveaway, the missing piece that finally explained to me what to do about Jesus.

Yes, believe in Him, of course. Yes, follow Him, if you dare. Yes, go to church, read your bible, pray (if you know how), give to charities, volunteer, make sure your honesty is evident to everyone. That’s how I interpreted Christ’s saying, ‘In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:16) But what about what He says just a little later? ‘Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 6:1) Jesus doesn’t joke around in the gospels. He must be telling us something, but what?

A missing piece, maybe the most important piece, given by surprise where I’d never thought of looking—in a secular movie. But is it secular? And does ‘secular’ only have the meaning we give it because we’ve decided to be religious? In the mind of Christ, which is accessible to us when we do what He tells us, ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Matthew 11:29) If we take upon us His yoke, what is secular? what profane?

The whole world and everyone in it is ‘what God looks like’ (Father Evely), and ‘salvation is with our brothers’ (the Desert Fathers), because ‘whatever you do to the least of these, you do unto Me’ (Jesus). All the religious training, knowledge, theological truths, bible verses, worst of all, all of our opinions about others and certainty of our own salvation, mean nothing if we work against God’s purposes.

What? Who’s working against God’s purposes? Christ says to us no less than to the Pharisees of His time, ‘You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.’ (Matthew 23:13) And who’s doing that? ‘Surely, not I?’ (Matthew 26:25) Yet, all that Paul says he regards as garbage (Philippians 3, NIV), what we might call his ‘smarts’, he considers trash. What does he consider worthy, then? What does he think is important?

‘…the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.’

(Philippians 3:9)

It is with this kind of certainty, not the certainty of our own salvation, but the certainty of ‘the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith’ that He sends us out, every day, to find Him in the world. ‘Oh so smart or oh so pleasant’? How does that fit in? It’s hard to put into words, which is why I recommend to you, dear reader, to watch the film yourself, for the first time, or if again, then with new eyes.

Then, see what Elwood means by ‘I recommend pleasant’.

Oh, and look a little deeper,
and maybe you’ll see who ‘Harvey’ actually is.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A work history

I will be retiring in about three and a half calendar months, something less than seventy working days from today. All this, God willing. My working career spans, let me see, over fifty years out of my sixty-three.

This ain’t me, but it could’ve been!
At the age of thirteen, I launched a paper route in a new subdivision where I lived. Walking door to door to collect subscriptions to the Joliet Herald News, a dozen or so subscribers grew to over sixty in a short time. Delivering the papers I usually rode a bicycle, but I didn’t just toss the rubber-banded newspapers in the direction of my customers’ front doors. I made sure the paper was close to their reach and out of the weather. This made for big tips when I went my rounds to collect the six bits (seventy-five cents) weekly price, sometimes a whole silver walker (fifty cent piece), especially in wintertime, when I either rode my bike on slippery streets or, if the snow was too deep, trudged through the drifts to get people their daily news. I usually made about twelve or thirteen dollars a month, as I recall, in the mid-nineteen sixties.

A ‘silver walker’ fifty cent piece.
I was a coin collector even then, and I bought my first two gold coins with money from that paper route: a gold sovereign of King George V from the Melbourne mint in Australia for twelve dollars fifty cents; and a gold five rouble piece of Czar Nicholas II of Russia for the same amount. Gold was thirty-five dollars an ounce in those days.

To pay my college tuition, during the summers I worked and saved all my pay, still living at home with my parents. Dad’s policy was not to expect me to contribute to the household finances as long as I was saving for school.

Wheaton, Illinois, post office, where I worked.
The first summer before starting college I worked at the Post Office. That was the year I wrecked my Dad’s new car, which he let me drive to work on the late shift (he worked the day shift at the same Post Office, being the superintendent). After the accident, I had to work ‘days’ with him, so we could ride to work together in his old jalopy. My job was in the dead letter department. How fitting!

Clegg Chapel and Hudson Hall, at Blackburn College.
College tuition cost a thousand dollars my first year, and it rose two hundred dollars per year over the course of my studies, but I always worked summers and made enough to pay it. Room and board was paid for by my working thirteen hours a week for the college during the school year. The first year, I worked in the dining hall and kitchen as a cleanup boy. The next two years, I was the music librarian in the college library, a much easier job.

I left college a year before I would have finished and earned my bachelor of arts in History. That was a silly mistake, but my parents were going through troubled times and were not in a position to rein me in and make me do the right thing. I quit school so I could immigrate to Canada and join a New Age commune. Instead of doing my fourth year of college, I lived with my now-divorced Mom, and worked swing shift as a line operator in a container company, managing two or three lines of blow-molding equipment and the people working on the lines. That was a very hard job.

Canada and USA flags at the border.
After about a year, when I would have graduated, I waved goodbye to my Mom and drove my little Pinto loaded with all my possessions down the highway to Canada. Twenty hours of non-stop driving later, I arrived late at night on the fourth of May, 1972 on the frontier. I parked at a rest stop and took a short nap. At nine o’clock the next morning after about six hours of uncomfortable sleeping in my car, I drove up to the border crossing with thirty-five hundred dollars (an incredible sum of money at that time) and a hopeful smile.

The road north from Portal, Saskatchewan.
North Portal, Saskatchewan, possibly the flattest real estate on the planet, lonely, sunny, and wind-swept, was the name of the border crossing. With no one else in sight, I drove up to the cubicle and let the official know my intention was to immigrate to Canada. I was instructed to park my car and come inside the station, where I was asked a few questions, given a multiple choice test, and then sent on my way with a pass signed by Oscar Meier, who told me to go to Canada Manpower when I got to my destination, and to see a doctor for my immigration physical.

My wife, in London around 1971.
Finding work wasn’t that easy, but at last I found an entry level position. Superior Steel Desk, my first job, two dollars an hour to assemble steel office chairs, was where I made my first Canadian friends, and through one of them, met my eventual wife. ‘My girlfriend has this crazy friend of hers living with us, and I’d like her to move out. Do you wanna meet her and take her off our hands?’ Larry asked me. Oh my gosh! How fate arranges things, but at least I got to experience an ‘arranged marriage,’ possibly one of the last of the century, and in North America to boot. A shy guy like me wasn’t likely to find a gal on my own.

My ‘official’ photo in 1972
for Canada Immigration.
My Canadian years were devoted to just trying to survive, working at any job I could get. I was turned out by the steel desk company as a troublemaker, but I think it was because I was just too spunky for them. Canadians back then (and maybe now) were far more reserved than us ‘Yankees.’ My next job was in making ‘real’ furniture, wooden, traditional, and cheap. Two dollars an hour again was my pay. I forgot to mention I was living in the ‘commune’ at first, where my paycheck was pooled.

I went straight from my Mom’s house to the commune, and then to my wife, without the slightest chance to misbehave. It was only years later that I noticed and mused, ‘I forgot to have fun!’ Actually, I was and still am very happy that I was led along my life path by an ‘invisible Power,’ and very pleased, indeed, when I found out who That was. Meanwhile, ‘back to work.’

Our homestead outside Edmonton.
I can’t believe some of the work I did in those young years. One of the jobs I had was working in a warehouse tearing off the front covers of new soft-bound books that had not sold, so those covers could be sent back to the supplier for a refund. I did that job while trying to go it alone (with my pregnant wife) in a rural homestead just outside of town. My dreams of commune life on the land faded when I was kicked out of the commune for opposing ‘group marriage.’

Here I am milking a cow into a wine bottle!
Those were the days. My most interesting job when I lived in Canada was that of a dairy farmer’s hired man. Yes, I was the only one. I did that job in the autumn and winter, and I found that though I liked the idea, the doing was much harder than I had imagined. Still, I got to milk cows, rescue stranded newborn calves, clean the barn and, you guessed it, get used to ‘farm smells.’ At least it wasn’t pigs!

Unusually for me, I can’t quite remember what my last job was in Canada before I moved back to the States with my wife and infant son Jacob. But I do remember my first job here in Oregon. How could I forget? It was both the worst and, in another sense, the best place I have ever worked. The worst of it was, it was a small town furniture factory, and nearly everyone I worked with was ‘low life.’ Dirty talk, cheating on wives and girlfriends, drug addiction, all around nasty behavior. I was ostracized and made fun of, and I wasn’t even a Christian yet. But I didn’t stay that way for long!

I was the lead man at Sterling Furniture. Here I am band-sawing a panel.
I began to notice that I was well-suited to woodworking. Maybe it was because both of my grandfathers were woodworking artisans, and I think it ran in the family. When I left that small town and that job, I found another woodworking job in ‘the big city,’ Portland, where I’ve lived ever since. Wages were still low. The most I ever made at Sterling Furniture was three dollars sixty-four an hour, and that was even Union wages. Though I was sad to leave when the company owners decided to close the shop and auction it off piece by piece, my next job, in cabinetry if not actual woodworking, started me off with an hourly wage of seven dollars, more than I’d ever made in my life.

Starting off in the shop, first as a sawyer and lead man in charge of an assembly crew of youngsters about ten years my junior, after less than four years my education and skill set were discovered by the owner of this company, and I was yanked upstairs to work in various management positions. I had gotten use to factory work. I was able to move about freely, dress casually, and sing and whistle while I worked. By then I was also a Christian, and I was always on the lookout for those God might send me. I resisted the boss’s offer. ‘Your position in the shop has been eliminated,’ he said. ‘If you want to keep working here, you had better take the office job that I’m offering you.’

After about ten years, the owner of the cabinet company sold it, and I was left again to find another job. By then, I had been doing design work in cabinet style and interiors, and one of my customers, a designer at a remodeling company, drafted me to work for them. That job lasted about a year, and I was glad of it, because I was drawn there by the promise of being able to ‘straighten out’ their product line (they also made their own cabinets), but they wouldn’t let me do a thing to help. ‘We’ve always done it this way!’ Well, needless to say, I didn’t stay there very long.

For the next sixty-eight working days, I will be standing here
loading and unloading aluminum into this Haas VF2 mill. Fun!
So now I come to the work I am doing now, which I cannot really call a job. I’ve been here almost nineteen years, working for the same boss who owned the cabinet company. Between his two companies I’ve worked for him almost thirty-five years. We make machinery here, and I’ve done almost every job and started several departments. My final legacy was to start a machining department, milling aluminum machinery components. So, I started my working life a machinist, and am ending it the same, having migrated from wood to metal.

‘And the sky is still wide and high before my path…’
And the sky is still wide and high before my path, and I still have all my fingers and toes, but best of all my mind, which I have tried to keep safe inside my heart. And I thank the Lord who opened my eyes and smoothed the way before me. What people think of as the end and sometimes fear is ironically the real beginning of what they always wanted but had forgotten. And if we make it there, in old age we will have very good reason to be reckoned as children again.

Wisdom is wisdom and inhabits and fills the birth and the death of all beings and all things, awaiting us beyond age and time. And ‘there are no losses except those that free.’

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Death by stoning

I have read the five books of Moses cover to cover many times. It was by reading them in the Jerusalem Bible that it was impressed on me that God is very definitely a person, that He has a will, and that He has a very distinct idea of what is right and what is wrong. He expects us to agree with Him. How He deals with us when we don’t agree, and when we do things our way, seems to change over time. This, however, I think is an illusion. I don’t think God changes, but our perceptions of Him, and how we interpret what happens to us, changes. This can’t be helped. He humbled Himself from the beginning in His dealings with us, taking up our limited understanding and still speaking to us through it. Eventually and inevitably, He ‘bent the heavens and came down’ not by setting the mountains and sky on fire, but in utter humility flowing His divine nature into our human one by becoming one of us. Meanwhile, there are still people who don’t quite get it when they hear Him say, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’

One thing I’ve noticed in my reading is how severe the punishments were for offenses committed while the people of Israel were wandering in the desert. No less than ten offenses earned the punishment of death by stoning: Touching Mount Sinai while God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:13); an ox that gores someone to death should be stoned (Exodus 21:28); breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36); giving one’s seed (presumably one’s offspring) to Molech (Leviticus 20:2-5); having a familiar spirit (or being a necromancer) or being a wizard (Lev. 20:27); cursing God (Leviticus 24:10-16); engaging in idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:2-7), or seducing others to do so (Deuteronomy 13:7-12); rebellion against parents (Deuteronomy 21,21); getting married as though a virgin, when not a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:13-21); sexual intercourse between a man and a woman engaged to another man (both should be stoned, Deuteronomy 22:23-24).

The foregoing are just those offenses whose punishment was explicitly defined as death by stoning. There were a great many others for which the punishment was just ‘death,’ without specifying how the condemned were to die. Later, the rabbis finished the work of defining exactly what was to take place in the cases of capital punishment. The strange thing is, however, that there are very few mentions of such punishments being actually inflicted. There are three cases in the Bible in which a person was legally stoned to death as a punishment, and there are also five or six cases where someone was stoned by a mob, not in a legal fashion. A detailed case of stoning occurs in Joshua 7:24-26 when a man named Achan (עכן) was found to have kept loot from Jericho, a conquered Canaanite city, in his tent.

The time of Israel’s migration to the Promised Land was when Torah was given. At this time, there was no such thing as Judaism or Jews, only the Hebrew people, whom the living God, Yahweh, had chosen as His special possession. Not just Torah, but particularly these laws of punishment, were given and followed during that stage in the process when God was fashioning Israel into His unique people, using a sort of shock treatment to winnow and purify them, because He knew that over time they would eventually stray and devolve back into living like the other nations. So there had to be a very severe beginning to ensure that at least a faithful remnant would still exist on earth at the appointed time, through whom would be born the Ransom for the sins of the nations—Jesus the Messiah, the Word of God in human form.

Even though the laws of punishment, such as death by stoning, were still ‘on the books,’ by the time Judaism emerged as the religion of the Jews (as the people of Israel came to be known after the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom), the legal infliction of these punishments was rare. Doubts in Jewish society about the morality of capital punishment in general and stoning in particular were growing. For example, according to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel in the time when the religious courts had authority over capital punishment, a court that executed more than 1 person in 70 years was considered a ‘bloody court.’ The incident recorded in the Gospel (John 7:53-8:11) of the woman caught in adultery has to have been an instance of illegal infliction of the penalty of death by stoning, which was still probably rather common in the time of Jesus, at a grass roots level. So also would have been the stoning of the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen. Remember, even the Jewish authorities could not legally execute Jesus for committing what to them was blasphemy. ‘We have no law to put a man to death’ (John 18:31).

Modern-day Judaism is almost unanimous in rejecting the severe punishments found in the Torah, though with various explanations and justifications. Perhaps there are some Jews who today would revive these ancient punishments, but they are in the minority. Again, these punishments were ordered by the living God for a specific purpose, to fashion Israel His people. They were never intended for the nations, as can be seen if one studies the Talmud, where it states that they apply only to the people of Israel. Seeing that even for themselves their purpose has been achieved, Jews of today do not apply the severe penalties found in Torah.


From a Christian viewpoint, the death of Jesus Christ put an end not only to the laws of sacrifice in the Jewish Temple, but also to the whole body of Jewish laws. Again, the account of the woman caught in adultery cited above is an example of where Jesus was heading, along with His famous sayings, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27) and, ‘The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’ (Luke 6:5). Some would see this as religious evolution, others as the plan of salvation of the living God, whose purposes are not revealed to man all at once, but only as He wills, who Himself is changeless, though we learn more of Him as we encounter Him again and again.

What of death by stoning in today’s world? Perhaps there will always be instances of such punishments inflicted illegally by irrational mobs anywhere in the world where memory of such cruelty survives, but surely no civilized nation on earth would sanction it or enshrine it in its legal system. Think again. That which is called ‘the third great monotheistic religion’ has such punishments enshrined not only in the legal systems where it holds sway, but in its very scriptures. This religion, claiming to be the last and greatest revelation of God to man, supplanting not only Christianity but Judaism as well, holds up and holds to a penal code more severe than even that of the ancient Hebrews.

The living God, the Only God there is, crafted them He chose as His own hereditary people and shaped and formed them by means of these severe statutes, in order to chasten, purify, strengthen and preserve them, who were also going to be the mother and brothers of His Son, the Saviour Jesus Christ. There is only one Israel the heir to the promises, and only one Christ, who come of the seed of Abraham through Isaac. Yet another came claiming to be a prophet, who reversed the story, seized the promise given to Isaac and laid it on Ishmael, taking for his own tribe the rôle of God’s hereditary people, and imitating the rigor and severity of the ancient laws.


If inflicting the penalty of death by stoning is the sign of the true faith, then we all know which true faith that is, and we should hurry to embrace it. Doubtless, such severe punishments will craft us into a perfectly pure, sinless and moral society as it has crafted many another people before us. It doesn’t matter that we will not be free, because look what freedom, what free will, has bought for us—societies impure, riddled with vice and sin, idolatrous beyond imagining. It would be for our own good, it would be worth it, to submit to the loss of freedom, if it meant an earthly paradise, where everyone would be happy, healthy, safe, at peace. Everyone, of course, except those who disobey the law—the divine law that comes from the prophet and his followers—everyone who deserves to die.

Yes, for them, death by stoning is really no less than their just reward from ‘God, the compassionate, the merciful, owner of the Day of Judgment.’

Ah, but what if the real God shows up?

Ambassador

For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation;
the old creation has gone, and now the new one is here.
It is all God's work.
It was God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ
and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation.
In other words,
God in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself,
not holding men's faults against them,
and He has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled.
it is as though God were appealing through us,
and the appeal that we make in Christ's name is:
Be reconciled to God.
For our sake God made the Sinless One into sin,
so that in Him we might become the goodness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21

The Lord sends people to us, and us to people. That's a fact. If you witness for Jesus Christ—and who cannot?—He continually places people in your path.

The Lord is drawing a young man close to you at work who belongs to a sect that denies the full deity of Jesus Christ, a sect that the world despises. He has found out you share a common interest, perhaps it is history. He knows you are Orthodox and he respects that, and the two of you are getting closer every day.

He is married and has two beautiful children and a faithful wife. He is an innocent, virginal soul, and he is trying to live according to the commandments. There is something in both of you that makes you recognize each other somehow. You both know you are not the world's friend, but Someone else's.

What do you do?
You simply love him, and desire for him the same blessing of God that you desire for yourself. You do not divide by words or actions. You simply be who you are in Christ, remembering whose ambassador you are.

You leave the outcome of every word and action in His merciful hands. You let God be God in your midst. You welcome the one that God has placed in your path.

We cannot draw imaginary lines barring anyone from our love. Anyone can be saved and know the Truth, know Jesus Christ. With every new person whom God sends, let us be as loving, supporting, welcoming and free as we can.

Quoting holy apostle Paul, "I am all things to all men," this is what I can be because I am not afraid to lose anything, because nothing God gives us is ever lost, unless we throw it away.

Love this young man as much as you love the brethren, and pray for his salvation. The Lord will open your mouth and fill it with good things whenever you are with him, if you just forget yourself and any agenda.

It's because those who represent the Church approach others with a sword in their mouths—‘Orthodoxy is the true faith’—that they slay rather than save many of the people that God sends to them.
Don't be like that!

Be an ambassador, not a conquistador. There is nothing and no one for you to conquer, only souls that are falling before the God you serve, if only you don't frighten them away.

Love whoever God sends to you and call him brother, even though he belongs (for the time being) to a heretical sect, because that's only a name he's taken on. Let's see what the Lord has in mind in bringing you together.

Think of this: He loves God, and God loves him, and you love both.
Be patient, welcoming, and loving, and see what God has in mind.
No one can come to the Son unless the Father draws Him.
He drew you to the Son. Now, let Him draw your brother.