Saturday, February 28, 2015

Nothing but Jesus

The image inset left is a calligraphic ikon of the Lord's Prayer in Arabic. The islamic prohibition of ikons resulted in a culture just as permeated with calligraphy ikons as the Christian East is permeated with graphic ikons, such as the Pantokrator above. To bridge the gap—and infuriate islamic clerics—Arab converts to modern Christian churches produce calligraphy ikons of bible verses like this one. It even mimics the general layout of the Orthodox ikon. But that's not my topic.

I started watching a music video of an Arab female vocalist singing Psalm 51 in Arabic, but I couldn't get past the instrumental introduction and her singing of the first few verses. Just as I do not attend concerts of Byzantine chant or other music associated with Orthodox worship, I don't attend or watch concerts of any kind of worship music, not even Christmas carols. However, this is just me.

Worship is worship, and music as the expression of worship belongs only in the home and in the temple of God, nowhere else. If you carry the temple with you into the world, when you are evangelizing, reading the scriptures and singing the prayers publicly, that is still the temple. When you are teaching the chants and preparing people for worship, that is the home. Really, there is only one place where worship belongs, and it is in the home; the temple is the macro and the family ikon corner the micro, and everything else is in between.

So people were rejoicing that Arab people are finally turning from Islam and finding Jesus, and are now able to worship the true God and sing all those wonderful new pop Christian songs in Arabic, even Psalm 51 can be sung in Arabic by a beautiful female vocalist.

Psalm 51, and any other psalm, is meant for prayer and meditation. Yes, of course, they can be sung, but still, only for worship. The Christian pop worship style and the presentation of music for religious entertainment are both fundamentally opposed to Orthodoxy, which is just biblical Christianity. It's great that Arab people are becoming Christians, but are they exchanging one religion for another, or are they entering into the freedom of the gospel?

Modern pop Christianity, especially pentecostal, makes huge claims for bringing the world to Christ, but the work of evangelism is done by Christ in us, as we witness for Him one day and one person at a time, with attention, care and commitment.

Arab Orthodox Christianity exists in both Greek and Coptic forms, and I have heard Psalm 51 chanted in Arabic by priests and cantors in the Church. Yes, it's beautiful when chanted in the traditional style, but more than beautiful, it calls the heart to prayer, to pray the words as they are heard being chanted.
This is all there waiting for the Arab peoples to rediscover, but many will have to go through the pasteurization process of pop Christianity, and when they're ready, by the mercy of God may they find out who and what the Church of Christ really is. Until then, they're still on a shaky foundation, trusting in human beings and exulting in the flesh while saying they are in the Spirit, and not realizing how they have been misled.

The greatest lies come in the flashiest wrappers and are bought by the most self-centered customers. The choice is always still out there, though, waiting to be made, no matter how we start out in our belief in Christ. You can't be Christ's and the world's friend at the same time. You can't serve two masters. The stronger desire always wins.

Desire nothing but Jesus.

To be happy

God wants us to be happy. Yes, you heard me right. God desires our happiness. Call it happiness, call it joy, even call it blessedness, they’re all facets of a single thing, a sole state of affairs, what theologians and poets often name ‘Paradise.’ Yes, and the tourist bureaus too, even when they call Tahiti or the Caymans, or Bali, ‘Paradise,’ except that for them, they’re actually offering a limited and temporary visit to an approximation of that elusive location.

But God wants us to be happy. He is glad when we have not only our basic necessities but even our luxuries, happy when we are hard at work doing something that fulfills us, and pleased when we find pleasure in those exalted gifts that He prepares for us—love, music, literature, and all the ‘fine’ arts, adventure and, yes, even entertainments. How could God, our loving Father, not want us to be happy? Even we want that for our children, don’t we?

It seems that what separates religious people from the non-religious is their attitude toward human happiness. Often the religious take it for granted that ‘this world is in the power of the evil one,’ and therefore any pleasures we take in it are automatically somehow sinful and need to be extinguished. And what do they offer as a replacement? Well, there are religious services, revival meetings, bible study and prayer, sometimes even charity work.

To the non-religious, this seems a sorry substitute for what they think will make them happy. We all know what that is. Well, I mean, whether we’re religious or non-religious we know what makes us ‘happy.’ Again, it’s only our core beliefs or indifference that divide us. Carnivores will enjoy a tasty steak and be happy to eat it, but some of the religious will choose a vegan salad over the steak if it’s Friday. How they regard the carnivore seated across the table is the real divide.

God wants us to be happy. He wants us to be able to live our lives without fear of violence. He wants us to be well-fed, clothed and housed. He wants us to have and to be good neighbors. He wants us to be healthy, physically, emotionally, spiritually. He wants us to know love, to be able to experience ‘the joy of sex.’ He wants us to be literate, avid participants in the cultures in which we live. He wants us to be creative on every level. He wants us to be free.

The religious, when they read what I just wrote, will immediately raise objections, or at least want to attach stipulations. Yes, I am one of them, but I will bide my time. The non-religious, reading my list of what makes God happy, will possibly agree with me, except that they might say, ‘Well, right, but then, who needs God?’ Some of them will have had their mindset shaped by the lyrics of the song ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon,

                    Imagine there's no heaven,
                    It's easy if you try.
                    No hell below us,
                    Above us only sky.
                    Imagine all the people
                    Living for today.

It used to grill me when I heard those words, even though something about the song rang true. I just couldn’t stand the thought of ‘all the people living for today’ because I have seen them doing exactly that—living for today, and leaving God out of the picture. Actually, this still does rub me the wrong way. I want people to give thanks and praise to God for all the good things they enjoy. When they don’t, it pushes me involuntarily toward resentment.

But I don’t have to defend God, only love Him, and show Him, if I can, to anyone who wants to see.

God wants us to be happy. Christianity has continued for two thousand years, trying over and over in many different ways to deliver that happiness to the human race, because deep down, everyone knows that it’s not wrong to be happy, whether there is a God or not. Now that we’re at the threshold of a ‘brave, new world,’ unexpectedly emerging from a mechanical to an information age, Christianity is in the best position to know itself and to transform society.

‘The world is in the power of the evil one.’ It still is, isn’t it? Certainly, as anyone can find out by exploring the internet, for with an increase in freedom comes an increase in sin, incontrovertible proof of our race’s urge to self-annihilation. But through the same freedom comes an almost supernatural transparency fulfilling a prophecy of Christ, who says, ‘there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and nothing secret that will not be made known.’

This transparency makes available to anyone who wishes to see, what are the mistakes of Christianity and all other religions and social structures, and forces everyone, religious and non-religious, to come to an honest and rational recognition of what really is good, for the individual and for the race, and how what makes God happy can be realized on earth. This planet is not only the place where ‘God became man’ but also where man, at last, becomes God.

Now, after choking on that last statement—I am addressing both the religious and the non-religious—I have finished biding my time and want to close with this thought. God wants us to be happy. What this means is, He wants our relationship restored to what it was ‘in the Garden.’ No religion, just relationship. No sin and death, just one will and life. To recognize Him in us and in all things, to give thanks and praise, and to follow His commandment, to love one another.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Leaving Goshen forever

The pre-dawn of my last day of work, after today I am retired. It is the twenty-seventh day of the second month, and I take up my Hebrew psalm book to offer the psalms of the day. I open, and read ‘The Sabbath’ and ‘27th day of month’. Yes, Lord, for me, although it is only the sixth day of the week, it is the seventh, the Sabbath, of my life. You have arranged all things so wisely, to the smallest detail, even this that my waking eyes have looked upon.

I pronounce ‘Mizmor Qoph Kaph’ and begin to form the syllables destined for this day, ‘Shir ha-ma’alot el Adonay, batsaratah li, qarati vaya’aneyni.’ I pause, and the sound of David’s song pierces my soul as my heart understands. I shift from this world to the world to come, though I know I am standing on the earth, and my eyes tumble over the syllables of salvation sung before the ages for me, ‘A song of ascents, to Yahweh. In my distress I cried, and He answered me.’

I cannot believe my eyes! Everything appointed by the Lord is so efficacious, so appropriate, so prophetic, so well adapted to those whom He loves, to those who call upon His name, be they ever so lowly, so sinful. He draws us after Him. So the psalms of my last day of working for the world, toiling for pharaoh so that he may have storehouses for his wealth, these psalms are the songs of ascent. Psalm 120, ‘Qoph Kaph’ leading, Psalm 134, ‘Qoph Lamed Dalet’ completing.

As I read the morning offering, my life passes before me, known to Him before I was ever born, now revealed to me still alive looking back. ‘Lord, rescue my soul from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue. What can He give you, and what can He add to you, O deceitful tongue? You are like the sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of rotem-wood. Woe unto me for my drawn-out sojourn. I dwelt with those who inhabit the tents of Kedar. Long has my soul dwelt with those who hate peace. I am peace, but when I speak, they are for war…’ (Psalm 120).

I tremble as I realize He has been with me, guiding me, guarding me, through all these trials. ‘I raise my eyes upon the mountains, whence will come my help? My help is from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to falter. Your Guardian will not slumber. Behold, He neither slumbers nor sleeps, the Guardian of Israel. Yahweh is your Guardian, the Lord is your Shade at your right hand. By day the sun will not harm you, nor the moon by night. The Lord will protect you from every evil, He will guard your soul. Yahweh will guard your departure and your arrival, from this time and forever…’ (Psalm 121).

I continue, unaware of the passage of time. ‘Mizmor Qoph Kaph Beyt, shir ha-ma’alot le David’ and as I form the Hebrew with my tongue, my heart translates into my mother’s speech. ‘I rejoiced when they said to me, let us go to the House of Yahweh. Immobile stood our feet within your gates, O Jerusalem…’ (Psalm 122) and by now my soul races ahead in the Hebrew and the English words, no longer needed, are cast off as a garment in the heat of running a sprint. Yes, though my body reclines in praise and wonder, the soul united to the Uncreated is in hot pursuit of the Eternal.

My friends and companions, co-sufferers for the sake of Truth and Righteousness, for the sake of Christ, I think of you as my fingers glide over the characters on the page, You are with me somehow, as I contemplate our trials. ‘To You I raise my eyes, O You who dwell in the heavens. Behold! Like the eyes of servants unto their Master’s hand, like the eyes of a maid unto her mistress’ hand, so are our eyes unto Yahweh, our God, until He will favor us. Favor us, Lord, favor us, for we are fully sated with contempt. Our soul is fully sated with the mockery of the complacent ones, with the contempt of the arrogant…’ (Psalm 123).

Yes, Lord, amen and amen. I cannot stop praising You for my every move, my every joy or sorrow, every victory or defeat, has been known to You, provided or allowed, so that I could meet You here at this moment, and again and again I am astonished by Your care. ‘Had not Yahweh been with us—let Israel declare it now! Had not Yahweh been with us when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive, when their anger was kindled against us. Then the waters would have inundated us, the current would have surged across our soul, the treacherous waters. Blessed is the Lord, who did not present us as prey for their teeth. Our soul escaped like a bird from the hunter’s snare. The snare broke, and we escaped. Our help is through the name of Yahweh, Maker of heaven and earth…’ (Psalm 124).

One after another, so many blessings fall upon me as I read I am overwhelmed. Though sorrows may seem forever, they are soon over. Though blessings may seem brief, they are forever. I find myself too quickly at the conclusion of the psalms appointed, as the morning breaks with the gray light of a cloudy morning, a sleepy fore-sabbath for my last day of labor in others’ fields. ‘Mizmor Qoph Lamed Dalet, shir ha-ma’alot…’ I arise with the song of the Lord my God on my unworthy lips, ‘Behold, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand in the House of the Lord in the nights. Lift your hands in the Sanctuary and bless the Lord. May Yahweh bless you from Zion, Maker of heaven and earth…’ (Psalm 134).

Yes, I am leaving Goshen forever. Open to me, O Lord, the gates of repentance, and let me follow You into the wilderness, for Your countenance is beautiful, and Your words are sweet.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A mad dog

A seminarian wrote,

I remember listening to a debate in my apologetics class regarding good works. One classmate made the point that Mother Teresa never did anything good because she did not have a regenerated heart. This is a controversial statement for two reasons. The second is that most people assume that she was a Christian because of her works, though that is debatable based on her writings and what she professed.

To be sure, this debate was taking place in a Calvinist (I would like to say evangelical, but I no longer know what this term means to others besides myself) seminary, where they will be very careful to reiterate that we are never saved by works (which by the way, all Christians believe, even Roman Catholics), but the conclusion that they came to, that it is doubtful that Mother Teresa was a Christian, is incredible.

Mother Teresa is someone whom I know fairly well, from reading about her work among the poorest of the poor (including among us who are not so poor), and her testimonies as well as what others have written about her. I know a fellow Christian when I see one. How can anyone doubt that she was a Christian? Well, I suppose the same people would doubt that a Roman pope could be a Christian… but my point is, that we are wasting our time and efforts to no avail, and in fact endangering our own souls, to judge others like this. In our effort to discern what is the correct doctrine of salvation or whatever, by our shallow judgments we trample the work of Christ in His saints, when they do not fit our presumptuous dogmatic schemes. Lord, have mercy!

Just call me a mad dog barking at a dumb wall that will not fall down no matter how hard I bark, but bark I must just the same. There are people trapped behind that wall, separated from the simple Truth who is Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of our souls, who also is knocking on the doors in that wall, seemingly to no avail.

Like the merchants of Gadara, they fear the Man who sent their livestock careening to their deaths down the cliffs by the Galilean lake. They care little about the man whose life was straightened by the Master's words, nor that he who ran naked and gashed himself is now in his right mind and clothed. They hear the Man knocking whose teachings they say they glorify and guard against the wrong-minded, and they themselves do not open the door. He might cast their livestock, their investment, into the lake too, and then they would have nothing, be nothing, except (if they still wanted it) to be His disciples. He might tell them, as He told the Gerasene demoniac, that He didn't want him to follow Him, but rather to go and tell others what had been done for him. And that's just not good enough for them. They want to sit on thrones to the Master's right and left. But can they drink the cup that He has drunk? Or will they, like the one ‘enthroned’ on the cross to His left, say, "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
(Luke 23:39)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew 5:1-11 NIV

Rubrics of love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archimandrite Vasileios writes,

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


One of the first lessons we learn as young adults, if not earlier, and sometimes at great pain, is not to make a decision when we are angry. The decision can be to speak or not to speak, to act or not to act, or even more subtly, to think, that is, to believe, or not to think. With some reflection and further maturity, we come to realize that it isn’t just anger that is taboo territory for decision making, but almost any strong emotional state. Delight or its opposite, repugnance. Love or hate. High spirits or low. Perhaps one can even include faith or doubt, although faith is more, much more than an emotional state, though its evil twin certainly is.

It’s easy to see how and why we shouldn’t act when in strong emotional states, a little harder to see how and why we shouldn’t speak, and even harder to understand the limitations we should impose on our own thoughts when we are ruled by a strong emotion. Aren’t some emotions good? Well, yes, perhaps some are, and there’s relatively few occasions when we are totally emotion-free, maybe none. The decisions we make when we are feeling good (not just feeling well) would seem to be risk-free, but uh-uh, sorry, they are not. My point is not to flaunt the obvious, or to save myself from its implications, but to say, it’s our nature.

Human beings are not God, god, or gods and goddesses (depending on your choice of religion). We are not minerals. Though some of us seem to be vegetables, that is only a metaphor we use to chasten ourselves. We are not spirits either, despite what the poets and theologians tell, but that is almost what we are and possibly what we will become ‘if we make it.’ What we are is, in a word, unstable. We flicker. We are blown to and fro. We blaze up. We die down. We can merge and lose our identity as we move on to consume other fuels. Eventually we go out, either snuffed or, retreating to our coals, glow dimly and then go black.

What does this sound like? You’ve already pictured it in your minds if you’ve read this far. It is, we are, fire. Now, think of a campfire at night. It glows. It doesn’t keep a shape. Every little shift of the wind contorts it. It burns because it has fuel. There’s wood under it. Other fires burning in other places still consume fuel, couldn’t exist without it, coal, oil, gas, it doesn’t matter what. Fire burns, and unless it has fuel, there is no fire. This is just another metaphor, but it does shed some light on our human nature. What I also want to say is, don’t take your human nature, your life really, too terribly seriously. Even most of your decisions.

Just as fire needs that fuel to keep burning, to keep existing, we cannot live, at least not for long, unless we have fuel. It may seem harsh or judgmental to hint that some fuel is better than others to keep the fire alive and burning, but it is still true. Start a handful of steel wool on fire, watch it sparkle as it is consumed, and then see the fire go out, all in a matter of seconds. Tear up a phone book and use its pages as kindling under the grate in your family fireplace. Light it and hope that it will burn long enough to catch the real fuel, alder, maple or oak logs, on fire. No one believes filling his grate with just paper will keep him warm.

It’s no accident in my choice of metaphor that wood is the fuel and paper the kindling. To get your fire going, you may start with paper, but ‘paper Christianity doesn’t have much holding power,’ I mean, it can’t hold its own, keep burning. It goes out after a few minutes. If we think a little bit harder, we can also see what the wood might be. Some of us wear tiny copies of that wood and say we stake our lives on it, but few of us bear it. Yet that wood is the only fuel that will keep us burning, and burning is our nature. ‘There is no higher way above nor safer way below…’ It seems odd to me that we should be made this way, but we are.

As I enter the sixty-fourth calendar year of my life with wretched trepidation, I confess my humanity, my fallenness, my instability, my inability to exist on my own, my need for fuel to keep me going another year. I confess that all my thoughts, words, and actions are flawed, and the decisions I have made and continue to make are somehow outside my control, that I am just a fire blown about by the wind. But I know that the fuel I need to keep burning, because burning is my nature, has been provided. I cannot provide it. Only One can provide it and He has, so that others can be warmed by the heat as I burn, and maybe see by the light.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The recovery of the gospel

If Orthodox Christians should understand anything, it is this: Salvation is a concrete, existential encounter with the living God.

Moreover, this Lord gives gifts, including wisdom, knowledge, insight, and courage—all the elements needed to confront the maelstrom of confusion in which our culture finds itself, and all meant to be applied
in the work of daily life, whether as mother, researcher, mechanic, priest—whatever our vocation
may be.

Salvation is
not understanding the correct theological concepts;
it is not nostalgia for civilizations past;
it is not formal membership in a long-standing parish;
it is not social activism;
it is not morally appropriate behavior;
it is not mastery of the moral vocabulary.

Further, it is not enough to recall the certainty of the past.
Nostalgic impulses, as comforting as they may be (including the Orthodox variants, such as the longings for Hellenistic Greece or Holy Russia), simply won’t meet the challenge.

Orthodox leadership today requires great courage.
Courage, said Winston Churchill, is the one quality that lets all other virtues flourish.

When Solzhenitsyn delivered his address three decades ago, he spoke not as a philosopher, but as a voice crying in the wilderness. He cried out against the dehumanization of men he experienced in the East and saw advancing in the West. Only people with moral clarity and courage could successfully challenge it, he exhorted. What the world needs is not more philosophers, but moralists.

The exhortation drew from a supreme confidence in the power of truth. Solzhenitsyn believed that truth is self-verifying. When the truth is spoken, its veracity is self-evident to the hearer. This is a profoundly Christian notion rooted in the teaching of the apostle Paul: When the Gospel is preached, Christ (who is Truth) is revealed.

Any Orthodox response to the cultural challenge must first presume a recovery of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The wisdom of the Fathers, the artistry of the poets, the healings of the miracle workers, the courage of the martyrs, the knowledge of the scholars, the patience of the teachers, the foresight of the bishops, the faithfulness of the priests—all the elements that shaped and forged the moral tradition that founded Western civilization and must renew it today—
start with the recovery of the Gospel.

As Jesus said,I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).

9th Century on Heaven

‘Remember who your teachers were,’ writes holy apostle Paul to his young partner Timothy. There isn’t a single thing that I know, or have thought or written, that hasn’t been the result of receiving gladly what was ‘handed over’ to me. How many expressions that I use daily in speaking or writing are really my own? Very few, I’m afraid. No, rather I’m happy to admit it. I want to be known as one who followed in the footsteps of those who followed Jesus, and not as one who blazed new trails of my own. Like the bride in the Song of Solomon, I receive and obey the words spoken to me, ‘Follow the tracks of the flock, and take your kids to graze close by the shepherds’ tents’ (Song of Songs 1:8 Jerusalem Bible).

A modern Church father who had a profound effect on me as I was growing up was Fr Louis Evely. I have distilled the text of Chapter 9: Heaven from his book That Man Is You into a ‘Century,’ that is, following the classical spiritual authors, a collection of one hundred ‘sayings.’ May it bless you as it blesses me to read it, understand it, and live it.

Download a PDF booklet of the following text
Ninth Century on Heaven
adapted from Fr Louis Evely

1 Some people have never met God in His written Word, or in forgiveness, or in faith, or in their neighbor, or in their own lives, yet they vainly hope to meet Him in heaven. We must discourage this expectation, correct this misconception, before it leads to utter ruin. If we have not found God on earth, we will not find Him in heaven.
2 Heaven is not another world where we go to escape. The kingdom of heaven is already in us [Luke 10.9], and we are called to build it up with the grace God gives us.
3 God wants people who will work with Him, not just sit around and dream. If we are content to only wait for the kingdom of God to come, it will never arrive.
4 The gifts of God in us are efficacious. They are meant to produce results. They only retain their true character as gifts when we give them away.
5 This is eternal life: To know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. [John 17.3] Those who have not started living this eternal life on earth, who have not already been illuminated by the presence and light of God which are offered to every man who comes into the world [John 1.9], and who have found nothing to eternalize, those people will never get to heaven.
6 Earth is a place where we build our heaven. God does not invite us simply to pass over into another world. Rather, He has invited Himself into this world. He has redeemed it and released into it infinite forces which He has entrusted to us, so that we might transform it. Finally, He will crown His work and ours by making it eternal.
7 We are in this world forever, so let us accept it and our place in it. Heaven is the establishment and fruition of what we will achieve with the gifts God gave us.
8 Too many Christians are spiritualists. They believe in the immortality of the soul but not in the resurrection of the body. To the contrary, God takes on a body and deems human flesh a good conductor of divine power.
9 God reveals Himself through creation, for the universe fashioned in His image is God made visible.
10 God becomes incarnate and acquires a human nature. He communicates His grace through the mysteries and will make all creation share in the glorious freedom of the sons of God. [Romans 8.21]
11 The joy of heaven does not consist in having our human faculties suspended but in finally being able to live human life to the full. God has already given Himself to us so completely, that He can be contemplated not only in Himself but also in the whole of creation. The presence of the Giver does not make us scorn His gifts. Rather, it sheds brighter light on them.
12 We are not to choose between God and the natural world. We are to discover Him in the world and reveal Him to it. Though we cannot yet imagine what the ultimate face-to-face vision of God means, its repercussions on man concern us even now. The resurrection of the body teaches us to expect that our heavenly bliss will also be a human bliss.
13 God is not enthroned in some other world. He came into this world and has never left it. Christ has not left the human world. He remains with us, day in, day out. At His ascension, He did not go away. He disappeared.
14 It makes no sense to celebrate the ascension of Christ unless we understand the difference between departure and disappearance. Departure results in absence. Disappearance inaugurates a hidden presence.
15 At His ascension Christ became invisible, was fully glorified in His humanity, and began sharing the infinite power of the Father as Theánthropos, God-Man. Because of this, He is closer to us than He ever was before. Far from abandoning us and leaving us orphans [John 14.18], He acquired the very influence and boundless efficacy that enables Him to fill everything with His presence. [Ephesians 4.10]
16 We must not restrict Christ either to heaven or to earth. His ascension is not a going up in spatial terms that would only separate us from Him, but a going up in power that intensifies His presence.
17 Jesus Christ is still the most active Person in the history of the world. The Evangelist Mark demonstrates this beyond a doubt in his narrative of the ascension which begins, Jesus was taken up into heaven, where He sits at the right hand of God. The apostles went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them, confirming their message by the miracles that followed. [Mark 16.20]
18 Think about it. Christ is here on earth with us and will never leave us, because His spiritual presence is more intensive and extensive than His physical presence ever could have been. For our own good He disappeared visibly, so we could find Him present invisibly, any time, anywhere.
19 Do we really believe in the communion of saints? Do we really believe Christ wants to gather heaven and earth into a single entity beyond which there is simply nothing? [Ephesians 1.10]
20 We must fervently hope for a world where people love one another, are united, and all enjoy God together. We must desire to see this world other than it is, and not try to run away to some other world.
21 Jesus Christ commands, Go teach all nations, baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and show them how to practice everything I have commanded you. And you will see that I am with you every single day till the end of time. [Matthew 28.20]
22 Where is the Father? Up in heaven? Not if that means away from us, somewhere up there. He is here with us on earth, permanently. How can that be? Jesus Christ says, If anyone loves Me, My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. [John 14.23]
23 Where is the Holy Spirit? He is with us and in us forever. [John 14.17]
24 Where are the saints? They are alive in that same Holy Spirit in whom all who live are alive, in communion and close fellowship with us. The saints spend all their time in heaven doing good on earth. Where would they be, if not with Christ? What would they be doing, if not what He does? When we welcome Christ, we welcome the saints, and in furthering His work, we collaborate with them.
25 What of death? To die means to find ourselves in the most favorable conditions to assist in spreading of the kingdom of God on earth.
26 To die means to be cured of our weakness, our inadequacy, to be made perfectly adaptable, perpetually active, and always available to continue our work with those who are still on earth.
27 This is the communion of the saints, all of us, under the leadership of Jesus Christ, working together toward one goal, day after day, till the end of time.
28 The redemption always depends on the incarnation, on the invasion of the world by God. The incarnation of Christ is also permanent. Christ is risen in a mystical body. His glorified human nature has become the head of a vast organism. His risen body is distinct, yet shareable, communicable, capable of subjecting and incorporating into itself all who do not resist Him.
29 The abiding presence of Christ on earth, made universal and accessible to all, is called the Church.
30 Heaven signifies starting to believe in His presence and detect it, starting to get used to it and work to extend it.
31 Faith is already the beginning of vision, and love is a theological virtue, whether we show it to God or neighbor.
32 What is new about the commandment of Jesus Christ? Is it, loving one another? This precept already existed in the Old Testament. Christ merely summarized and quoted it. His real innovation was making the second commandment identical with the first. You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and greatest 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 22.36-40]
33 Since the Word has become flesh, brotherly love is theological. If we love God, we must love our brother. If we say we love God whom we do not see, but refuse to love our brother whom we do see, then we are liars. [1 John 4.20]
34 Our behavior toward our neighbor reveals our real attitude toward God. To love our brother sincerely is to love God, and this is a foretaste of heaven, right now, here on earth.
35 As a matter of fact, the earthly world is bound to become heaven, since we pray for the will of God to be done on earth as in heaven. If it seems our plea is not heard, can it be because we are spiritually lazy, unbelieving, or faint-hearted?
36 The object of our prayer should also be the object of our faith and hope. Instead of running away from this world to reach heaven, we should make it our business to see that the will of God is done here on earth as it is in heaven. Do we secretly think, That will never happen? Well, then, why bother praying? So God will do it? He wants it with all His might. The only obstacle is ourselves!
37 Because the redemption of the world depends partly on us, it is not absolutely certain. The world could end with something less than total redemption, but only because it is blocked by our refusal to believe in the power of God, to serve and magnify it.
38 Do we love God up in heaven? Do we look up at the starry sky when we speak to Him? We need to look a little closer. He is here, somewhere, beside us, perhaps gazing at the stars like us because they are beautiful, or perhaps so hungry, cold, and sick, He cannot even raise His head, unless we feed, warm, and comfort Him. Will we be the ones to ask, But Lord, when did we see You like that? [Matthew 25.44]
39 According to our belief, God has become man. We cannot be sure we are in line with God unless we are in line with our neighbor.
40 At the Judgment, we will understand that mere religious instruction was not enough to convince us. At that moment of decision, the so-called good and so-called bad will get the shock of their lives. The incarnation of God really happened! God was their neighbor, and the first and second commandments were really the same! The first was fulfilled in the second, and heaven had begun on earth!
41 If anyone says, I love God, do not be impressed. Perhaps he is just going through a pious phase. But if he says, I love my neighbor, then perhaps consider him an extraordinary being. Perhaps you have met someone, at last, who can put up with God!
42 Do we really love God up in heaven? That means we love nothing, just a figment of our imagination. It would be all too easy to earn heaven if we had nothing to do but spend an hour and a half a week bowing and crossing ourselves in some church where, luckily, we do not really know a soul.
43 No one feeds on the Holy Gifts of the precious body and blood of Jesus Christ, and no one is a naturalized citizen of heaven until, along with the communion, he can swallow all his neighbors. It is easy to see from this example, how the Eucharist can be both a banquet and a sacrifice.
44 Communion means community of persons in perfect agreement, a foretaste of life in the Holy Triad. The surest way to test the validity of our mystical experiences is to adopt as our companions in heaven all our neighbors at the Divine Liturgy, along with everything they have shown us so far.
45 We must be reconciled to the faces around us. That is how we know we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. [1 John 3.14] That is also how we know the real heaven from its dark double.
46 The Christian faith actually gives brotherly love a higher priority than love of God. If you are in church, about to present your gift at the altar, and you remember your brother has a grievance against you, leave your offering there and go make peace with him. [Matthew 5.23-24] If we find it in our heart to love him again, we will also find heaven, Christ in our midst, once more.
47 God and our neighbor are indissolubly linked, but what trouble we have believing that! If God were only enthroned high above, far above us, hidden behind clouds of incense, we would not have to worry, we could detest our neighbors without fear!
48 Christian contemplation differs profoundly from New Age spirituality on this point. Christians become contemplatives not to escape from this world, or to feel religion, or to enjoy ecstasies, but to consider an incarnate God, a crucified Savior.
49 It is impossible to know and love God without beginning to resemble Him. It is impossible to remain a contemplative without becoming a missionary.
50 We do not have to invent God. We must just accept Him as He reveals Himself.
51 We do not have to retreat to another world to discover Him. We must just recognize Him in this world, where He reveals Himself to those who love Him.
52 All who have recognized God He has immediately sent back to their neighbors, fashioning them after His own heart. To everyone who saw and recognized the risen Christ, to Mary Magdalene, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to Peter, He commanded, Go to My brothers, [Matthew 28.7] and, Feed My lambs. [John 21.15]
53 God has loved the world so much. [John 3.16] We do not really share His thoughts unless we also love this earth and everything in it, unless we are sorry we cannot keep on praying and working here until it is wholly stirred up, consecrated, and ablaze with love and joy.
54 When Christ refused to pray for the world, He did not mean the earth as a whole, but only those forces in it that resist the activity of God.
55 The world that Christ condemned is the one that satan rules over, the domain of egocentrics that cut themselves off from God and their neighbor. The boundary between that world and the one God has loved so much passes through each of us. It is up to us to push it back and claim all we can for the kingdom of God.
56 Everything we rescue from this world will be eternalized in heaven.
57 The Divine Liturgy is a daily Pascha, a passing over from the profane to the sacred, from earth to heaven.
58 We must not allow anyone to be lost or anything to be desecrated.
59 The universe eagerly longs to see the sons of God, hoping to be liberated like them from its slavery to corruption, so as to share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. For we know that all creation groans with the pangs of birth. [Romans 8.19-22] Are we burning to satisfy this expectation?
60 Many Christians give up the world with regards to its salvation. After getting all they can out of it, they doom it to apocalyptic destruction. They should read the Word as it is. The Apostle Paul asserts that heaven is to be brought forth here on earth.
61 The apocalypse will reveal to everyone once and for all what was always really there, but hidden, as behind a veil.
62 The birth of a child is an apocalypse, the manifestation of a being who was already present, but hidden. There is nothing catastrophic about it. The labor pains are forgotten for joy that a man is born into the world. [John 16.21]
63 Harvest time is the apocalypse of the grain of wheat, primarily a festive season, even if it is also mowing time.
64 So too, heaven will end up being the joyous revelation of all that the love of God and His saints has brought to perfection in this world forever.
65 Everything we have really loved will be saved. Our redemptive power is in proportion to our capacity for love. It is all a matter of loving something so much that we will not let it be lost. With Christ, we must say, I have watched over them and not one is lost, except the one who chose to be lost. [John 17.12]
66 Those who think they want to die as soon as possible, to be with the Lord, will not participate in the salvation of anyone or anything.
67 Creation will be transfigured by sharing in the glorious freedom of the sons of God. To the extent that the falsely pious ignore it to save their own souls, they hinder the rebirth of the world.
68 God desires and needs us. He wants us not merely to wait and hope for heaven, but to build it now, by starting to make this earth a place where justice rules, and where we love one another.
69 We must not imagine that God will impose a prefabricated heaven of His own to replace the one we are working on. We could not validly choose our eternal destiny unless we had already had a foretaste of it even in this life.
70 Test yourselves, urges the Apostle Paul, Make sure Christ is in you. [2 Corinthians 13.5] Have we never sensed the kingdom of heaven within us? Have we never noticed the miracle that, selfish, mean, and sarcastic as we can be, the grace of God has taught us to love, to trust others, to forget wrongs we have suffered, to give generously, to be moved to pity even over an enemy, to be touched if he repents, and to be overjoyed if he changes his ways?
71 Heaven is the only place where there is more happiness over one sinner who repents than over a thousand who do not need to. [Luke 15.17] If we have ever felt the same way, it is because we were in heaven at that moment. It is because there really is a heaven, and we have access to it.
72 As for hell, we have a preview of that, too. The unbearable heaviness that comes over us when disagreements and grudges cut us off from the world where people love one another, share, believe, and tolerate anything.
73 The gloom of our occasional eclipses bears painful witness to the habitual existence of a light that must eventually shine through us, unobstructed. If we are so chilled and so uncomfortable when we turn back into our natural selves, individualistic and aloof, conceited, independent, and desperate, we should conclude that it has become necessary for us to be supernatural, that we were made for another kind of life, the life of heaven.
74 Heaven is not a exactly place, but a state of being. Passing from this world to heaven does not mean moving from one location to another, but turning towards God, opening our hearts to the things He keeps wanting to do in us and through us.
75 Because of sin, the kingdoms of God and of man became two different worlds, but in Christ they have reestablished contact and set up ceaseless relations. All our efforts should go to bringing them closer, bit by bit, till they finally merge into one.
76 Ever since His conversations with Adam in paradise, God has not stopped frequenting mankind and living on earth. He speaks reassuringly, I will be at your side, to all those who want to draw near Him and walk in His presence [Genesis 17.1], from Abraham through all the prophets, down to the last human being at the end of the world, His name will be Emmanuel. [Isaiah 7.14] He will be with them as their God. [Revelation 21.3]
77 There is a continual theophany inherent in our world, a constant manifestation. Man has been made capable of God, and the earth susceptible of consecration and sacrifice.
78 Our earth has access to heaven whenever there is loving, sharing, communion. That is why the expression, gaining heaven, becomes not only false but absurd, and the charge of being mercenary refutes itself.
79 We do not gain heaven, we get used to it. We train for it as spiritual athletes, we build it and are built into it, as living stones, all of us, together.
80 Heaven is the home of a Reality we most often see only the back side of. [Exodus 33.18-23] It is the long-sought coincidence between what we wanted to be and what we are.
81 Heaven is finally being able to take our place in the procession we could never quite keep up with. It is a family where we love each other, where we laugh and forever leap with joy, because we are together.
82 It is in our power to be in heaven with Christ right now, to be happy with Him at this very moment. But being happy with Him means being happy with His happiness, and that, in turn, means loving, helping, sharing, rescuing, and redeeming.
83 We were not made to be in bondage, submerged in hatred and thoughts of revenge, in self-seeking and indifference, in peace and security that we make for ourselves. We were made for something else, for a totally different kind of life. Some have gotten so accustomed to puttering around down here, submerged, that they do not think of coming up anymore, they do not even want to.
84 What about us? Do we want to come back up and live once again in a world where people converse, know and love one another, and are interested in what happens to everyone? Where they are all bound together in fellowship and stay close to the One source of their fatherhood and brotherhood? Where they throw themselves, body and soul, into all the work and all the joy that awaits them?
85 The Apostle Peter reminds us, we are strangers and pilgrims here. [1 Peter 2.11] Those who believe that God still has work for them farther on keep themselves ready, willing, and able.
86 Saints are more vibrantly alive than anyone else, more adaptable to any situation, because they have detached themselves from everything and so are free to embrace anything.
87 Those who do not feel perfectly content anywhere are the only ones who can be happy everywhere, the only ones who can do any work assigned them with the same prompt enthusiasm.
88 Because saints are not rooted to any one place, they never look transplanted. Because they do not see enough love anywhere, their grief compels them to love with all their might.
89 The Lord says, Your sorrow will be changed to joy. [John 16.20] When you find a want, you try to fill it, and you give more and more till you eventually give yourselves. You become a gift. You become love, joy, and heirs of heaven.
90 Our earthly life will be radiant, full, harmonious and happy, insofar as we believe that what it announces and signifies is infinitely more beautiful than what meets the eye, that what visibly failed today is an invisible promise for tomorrow, because of our hope in it, because we know ours is a hidden life with Christ in God. [Colossians 3.1-4]
91 We all have seen that our deepest joys always slip away before we realize it, or do not measure up to what we expected, and yet in retrospect, they prove richer than we were able to appreciate. The worship services that sickness, worrying, and various kinds of troubles keep us from fully participating in, those that weary our fickle hearts, those that we are inclined to judge as too long, that we dread before they begin and wish were over while they are still going on, those very services, we understand later, are filled with the presence of God. How can we be so blind to our supreme good?
92 We sometimes rush out of the services, inhale the first breath of fresh air with relief, and then in a flash we realize what we are missing, what we are turning our backs on. Then we know, we were never happier than the whole time we felt so bored, or thought we did not understand what was going on in there. We doze off like Patriarch Jacob, who lay down in the darkness of night, his head on a rock, and when he awoke he recalled what happened, how he had seen angels and the Lord who manifested Himself through them.
93 We are so rarely the persons we want to be. The fact is, we cannot be our real selves except through grace. It takes a state of grace for our faculties to work without hindrance, for us to be free to use what is most truly ours.
94 Everything is grace. We come upon the Truth only by surprise. We speak it aptly only because we hit on the right words. We discover ourselves only when we give ourselves. Nothing short of death can definitely unlock to us the full expanse of our soul, can place us in the only position where we can see ourselves as we really are.
95 Heaven is the re-experiencing in a blaze of light the wonderful moments of our earthly existence. At each step along the way, we are astounded by the philanthropy of God and ashamed of our past heedlessness. The greatest surprise about heaven is that there is nothing new there. When we wake up from this long sleep and all its nightmares, we shall find ourselves clasped in the same arms that have always held us. The glorious face that will beam down on us will be the one we always sensed was watching over us in our trials and sorrows, though we refused to wholly believe. At long last we will recognize the elusive but faithful Friend whose mysterious presence puzzled us.
96 If heaven is not exactly a place, the earthly world is not a very well-defined place either. If we choose earth for our final home instead of heaven, we will soon notice it has always been hell. If we situate it just below heaven, we will discover that ever since our first day here, it has been part of heaven itself.
97 If we are willing to work on earth for heaven, with an insatiable desire for love and progress, we are already in heaven. We must not long for some other world but desire to make this world other than it is. We must not stop working or hoping. Through our activity, a redemption is effected that transcends us.
98 At the moment of His ascension, when the Apostles watched Jesus rise before them, perfectly naturally and with every right, they grew aware of the true identity of their mysterious Companion. They started to understand who Jesus is, what He had done for them, and how they had received Him.
99 For three years, God had lived with them, God had eaten at their table, God had slept in their homes, God had told them all about Himself, and they had never even thanked Him. And they stood there, gazing into heaven. [Acts 1.10] Heaven had begun thirty-three years before, and they had not even noticed.

100 But angels came to shake them, to rouse them from their nostalgia and send them into the world where their Master was waiting for them. They realized, it was not too late.
Now they could do for men all that they were sorry they had not done for Christ. Together, they would renew the great adventure without end.
They were going to live the life of heaven on earth.

Tissot, Ascension of Christ


May those who hate me read this and say to themselves, ‘Ah yes, how conniving he is! How he has fooled everyone!’

I used to be very afraid of being falsely accused, falsely judged and put to death by those to whom I have only tried to be a friend.
‘Falsely?’ they would say. ‘Oh no, you are guilty. We know it with absolute certainty. We don't need any evidence to condemn you, and all the evidence you think you have, even though you don't push it at us, it’s all fake anyway. You're living in denial.’

There is one very dear friend, with whom I once shared a very special friendship. No need to recount what happened, but we were divided by the devil. Yes, I put it that simply. But Christ never allows him the final victory, and as long as we live, the book of our history is still open and being written. May God forgive us and reunite us, but…
and I really mean this… only if He wants to.

About human relationships, whether in or out of Christ, I know nothing. I no longer enter into them intentionally. I just simply do what I see the Lord Jesus doing as I follow right behind Him, and I accept whatever happens. He sends people to me and me to people.
I do what He indicates. I never say ‘No’ to Him, but always ‘Yes.’ Someone will cry out, ‘Liar! Hypocrite! You don’t always say Yes! and I can prove it!’

Strange to tell, but saying ‘Yes’ to God does not always mean saying ‘Yes’ to people.

Friendship and flocking. Sure, sometimes people can be of a very similar mindset, but it is not necessarily in the details, which is where people intent on forming friendships often go wrong. When they start out that way, no matter whatever else happens, in the end they fall to nitpicking each other to death in hopeless pursuit of a sameness that is unreachable.

Just as there is only One God, we, who are made in His image, are each the only one of us there is. We are all completely custom made, and the Lord in His unfathomable kindness has created a world and time in which such creatures as He made us, in every way unique universes, copies of Himself in a minor key, can actually meet, converse, enrich one another, because of the common room into which He has placed us. This thought is never far from my daily working consciousness. Everyone we meet is vaster than the physical universe we find ourselves in.

As C. S. Lewis most truly says, ‘the inside is bigger than the outside.’ This seems to be the consistent principle evident in what God has brought into being.

Not necessarily in the details, which is like saying, we don’t like and own all the same ‘things’, but rather in the action of heart and mind. Two runners pace each other in preparation for their big race, where they will not ever compete against another, but against themselves. They enjoy running together: that’s the unity of the action of their hearts and minds. They don’t care a fig what each other is wearing, what color their eyes or hair are, what they had for breakfast that morning, or where they will sleep tonight. It’s running that brings them together. Yet that doesn’t make their relationship any less real.

‘You raise the horns of the virtuous, and cut off all the horns of the wicked’ (Psalm 75).

Yes, in one case, the horn a musical instrument, in the other a biological augment for protection, or are both the same somehow? and isn’t it clear that when we serve the Lord, when we run the race He sets before us, alone or together (though we are made to run side by side, at least with Him), it is not ourselves we preach, but Jesus Christ, not our own horns we toot, but the shofar of the Lord, who has given it to us for exactly that purpose?

Humbled, humbled by the reality that presses down on us, as we are sifted, pressed through, leaving behind the chaff, collecting the fine flour, so that the Baker can form us into loaves for the brethren to share. Like Amma Pelagía, the desert mother who ran into the Temple, looking for good bishop Nonnus, ‘nobody,’ so he could receive her and make her Christ’s bride, she who was formerly lost in the sins of the theatre…

                    Bare head and shoulders and legs she ran
                    right into the bakery to look for a man.
                    Pushing aside the grandmothers who swept,
                    she found holy feet, hung on them, and wept.
                    Oh, what a damaging love to display,
                    scandal to snobbery, death to dismay.
                    There nobody loved her but gave her away
                    in a font to her husband through the spray.
                    Though everyone saw her, nobody looked,
                    as she rode among them, her whole body booked
                    decked out in pearls, the wages of fame,
                    rage of the girls, her stage wasn’t tame,
                    flaunting her curls, PELAGIA her name.

Humbled, humbled by the reality of friendship.

Forgiveness and healing

To forgive does not mean to forget what has happened, but to shoulder the weight of another person’s frailty or even another person’s evil. St. Paul says, ‘Learn to carry one another’s burdens.’ These burdens are often the failure of each of us to be worthy of our calling, our incapacity to love one another, to accept one another, to serve one another, to help one another on the way that leads to God. Let each of us pass a judgment on our whole soul, on our whole life, judge ourselves honestly, and ask forgiveness not only from God but from our neighbor, which is sometimes much harder than asking forgiveness from God.

We are all frail. We are all in need of support. Do we give this support to one another? Or do we choose those whom we want to support because we like them, because supporting them is a joy, because supporting them means that they also respond to us by gratitude, by friendship? Let us avoid seeking reasons not to forgive.

I remember a man who said to me, ‘I can forgive every person who has sinned against me, I can even love them, but I must hate the enemies of God.’ I thought of something which is told to us in the life of one of the saints, in which a priest was praying to God to punish those who betrayed Him by their lives if not by their words. And Christ appeared to him and said, ‘Never pray for the punishment or the rejection of any one. If there was only one sinner in the world, I would choose to be incarnate again, and again to die upon the cross for this only sinner.’

Remember, if we do not forgive our brother, it is not only he who goes away with pain and tears in his heart, but we are wounded. If we do not forgive, we are ourselves not healed. The evil that occurred to us at the hands of another person remains with us, damaging our soul, destroying us.

Let us learn to forgive, so that others may be healed, but also that we may be healed ourselves. Come and bow down before the icon of Christ and of the Mother of God, and then turn to one another with the readiness to be forgiven and to forgive, whatever the cost to us.

— Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh

From darkness to light

I live on a planet called ‘earth,’ but it might as well be called ‘judgment world.’ I am racking my brain to come up with spectacular sins to confess to my priest to fulfill the unwritten obligation to endure the mystery of repentance at least four times yearly during the great fasts. Why is it so hard to confess our own sins, when we can hardly refrain from confessing the sins of others by the minute?

So, a president is photographed being jolly and cell phone snapping a shot at a memorial service. Meanwhile, his wife stares straight ahead with what looks like an attitude of studied disapproval. Who took that photo, I wonder, instead of being solemn and respectful? It seems we are all citizens of ‘judgment world.’

While I was preparing to reenter the Church as an adult Christian, though still on the sidelines looking in, the first Orthodox priest I ever knew said to me, ‘Try not to pass judgment on others, because that’s not your job. That’s what Christ will do when He returns, so let’s not take His job away from Him.’ I knew Father Ihor wasn’t kidding, and I never forgot what he said. In trying to follow his advice, I have found it not very easy, especially when everyone around you is doing it—judging, I mean. Almost as a survival tactic, you start doing it too, just so you don’t fall behind. Then, in a moment of calmness and clarity—which will happen if you pause a moment to catch your breath—you realize with horror what you’ve been doing and cry, ‘Lord, have mercy!’ and, perhaps just a little later, you’re back to judging again, even if it’s only yourself.

We know the scriptures so well that we become inattentive, and in our mental looms sometimes false weavings are weft. We hear ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and as soon as the commandment courses through our bodies with our lifeblood, it is contaminated by the ‘food’ we eat—what we see, hear and unthinkingly enact every day—it morphs into its very opposite, ‘judge your neighbor as yourself,’ and we find ourselves obeying a very different commandment.

Yes, we do judge ourselves, with mercy, and think we are being disciplined harshly. But if our neighbor ‘helps’ us, we rebuff his rebuke even if well-intentioned—are any really so?—feeling slighted, insulted, condemned, and so we judge him back. After all, ‘even steven.’ Yes, we’re all guilty, hands down.

This is life on planet earth, the ‘judgment world.’ If we had no other sin to confess, this one would be enough. That’s exactly why I lazily confess that ‘I am a sinner,’ and why I ask your prayers ‘for Romanós the sinner.’

What? Did I kill anyone? Did I steal? Did I lie? Did I commit adultery? Did I not honor my parents? Did I take the Lord’s name in vain, worship idols made by hand or, even worse, have different gods before Him? Well, answering the previous probes, I might have to say ‘yes, and no,’ and leave it to the questioner to guess which of the eight I have transgressed. Better yet, go ask my enemies, if I have any. Enemies always tell the truth—from their point of view. Really, though, my worst enemy—or my best—is myself, or he would be if he weren’t too shy to fess up to his—I mean, my—shenanigans.

At least I don’t work on Sunday, and I don’t covet. Those two of the Ten I accidentally left out. Was it a Freudian slip? Nobody works on the Sabbath unless they have to, and therefore, it isn’t their fault. Even the Church excuses us in this case, as long as we try our best to make it up during the week. We think that it’s enough just to make an appearance, maybe light a candle, kiss an ikon, and skip out. After all, we’re with Christ ‘twenty-four seven’ wherever we are, right? There’s no escape. As for coveting, like everyone I know I have everything I need already, so why should I want more? Besides, ‘there’s no pockets in a shroud’ and, speaking of ‘judgment world,’ we know that ‘whoever has the biggest part has the worst part.’ That’s what the saints say anyway, and I’m with them (I hope!).

Yes, we do indeed live on a planet called ‘earth,’ and whether we believe it or not, it really is a ‘judgment world.’ We’ve been sent here, deliberately, not to work off our bad karma or to attain enlightenment, but to learn to speak God’s language. Judgment is the language of this world that we pick up in infancy and speak for the rest of our lives unless, unless we are drawn to the learning of the language of God and of the age to come, and that language is silence. Learning His language we pass from judgment to mercy, and from mercy to glory, and finally and forever, from darkness to Light.