Saturday, October 31, 2015

Unafraid

Halloween, an American autumn holiday, mainly for children, and for grownups who want another occasion to party. It used to be an innocent pastime. I have many beautiful memories of my own childhood, and of part of the childhood of my sons, connected to this unholy holiday.

Well, yes, it is about evil, sort of. Not the real evil, real devils, Satan, and the like, but about the grotesque and sometimes funny depictions of evil in our mythologies, ancient and modern. It was, for me as a boy, just another time to dress up and make believe, and be out after dark.

I grew up in inner city Chicago in the 1950’s. Halloween was celebrated by just about everyone, religious affiliations notwithstanding. I remember Jewish, Catholic, and Orthodox kids all going trick-or-treating. I don’t remember knowing any Protestants, but if there were any, I’m sure they went too.

One of my fondest childhood memories of church was the Halloween that the parish celebrated with a big autumn festival and party. Before the party we were allowed to go trick-or-treating around the block with our parents, but not before Fr Molon made us sit in the first row pews of the chapel so he could bless us with holy water. I was a shepherd that year, but one of my buddies was a red devil, complete with pitchfork, horns, and barbed tail, a great costume. When the holy water hit him, it didn’t boil away.

Usually we just dressed up in our parents’ old clothes, often cross-dressing. I’m sure my brother and I went as (what today we would call) bag ladies, smeared with our Mom’s garish cosmetics, and our older sister leathered up in Dad’s old work clothes and hat to look like a hobo. It was all just for fun.

Things were similar when I was first raising my family of sons in Portland in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. I used to have a lot of fun taking the boys on their rounds to get goodies and meet the neighbors. We were Episcopalians then, and we even had a Halloween party at the church one year. But times change.

Along came Christian fundamentalism, broadcast in our faces, warning us from their posh TV studios that Halloween was satanic, that children were being sacrificed to demons, losing their lives, all over America on that hideous night. That affected my wife to the point where she spent the night praying that the innocent victims of this modern form of pagan witchery be rescued and saved. The boys and I had to content ourselves with going out to the movies that night. Halloween fell victim to holiness.

Well, not everything is really what it seems. The holiness that suppressed this unholy holiday ended up being even worse than the innocent observance it tried to snuff out. Halloween goes on, as always. I no longer go out to the movies on that night to avoid trick-or-treaters, nor do I display the large, rustic Orthodox cross on my front door to warn the wicked and deluded to stay away.

The world has changed, though, in very real ways. Some of the more gruesome depictions that used to appear to frighten us on Halloween are somewhat subdued, others banished, due to the grim reality of the macabre in our everyday life, people being decapitated, for example, by a resurgence of medieval barbarism.

It’s true that some Christians firmly believe that Halloween should be shunned because it is basically evil, and offensive to the Holy God. It’s true that many Orthodox Christians continue to hold a grudge against it for what they think are doctrinal reasons. But both rank evil and soul-destroying heresy use more deliberate, and more hidden, weaponry than Halloween traditions.

If and when a child comes to your door, lured by candle-lit jack-o-lanterns and scarecrows in the front yard, welcome him or her as you would welcome the Lord, who lives in our midst, who walks the world’s roads unafraid of getting His feet dirty, and who entered our world as a poor child. Your loving welcome and generosity will light a way for that child better than a bible tract or a Chick comic tucked into a bag of candy. Whatever you do to the least of these, that you do unto Him.

Friday, October 30, 2015

If we wait for Him at all

We know that the institutional church in all of its manifestations is
“a city set upon a hill that cannot be hid,” and so anyone passing by can look at it in the glory or in the humiliation of its past and present condition.

It takes as much faith to believe that what we are seeing as the Church is the Body of Christ as it does to look upon the man Jesus of Nazareth and believe that He is God, the Almighty. Yet He is, and so where does it leave us with regard to the Church?

Mocked, derided, stripped, scarred, gashed, sundered and pierced, the Body of Christ suffers with Jesus throughout all ages till the end of time and His return. Where we stand, what our response must be to His question, “And who do you say that I am?” will also show us where we stand with regard to the Church.

Though we see her faults, we also see and participate in her faith, and if we wait for Him at all, we must wait with her, His Bride.

Lay aside all earthly cares


So much of what I see in Orthodox Christian blogdom and general communication is devoted to countering mistaken opinions and heresies ancient and modern, comparing our faith to that of other Christians not recognized by us for whatever reason. So much effort and toil, not to build up the welcoming Temple of the living God where all are treated as first-born sons and citizens of heaven, but instead to build higher walls and towers from which to grimly defend or sit in judgment on our brothers.

When I first encountered Orthodoxy, I too was astonished by its otherworldly beauty, I too was emboldened by its apparently reckless audacity in proclaiming the Gospel and affirming the whole Word of God. I too appreciated its various claims to be what it says it is, the original and true Church. And I too had my share of books like Are You Saved? and others sitting on my shelf, that dealt with telling Catholics and Protestants of every stripe how and why they are wrong. They are sitting there still.

There are ‘givens’ with the life in Christ which we have no right to trample, as we witness for Him to others both outside and inside the Christian faith. These ‘givens’ are found in the following of Jesus, and in company with His holy apostles. One of the greatest of these, and the one most commonly overlooked, is that we do not argue the faith we hold, or subject it even to comparison with that of others. Orthodoxy cannot be compared to other confessions of Christianity. Why? Because it includes them.

I used to have a sign hanging over my desk at work (yes, even in the professional world one is a witness) that said in Greek ‘We are Christ-bearers,’ and in English below it, ‘We accept no proselytes.’ That was my way of saying, “There is no division between you and me, in Christ, who loves us equally, shed His precious Blood for us equally, welcomes us equally into His presence, and intercedes for us equally as He stands before His Father. Let us love one another, and learn of Him together.”

Rather than a spirit of contention and controversy, the Christ-bearer has the Spirit of pleading unity, calling outsiders ‘brother’ before they have even realized yet, how much the Father has loved them in the Son. We welcoming them as if welcoming Christ, they are given a glimpse of a Kingdom so great that it has no real enemies, only souls waiting patiently in line for their own awakening. They are given a foretaste of a Banquet so rich that none is ever turned empty away. Why? Because they see us.

Enmity, that is what is already in place between the servants of the living God and those who follow their own lusts, in blindness, in nakedness, in deafness, while boasting of their possessions and authority real or imagined. All whose lives are still a mixture of willful sin and a yearning for righteousness, all who still try to hide from God, or without acknowledging Him or His unrepentant Law still seek to justify themselves in their own and others’ eyes, declare that we are at enmity with them.

But I am not speaking of these others, but of Christians like ourselves, who say they believe in the Word of God and all that proceeds from that belief. Do we ourselves believe in the prayer of Christ that we should all be one, as He and the Father are in each other and are One? Do we not believe that what Christ prays is answered by His Father with ‘Yes,’ with ‘Amen’? We are the Church, there is no doubt about that. If we do believe, how could we think that the Church can ever really be divided?

Brothers, I am not talking church politics. I am not an ecumenist. All the meetings that church leaders ever put together will never bring about the unity that Christ prays us to have with one another. They are pushing not the will of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They think they have sundered, and so they think to mend, the Body of Christ. But no. There is only One Body, and there is only One Christ, is, was, and to come. Let us finally lay aside all earthly cares, as we sing in every divine liturgy, that we may receive the King of all.

Let us lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all, escorted by the angelic hosts, and welcoming Him and them in one another, let us follow Jesus, who never argued with, never scorned, even those who made themselves His enemies. His correction and teaching was His presence among them, betraying a greater love than they had ever thought possible. And in us, his living ikons, He is still walking the world, seeking, finding and gathering His lost sheep, welcoming them all into the Kingdom of His Father, not holding their faults against them, cleansing them of their sins by love, by His unflagging love, welcoming them in us.

If it is Orthodoxy you seek,
if it is Orthodoxy you proclaim,
it is only this…
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:13 KJV

Brothers of the Revelator

It is precisely where the Church exists in an openly hostile environment that it truly lives. Yet in every environment there are still individual followers of Jesus, or sometimes small pockets of them, both in church and out of church, whom the world hates and despoils, knowing Whose they are. And these one or two, two or three, are usually associated with an extended group who do not know their struggles (yet) but who stay near them and support them in various ways. Some of these, as they wake up, get pulled into the arena with the others already there, where the witness of Christ is undefeatable, right up to their physical deaths. These are those who with John the Revelator can be called συγκοινωνοι εν τη θλιψει (synkinoní en ti thlípsei > Greek, “companions in suffering”)… “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” (Revelation 1:9 NIV) Do you see the churches full of these? How would you know them if you met them there? Are you one of them yourself?

Exiled to the isle of Patmos, that’s John the Revelator and those who, like him, are “brothers and fellow partakers (συγκοινωνοι) in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance which are in Jesus.”

Miracle Workers Needed

‘Miracle workers needed. Apply within.’ A sign with these words should be hung out in front of every house of worship in the world. I almost wrote ‘in front of every church,’ but then my quirky passion for universalism kicked in just in the nick of time. Not that I believe that all mankind will be saved, but that I believe that all mankind was saved by Christ, and is saved in principle, but can only be saved if that’s what they want. My proof text for this bizarre belief is, ‘The point of all our toiling and battling is that we have put our trust in the living God, and He is the Savior of the whole human race, but particularly of all believers’ (1 Timothy 4:10). Interesting that the apostle Paul calls the living God, and not Jesus Christ by name, ‘the Savior of the whole human race,’ adding ‘but particularly of all believers.’

Of course! Jesus Christ is the living God, no one can deny that, and ‘the living God’ is distinguished, in my mind anyway, from an epithetless ‘God’ in no better place than in Christ’s words to His beloved disciple John the Revelator, ‘I am the Living One, I was dead and now I am to live for ever and ever’ (Revelation 1:18). The part about all this that was unforeseen and can seem creepy to human beings is the fact that ‘God’ is distinctly personal, so personal in fact that He can say of Himself that He was ‘dead,’ something that we all can relate to. If there is a ‘God,’ we aren’t expecting Him to undergo the change from life to death, and then back again. If we think of such things at all, it is only in myths and fairy tales. The audacity of ‘the living God’ is that He dared to die, and recovered, what we must do too, but cannot.

At least, not without Him, which is what the inescapable message of Christ is, much to the dismay and even ridicule of people who think that if there is a God, He wouldn’t stoop so low. Everyday miracles are bad enough, stupid, superstitious, demeaning to the rational mind. But then this, ‘the dying and rising God’ whose notoriety is that He was dead and is alive forever, not just in myth, but somehow in reality, crashing through all the laws of physics, space and time as if they were a crystal pavilion shattered by an earthbound chunk of celestial stuff. Actually, this is what happened, no mere metaphor. Christianity holds the only keys there are to unlock ‘the secrets of the universe’ for the human race. They were given to us by ‘the living God’ who explicitly forgave us all, as though thanking us for putting Him to death.

He knew that the only way for us to taste His immortality, and not just taste it but inherit it, was for Him to taste our mortality, and not just to taste it, as if his death was in appearance only—no, He really did die, and after suffering excruciating tortures—but to embrace it and, in so doing, to turn it against itself, to undo it, ‘trampling down death by death.’ The last part of the hymn I am quoting, ‘and to those in the tombs, bestowing life,’ is where the ‘Miracle workers needed. Apply within’ enters the picture. ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you’ (Matthew 17:20)‘The living God’ to whom nothing is impossible, well, look at the position He’s put us in, ‘Nothing will be impossible for you.’

‘Miracle workers needed. Apply within.’ Yes, this is the sign that should be out on every church billboard, marquee, webpage, and newspaper advertisement, and maybe nothing else. The question is, are ‘miracle workers wanted’? The Church is in need of nothing else right now but of people who work with faith and love in the fear (awe) of God, who ‘demolish sophistries and the arrogance that tries to resist the knowledge of God’ (2 Corinthians 10:4). And what is this ‘knowledge of God’? Is it factual knowledge, what or who He is? No, my brothers, it is personal knowledge, it is acquaintance, it is the desire to know Him as ‘the living God’ who ‘is the Savior of the whole human race’ and especially our Savior. And that desire is fulfilled in following His commandments, to do what we see Him doing in the holy gospels.

From now onward we do not judge anyone by the standards of the flesh. Even if we did once know Christ in the flesh, that is not how we know him now. 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. 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. We are ambassadors for Christ. 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. As His fellow workers, we beg you not to neglect the grace of God that you have received.
2 Corinthians 5:16-6:1

Monday, October 26, 2015

A second chance

Yesterday morning I began reading, cover to cover, the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, which is the last of the ‘five books of Moses.’ I read from my original Jerusalem Bible, the small, black leather-bound volume with the tattered edges that has accompanied me through most of my adult life. I wanted to reconnect with my spiritual roots, to go and meet the Lord where I first found Him, in the beloved Book, ‘Listen: we heard it was in Ephrathah, we found it at Fields-of-the-Forest! Let us go where He is waiting and worship at His footstool’ (Psalm 132:6-7).

Deuteronomy has always been my favorite of the Pentateuch, something about the way it flows, spoken almost as a tale by a living bard. Whoever wrote it speaks very much in the first person as Moses, so perhaps it was someone close to him, as John was close to Jesus. It’s a very candid book, telling us about the rebelliousness and infidelity of the Hebrews toward their saving God, YHVH—Yod Hé Vav Hé, in the Jerusalem Bible vocalized as Yahweh—in spite of all that He had done for them. Moses, too, is shown in all his human frailty as well, voicing his complaints as naggingly as a Jewish (or any loving) mother.

Did I mention I completed my reading? Almost to the end, stopping short only due to a visitor calling, and then picking up where I left off, amid the ‘Song of Moses,’ a piece of poetry near the end. Reading Deuteronomy brought many things to mind. Almost around every corner of the text I found images of past, present and even future events nestled between the lines. One thing I felt for sure, that this book as well as the entire scripture, is a log of the voyage of humankind, unfolding in us self-knowledge as the image of God on earth, showing where we come from, where we are, and where we are going.

Always the threefold radiance, always the ‘I am, I was, I am to come’ of the Divine utterance to John the Revelator, which starts with the ‘Let us make man in Our image,’ and never ceases to disclose itself to us till the very end, ‘Lo, I am with you always.’ The Ten Commandments that have never stopped troubling us with their demands, the God-seeing Moses rehearses to the next generation, those unborn at the time of their giving, ‘It was not with our fathers that Yahweh made this covenant, but with us, with us who are here, all living today… from the heart of the fire, Yahweh spoke to you face to face.’

It is not as though Moses discredits the generation that experienced the Exodus from Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, and heard the very Voice of God speaking the Ten Words from Mount Sinai aflame and shrouded in thick smoke, but that generation slept—they were dead—and yet was alive in their children, teaching us that ‘we are who we were.’ In the sight of Yahweh our God, there are not many, but a single generation, to which He reveals Himself, age after age, always fresh, always new, so that it is just as true to say, ‘we are who we will be.’ The threefold radiance is, again, in humankind reflected.

In my reading I noticed that the Ten Commandments alone were written by the finger of God on tablets of stone, not once, but twice. When Moses saw the people worshiping the golden calf he threw the tablets down and broke them, in his own person sinning against God by his anger. Later, God wrote the same commandments on stone tablets again, showing that He gives us as well as the Hebrews a second chance. ‘Everyone falls the first time. If you never know failure, how can you know success?’ Yet the survivors of that fall, including Moses, were denied entry into the land of Promise, a harsh reality.

As it was, the Hebrews, after hearing the Voice of God and seeing His glory firing up Mount Sinai, were unable or unwilling to take that second chance. ‘You, then, go near and hear everything Yahweh our God will say and tell us all that Yahweh our God says to you; we will listen and observe it,’ they promised Moses, bartering their glory for shame, exchanging relationship (with) and love (of God) for religion and laws. A large part of Deuteronomy thenceforward is dedicated to the ‘laws of Moses,’ those not written by God’s finger, but conveyed by Moses, subjecting the eternal to humiliation as man-made laws.

For in the Ten Commandments alone do we see the Divine Law, fused with our nature as the human conscience, expressed in words, applicable to all, and without prescribed punishments; but in the laws of Moses, that which is eternal and universal is fitted, scaled down, to the level of those who cannot be trusted to hear and obey the Divine Law. Those, as holy apostle Paul writes, are given laws ‘to be our guardian until Christ comes’ (Galatians 3:24), who, being the first example of our ‘new humanity’ restoring, recreating us as Himself, takes that second chance offered to us ‘once and for all.’

Yes, He takes, not only took, that second chance offered to us ‘once and for all’ not only as expiation for our sins, our law-breaking, thus becoming our savior, but also as ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ through whom alone humankind comes to the Father. Here He stands, hidden in our midst not by being Divine, but by being human, and by our unwillingness to recognize Him as ourselves and as one another. We shake off the promise and power of the Incarnation while confessing it, and remain untransfigured, as we scurry off to worship mere images with awe, instead of doing what He does, and being what He is.

As I read this book of the ‘second law,’ of Deuteronomy, I came across this symptom of the human, not just the Hebrews’, condition, ‘Every man does what seems right to him,’ along with the prognosis, ‘for as yet you have not come to the resting place and the inheritance that Yahweh your God is giving you’ (12:8-9). The contrast here is between making up one’s own ‘laws’ and living by the Law of God, which is the only and irresistible Law in force in the Kingdom of God, where ‘everyone is a first-born son and a citizen of heaven’ (Hebrews 12:22), and which can only be entered into by following, by imitating, Jesus.

As the psalmist declares, ‘Happy is the man who… finds his pleasure in the Law of Yahweh, and murmurs His Law day and night’ (Psalm 1:1-2). This ‘Law of Yahweh’ is written in every book of the Bible, not just in the Pentateuch, the ‘five books of Moses,’ but ironically it is not the ‘laws of Moses,’ which we are told were given only ‘to be our guardian until Christ comes.’ Neither is it, especially neither is it, ‘what seems right’ to every man, because ‘all our righteousness is filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6). No, but it is ‘the Word… the true light that enlightens all men’ (John 1:9), God who has appeared as man in Jesus Christ.

For this Law that I enjoin on you today is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach. It is not in heaven, so that you need to wonder, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and bring it down to us, so that we may hear it and keep it?’ Nor is it beyond the seas, so that you need to wonder, ‘Who will cross the seas for us and bring it back to us, so that we may hear it and keep it?’ No, the Word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance.
Deuteronomy 30:11-14 Jerusalem Bible

It is the man who has appeared as God, the Divine Word of the Father, until whose coming ‘no one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known’ (John 1:18). It is the man whom Moses tells the unruly, ungovernable Hebrews, ‘Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like myself, from among yourselves, from your own brothers; to Him you must listen’ (Deuteronomy 18:15). The God-seeing Moses proves by all he does and says in the books called by his name that like John the Baptist, he too is only a forerunner, his laws only a restraining order.

Deuteronomy can be a book of laws and punishments, of blessings and curses, a source text for the perpetuation of humanity’s racial infancy, even of its tribal savagery. We can regard it as ‘the Law of God’ when it is convenient to our purposes and makes us look good to ourselves. Not only the Pharisees who would have stoned the woman caught in adultery want to live in worse bondage than hers, which Jesus unmasks by His writing in the sand. He who was and who is to come is with us now, this year, this month and day, this very moment, not waiting in occultation to burst in upon our world in the Day of Judgment.

Keeping this in mind, knowing (not just believing) that ‘God is with us,’ we can read the book of Deuteronomy, indeed, all the Biblical books of Old and New Testaments, in the light of the Gospel, in the company of Jesus, recognizing His presence on every page, verse by verse, as He reveals Himself to us, ripening us in His truth in every age, until we come to that place where ‘perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4:18), and we, unlike the Hebrews, no longer needing Moses to stand up for us to God, with him, with Elijah, with Peter, James, and John, in the uncreated Light of Tabor, become as Christ, because we see Him as He is (cf. 1 John 3:2).

Sunday, October 25, 2015

How much lower

There are two attitudes one will have in life, and all of us alternate between them. They are real opposites, unwilling of any mixing of themselves, except when we move from one to the other, and then it only appears that they merge. I call these attitudes ‘high’ and ‘low.’ Not only are they attitudes, they are states, but being expressed they can be called attitudes. ‘High’ has nothing low about it, and ‘low’ has nothing high. They are not each other and cannot be, nor can they meet, nor merge, nor integrate. High is high, and low is low. This is the nature of being itself. Well, until Jesus Christ came, that’s how it was. There was no room for anything else.

In Jesus Christ, the ‘high’ was made ‘low’ and in a manner that no human explanation has ever adequately described. We never saw it coming. We couldn’t have. We still can’t understand how it’s possible. All our thinking is based on slides, on gradual shift, on evolution, on observable metamorphosis. We think we can understand how humanity might have evolved from lower life forms, and we fantasize about what lies ahead on our evolutionary path. It is still inconceivable that the ‘high’—or whatever it is that created and governs what exists—can enter, or manifest as, or simply be, the ‘low’—for in spite of ourselves, most of us think that’s what mankind is, ‘dust in the wind.’

We read, ‘His state was divine, yet He did not cling to His equality with God but emptied Himself to assume the condition of a slave’ (Philippians 2:6-7), and we ask ourselves, ‘How much lower can you get?’ In our modern world slavery is not even supposed to exist, but we all seem to know what it means. Perhaps slavery isn’t as dead as we thought. Perhaps it’s still happening among us under a different name. ‘At any rate,’ we say to ourselves, ‘I won’t let that happen to me.’ This speaker has the ‘high’ attitude. He won’t do something for nothing. He won’t go out of his way to help a stranger or friend. He’s out for number one—himself. His first question is always, ‘What’s in it for me?’

If we believe what the Bible says about Christ, do we also believe what it says about us? Or do we shrug that part off—sin—with an innocent sounding, ‘What sin? I haven’t done anything wrong,’ and then go our merry way, doing what seems good in our own eyes? After all, we’re all good people, really, very, very good. We can have the ‘high’ attitude without even realizing it, talking to ourselves like this. We may even think we have the ‘low’ attitude because of our occasional ‘good deed.’ But only if we don’t read the Bible. That horrible book—though we love to praise it, talk about it, even worship its syllables—can luckily have no effect on us if we don’t read it, and so we don’t. There! That was easy!

It tells us of a ‘high’ God who became ‘low’ and that’s fine. Let’s stop reading there, because if we read a little more it might tell us something about us, how much lower we might have to go ourselves. No, that wouldn’t do. We’re satisfied to be ‘high’ while pretending to be ‘low’ just as we’ve learned to parrot our sinfulness so we can pretend to be saved. But what does the apostle say?

‘Though I am not a slave of any man I have made myself a slave to everyone so as to win as many as I could. I made myself a Jew to the Jews, to win the Jews; that is, I who am not a subject of the Law made myself a subject of the Law to those who are subjects of the Law, to win those who are subject to the Law.

‘To those who have no Law, I was free of the Law myself (though not free from God’s law, being under the law of Christ) to win those who have no Law. For the weak, I made myself weak. I made myself all things to all men in order to save some at any cost; and I still do this, for the sake of the gospel, to have a share in its blessings’

(1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

Who but an apostle could say such things about himself? How much lower could a person sink than to say things like that, let alone do them? That is really having a ‘low’ attitude. Aside from being too impractical, who has time for such things? And what’s in it for me? This is why I wrote at the outset, ‘high’ and ‘low’ have nothing to do with each other.

A better way to put it is in the words of Jesus, ‘No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other’ (Matthew 6:24). Yes, He is speaking about God versus money, but what is money, or mammon in the original text, but that which can keep us propped up on our ‘high’ chair, our throne? And what happens when we intend to serve God and carry out our intention? Who sits on the throne, and who serves, and who is served? ‘A man who does not love the brother that he can see cannot love God, whom he has never seen’ (John 4:20).

Yes, how much lower can you get?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The joy of discipleship

The joy of discipleship, knowing for sure that Christ is God and that He has called us by name to take up our cross and follow Him just as He called Andrew and the others, outweighs and overcomes all ungodly fear in us. No longer do we shiver with fright as we stand before the Holy Mysteries, wondering whether or not we’ve confessed our sins to the last iota to a priest. Our trust in the Son of Man is unflinching in every instance, whether we live unendangered or dwell in the midst of adversity, whether we stand in the temple worshipping with brethren who love us, or pray amidst those who ignore, despise or even revile us. The call is a protection against all that seeks to harm, betray or frighten us—that is, if we accept it, if we accept Him who has called us, without reservation, and without stint. Even in the midst of earthly flames the martyrs sang praise to Christ, so we in our earthly trials cast off all fear and resentment, and run after the Lord, because we know He wants us, and He says to His heavenly Father, ‘I have not lost anyone whom You have given me.’

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Reign of God

Something I wrote about nine years ago, almost to the day, that I want to remember, and share…

The flyer said, ‘Proclaiming the Reign of God’ is a Bible study, or perhaps better, a ‘learning community,’ a group of people gathering to read and study the Bible…

It was our new pastor's first stab at a Bible study in his new church. As usual, duty called. I felt obligated to attend at least the first one, to see what it would be like. Sixteen weeks! One chapter a week, that's the plan. ‘Well,’ thought I, ‘why not go and pick up brother M., take him to Ya Hala for a quick snack, and then go to the Bible Study together? After all, he doesn’t have a car, it’s raining, and that’s a long way to ride a bike—ten miles—in the dusky evening.’ So off I went.

Luckily he was home. I was afraid he might've decided to try riding his bike there, but no. He came to the door, ragged Bible in hand, looking like he just woke up from a nap. I invited myself in, asked him if he wanted to go to dinner with me and then to the Bible study. It took some coaxing, but finally he agreed. He said he was feeling a little sick, his arm hurt, he said. I didn't think much of it at the time. He got dressed, combed his hair, and we hopped into the van to find some baba ganouj, felafel and other Lebanese snacks at a cozy restaurant on the east slope of Mount Tabor. We arrived at Ya Hala, were seated and placed an order for some mezzes, just a light snack—it's not advisable to study the Word of God on a full stomach!—but trouble was on the way. Actually, trouble had started a few days back, on Friday the 13th…

…my friend was served an eviction notice for non-payment of rent. A sum of $188.50 had to be paid by Friday the 20th, or they would start eviction proceedings. The guy has lived there for about eight years, he is semi-disabled and works only sporadically. His rent is on a sliding scale. Supposedly, if he doesn't have any earnings, it's free for that time period. I don't know exactly how that works yet, but I'll be finding out, because it's plain that his situation can't continue this way forever. Back to the restaurant…

…M. was getting more and more uncomfortable. Finally, just as the waitress brought the first plates and some pita breads, he stood up, said it was too painful and he had to get some medicine, and went outside. I knew there was nothing open nearby, so I hailed the waitress, told her what was happening, so she didn't think we were just leaving, and stepped outside…

Severe pain and throbbing in the left upper chest and shooting pains up and down the left arm. It had been going on like this, on and off, since he got the eviction notice. He is a faithful member of my church, goes to many services, was even there earlier that very day, at a weekday morning liturgy, having ridden his bike there and back. I was scared, but calm. I went inside, had the waitress bring me several ‘doggie bags’ so I could turn our food into take-out, paid the bill, then grabbed M. and drove over the mountain to my house. The pain was still very bad. I gave him medication, had him rest on the couch, and laid out the food on plates in the dining room. Guess there wouldn't be a Bible study for us that night, at least not a spoken one…

We literally broke bread—pitas—and ate a calm evening agapé together. Over it, I gradually learned more of the details of both his infirmity and the eviction threat. He said that usually when he got in a jam, our church had helped him out by paying his rent or bills, but that he was told the last time they helped, ‘That was it for the year, you're on your own!’ Interesting…


What to do? Well, it was obvious. The Lord was honoring His disciples with a personal visitation and a real ‘session’ (an interactive, multi-dimensional, non-verbal Bible study), not ‘just another version.’ I said to M., ‘Come with me,’ after we'd finished eating, ‘down to my office in the basement. Watch your step on those stairs, and… umm, don’t bump your head on that low beam…’ He hadn't been down there with me in a while. I showed him my prayer cot, next to my office, where I sleep. ‘I thought you had a bedroom upstairs…’ I smiled and winked.

Flash back, and voice over…

There's Romanós, last Sunday morning, very early, stretched out on his prayer cot, agonising about something. ‘Why do I keep getting this thought that I should not turn in my tithe at today's service? I've always done it, but something is making me feel like I mustn't.’

‘Just put $5 in the collection plate. I have something else in mind for the rest of it.’

Back in my office…

The back wall behind the desk is densely covered with paper icon prints tacked in neat rows, with family photos intermingled. A tall green copper candlestick rising as the tail of a small mouse reading a book sits on a ledge in the corner. M. and I chat, while I go online and check my bank account… Yes, I can cover it! Okay, that part is now a ‘done deal.’ That's where the rest of the tithe is going this fortnight, with some of my mission fund money tacked on to make the full amount. But the fund is getting low. Better start up another eBay auction soon! There's so much I still have to sell.

I turn to M. and say, ‘Now, praise God, but keep it under wraps. We'll go tomorrow and pay the rent, and they should leave you alone for another month, right?’ He says, ‘I think so.’ But I'm still more worried about his health. He tells me, ‘Yeah, five years ago a doctor examined me and told me I have a heart murmur.’

The evening has been interesting. Not exactly your usual Bible study. I drive M. home while meditating on what could ‘The Reign of God’ possibly mean. What did we miss by not going to the pastor's bible study group?

Once again, I marvel that we don't even have to walk out of our door, hardly. The Lord keeps sending them to us. And He never expects more from us than we can give. But what of tomorrow? What about next month?

So do not worry; do not say, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed?’ It is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on His Kingdom first, and on His righteousness, and all these other things will be given you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow: tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:31-34 Jerusalem Bible

Day by day

Once upon a time, I heard from one of my sons that the current thinking of the leadership of our community was that we must go ‘all English’ in order to keep the youth involved. I think this was a misunderstanding on his part of something he heard at church, because thinking like this is not only illogical but shallow. And if it did produce any results, they would likely be not what was expected.

Youth, or for that matter, Christians of any age group, are not ‘attracted’ to church activity by making it seem more like what they’re used to. Every church that has tried this has found itself getting caught up not in the gospel or real spiritual life, but in an endless recycling of half-baked ideas that moves them further away from what they thought they were seeking, or did they have it right in the first place?

Church attendance is not increased by devices or by attractions, or by replacing the ‘same ole, same ole’ with something new. The church thinks it’s doing us a big favor when they throw out the liturgy books we’ve finally gotten used to, replacing them with slim, abundantly illustrated, footnoted, and explicated versions, that have even the Greek transliterated into phonetic English.

Few people will pay any attention to the transliterations. The Greeks, myself included, know most of the services by heart and don’t need the books—know them by heart in Greek, I should add. I used to pray and sing the English versions of the texts, but except for the Lord’s Prayer, I have given up, tired of the frequent re-translations of once familiar texts. Hasn’t the experience of the other churches taught us anything?

No, church attendance is not increased by anything short of taking the time to really make disciples, not just telling the people in your congregation to ‘disciple themselves.’ The language issue is really a non-issue, because, as my son told me (and he is still among the ‘youth’), it doesn’t matter what language the liturgy is in, because if you’re there for the right reasons, you already understand what’s going on.

The Church, like everyone else, wants to take shortcuts, wants to do as little with as little as possible to achieve as much as possible. Much of what? Whatever looks good, feels good, sounds good, is fun, gives us a chance to show off our religion or our charity, but what of the gospel, what of the life of sanctification? Yes, we preach it and teach it, but there is almost no follow-up.

‘Invite your neighbor or an unchurched family member to come to church.’ Does this exhortation sound familiar? It doesn’t matter what church you go to, this message is preached. ‘Fish, go and do your job! Invite others to become fish caught in a net like you are. It will be fun. We have so many programs for you to do, the more the merrier.’

Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with this exhortation, but itself, it is not the Message. ‘Come to church’ is simply not the Message. It is not the good news. If it were, then people would be attracted to it like a poor man is attracted to a rich man who had limitless wealth to give away. People are not that stupid, and some are even too smart for their own good. ‘Nobody could be that rich!’

Why isn’t the church filled on the Lord’s Day? Where are the youth? Is salvation and the life of discipleship so unknown to them, that all, young and old, would exchange it at the drop of a hat for a trip to the beach, the mall, or the golf course? And if it is so unknown to them, why? ‘There are two or three days left in the Apostles’ Fast. Why not try to read a chapter each day of the gospels?’

A chapter each day? Not a chapter each ten minutes, and the whole book in three or four hours? Can people who spend hours of their time pursuing lifeless drama not turn aside and be quiet with the Word of God longer than one chapter’s worth a day? The suggestion even sounds apologetic, even sounds as if you know that no one is listening, no one is going to listen. No one obeys.

No, the Word of God is eternal life between two covers and an inch and a quarter thick. It needs eyes to read it mentally, and lips as well if read aloud, which has the added benefit of possibly drawing others in to listen. Hours of church attendance are nothing compared to the hour and a half it takes to read Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in effect, that is. And what is the effect? To truly be present when we are worshiping in church.

Myself, I am an unworthy, living an unworthy life. Like the Church, I don’t go seeking the lost sheep, I don’t go out on the sea at night casting my nets to bring fish into the Kingdom. I wait for the sheep to come to me. Like the Church, I should put up a sign that reads, ‘Fish wanted. Please apply within.’ I receive the call of Christ, and I respond. I don’t think about who is doing the work, but about Who is calling.

I was told by my dear sister in Christ who sits on the parish council, that I should not wait for the church to ask me to volunteer; I should call the church and say, ‘I have free time. What can I do?’ I told her, ‘sorry, that isn’t the way I do it.’ That puts me in control. That puts discipleship to death. The call of Christ is not volunteerism. Christ accepted those who responded to His call, not those who put themselves forward and asked Him, ‘what can I do for you?’

The Church that acts on the call of Christ goes forth to make disciples, and making disciples, opens doors to their hearts to the deeper call of Christ day by day. It doesn’t wait for the lost sheep to find its way back to the fold. It doesn’t hang out a tiny net and wait for fish to jump in, or for a whole school of fish. It doesn’t turn people into sheep and then scold or shame them for being that.

I was told once by a man who claimed to be a priest (and his claim was good, canonically speaking, he had been duly ordained) that he was afraid of the people he came to serve. I was astonished, but in watching him ‘work’ in the community, I could see that for him, at least, his statement was true. He was afraid of us. He said that all priests were afraid of their people. I disagree.

But a priest should do one thing that many are afraid of doing today—actually, there are many things, but let’s concentrate on just one—that is, of identifying the real spiritual resources among their people, and call those who have them. In this, the priest of God is truly an ikon of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was not afraid to call any man to any task, especially to the impossible.

Day by day, never perfect, never worthy, never righteous, never wise, but trying to walk by faith, not by sight, trying to follow the Master whose blessed feet tread not the tame path of religion, but get dusty from the world’s roads, following Him even when it hurts, even when tired, even when unhappy, even when tempted, even having sinned, even when accused, judged and imprisoned falsely, day by day.

No deeper call

There is no deeper call than the call of Jesus Christ, but for many Christians it’s not to their liking. Sometimes I’ve spoken about it to a brother in Christ, maybe someone I worked with who claimed to be a Christian, and in less than thirty seconds, I could see his eyelids start to close, he’d remained silent, rousing himself a moment later when I paused to give me his verbal affirmation. By the tone of his voice, I could see that his heart was set on other things. That Christ should be ‘in our midst’ at every moment, in each encounter with one another (and with Him) is too much. Though we repeat, ‘where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them,’ we do our best to ignore Him. His very presence is always a renewal of His call. We secretly protest, ‘We’ve made our confession of faith in You, Lord! Now, please bless us and leave us alone!’

It’s not the end of the world, nor have we apostatized, when we treat Him this way. It’s just proof that the ‘old man’ is still alive and active in us. The ‘new man’ hasn’t really been born in us yet, even when we say we’ve been baptized and ‘born again.’ We’re still just catechumens, ‘those under instruction,’ but no amount of sitting around in retreats and seminars is going to qualify us, not until we’ve decided to make discipleship our goal. It’s true, Christ came to seek and save the lost—yes, all of them, that huge swarm of palm-waving worshipers—yet, He tells us nevertheless, ‘strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’ What can He possibly mean by this? Does He know that after He has fed us in our multitudes one more time, we will forget what He has done, and join in the hue and cry to crucify Him, except for one or two?

The Russian neo-martyr (no he wasn’t put to death, but endured life in almost perpetual persecution) Sergei Fudel writes, ‘When the circle draws to its close, there will remain on earth, unconquered, the two or three holy ones, the Church of Christ; and the light of their holiness will be too strong for human history. This will be the end of history. These unconquerable two or three will show that the Kingdom of Heaven and the Will of God are fulfilled in them on earth as in heaven and that all of humanity could have been such as they.’ I don’t think that Sergei Fudel really believed that at the close of the present age the membership of the Church will have shrunk back to just two or three people—at least, I hope not!—but it is easy to see how Christianity could divert itself from its Source, the Resurrection and the Life, that is, Jesus Christ, and while ‘confessing’ His Name, deny Him.

I am not here speaking of the abandonment of ‘traditional’ Church teaching and practices, but rather of an existential divide between those who know and follow Christ, and those who follow programs and devices of their own making. The possibility is always there for us to become Muslims, Jews, antichrists without recognizing it, because in our human frailty we name ‘Christian’ anything we have decided to believe in. That’s how religion has become a form of protection against God for so many. How can we avoid this for ourselves? The answer is so obvious that if we find it quickly and persist in keeping it, some of us are labeled closet Protestants. Though the Bible is not to be worshiped or hammered into weaponry to punish those who differ from us, it is to be venerated, loved, studied incessantly, and assiduously incarnated. In this way, we fulfill Christ’s word, ‘You are the light of the world.’

There is no deeper call.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Religious animals

Sometimes it seems to me that modern man, modern Christian man, is no better off with regard to God than were his ancient pagan ancestors. The gods of the nations, our old gods, were very mysterious, very enigmatic, hiding themselves from us by day, revealing themselves to us in fleeting, dreamlike encounters by night, fostering an ever-increasing legacy of mythology that, poetic though it was, offered no real clues that could be followed to their source. As Orual, the queen of Glome, mused in C. S. Lewis’ greatest novel Till We Have Faces, ‘Why must holy places be dark places?’

So the modern Christian often complains of finding God, his God, mysterious, elusive, unresponsive, disprovidential, and even absent. It makes good subject matter for book writers, both for those who lodge the complaint and for those who seek to defend God against it, as well as for those who try to lay down some method to track and trap God, so that the believer can finally pin Him down and make Him own up to His responsibilities.

All this comes from a pre-existing religious condition in mankind. This is something that, like original sin, seems to be universal. Every race of mankind has it, something like a spiritual birth defect, a built-in compensation for original sin. It makes mankind a species of religious animals, always trying to cover up their nakedness before God, while simultaneously shifting the blame elsewhere, and hoping to gain God’s approval somehow.

Religious animals is what we became after the fall of Adam. Before that fall, there was no such thing as religion. Man walked with God, and God walked with man. Our mutual familiarity and intimate friendship left no room for religious exercises. We walked with God, He walked with us. That was all the exercise we had need of.

But after the fall, what do we find?
Starting with Adam’s grandson Enosh the son of Seth, scripture says, ‘At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD’ (Genesis 4:26 NIV). Now it’s not a bad thing to call upon the name of the Lord, but it shows perhaps that we believe that God is somewhere else, or that we are, and He has to be called. Hence, religion came into being as a channel of communication with Him with whom we used to talk face to face.

Now, this is where we find ourselves in the natural man. An opaque veil shrouds us from the Divine Nature, to protect us, in the same way that the Ark of the Covenant is shrouded when carried among the people, not to hide the Ark from their eyes, but to protect them from it. The natural man follows after the First Adam, no longer able to walk with God because of sin, or to see Him and speak to Him face to face.

There has come a Second Adam, however, who like the first is called ‘the Son of God’ but who, unlike the first, has not disobeyed and fallen. He still walks with the Lord and speaks to Him face to face, and this ability to speak to the Father and to walk with Him side by side, as in the Garden, He has given ‘to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name.’ To them, to us, ‘He gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God’ (John 1:12-13 NIV). This is something that appears quite incredible to the world, and to the natural man, but to the spiritual man, the man of faith, this is an open door.

The Second Adam has opened the gates of Paradise to us, starting with the repentant thief who, not being able to steal the things of this world anymore because he was nailed like Jesus to a cross, stole something immeasurably greater, re-admittance to the Garden, going in as thoroughly naked as an infant enters into this world.

What happened to the religious animal that is the natural man? Walking in the Garden with Jesus, side by side with His Father and our Father, speaking to Them both face to face as one speaks to his friend, religion like the skins of animals has been left behind without being replaced by fig leaves.

‘Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.’

Luke 2:14 NIV

Of old testaments, and new

It’s an odd thing, but it seems to me that natural religion, not the kind of religious philosophy that evolves out of it as from a base, but pure, natural religion, that is, man’s immediate response to the natural world in which he lives, is much the same the world over.

This natural religion is a kind of ‘old testament’ for every nation, its body of traditions and ceremonies and native wisdom, passed down often orally but almost universally by copying the behaviors of the previous generation, with a minimum of critical thinking.

Into this world divided and united by natural religion, which is man-made but based on real relationships and events in nature, comes a man who is not a culmination of all that is best in natural religion and who transcends it, like the Buddha, but rather, One who appears ‘on the spot, ready made’.

Born into this natural religion, He embraces yet transcends it, as though He had two natures, accepting and affirming the natural religion and fulfilling its expectations, yet appearing and manifesting a Being emphatically beyond the natural religion.

Whereas all the natural religions can be studied in parallel and found to possess many similarities, thus demonstrating their equal validity as expressions of man’s interaction with and experience of the natural world, no individual can be compared to the Christ.

He does not merely reveal the truth in nature, nor does He convince by argument or exposition, nor does He refute the natural religion but comes, as He says, in a way to fulfill it, not to provide but instead to be the One about whom all natural religions and gods have enquired (cf. 1 Peter 1:12).

‘Truth. What is truth?’ ask again and again the world rulers (cf. John 18:38), not interested in the Truth but fearing Who it may be, that what they have created and called ‘truth’ must in the end cave in to the Reality that was hidden in the natural world all along, about Whom religions arose.

Reading about the beginnings of Japanese religion, 神道 Shinto, the way of the 神 kami, it became quite clear to me that Shinto is a natural religion, like that of Native Americans, like primitive European religion, like early Judaism, all of them ‘old testaments’ waiting for the New.

“In other words, farmers, hunters, artists, and those engaged in other occupations were regarded as instruments of the kami who worked through them, for they knew that without the invisible creative aid of the kami they could not perform anything. The meaning of human life was understood in terms of man’s relation to the kami who would ‘enable’ (yosasu) men to act in their behalf. Herein lies the early Shinto conception of correspondence between the realm of kami and that of man.”Religion in Japanese History, by Joseph M. Kitagawa, pp. 12-13.

The same recognition that it is only by the power underlying the natural world that human beings can act, let alone exist, is the summation of the essential religious knowledge of all nations, and yet here is a Man who comes and says, ‘Apart from Me, you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).

It doesn’t matter whether the power underlying the natural world is conceived of as a God or gods, as One or as many, because until the One chooses to reveal Himself, all that can be known about it is that it seems to be a single power working through many, or many sharing a single power.

What cannot be known by natural religion arising out of man’s interaction with the natural world is that the power, be it spirits or kami or a divine substance, is One in essence but in Three persons, not a thing but a Person, not a projection of our nature, but ours being an ikon of His.

The Oneness of God is not a mathematical oneness, nor is His being a Triad a countable plurality, nor is our deification a polytheism, nor is the sanctity of nature a pantheism, nor our partaking of the Divine Nature an abandonment of our human nature, nor His becoming man a negation of His being God.

Brethren, let us be gentle towards those who approach Him who is the light that enlightens all (cf. John 1:9), as we awaken Him who sleeps in the boats of their souls (cf. Luke 8:23), for the sake of the new wine, ‘wine flowing straight to my Beloved, as it runs on the lips of those who sleep…’ (Song of Songs 7:10 Jerusalem Bible).

Desiderata

The current social experiment will end in cataclysm, because nature reasserts itself when it is restrained. We are what we are. Everyone has his or her place in the organism that is mankind.

It is not by abolishing nature, but by fulfilling it, that the race will continue, will prosper, and reach maturity. By acknowledging human nature, both sexes can live in harmony.

No human society has yet arisen where intelligence and justice, that is, conformity to nature, has fashioned the social constructs necessary to satisfy human nature, and establish freedom.

All societies, especially those which ignore the nature of man and of woman, devolve into slavery. Neither neo-medieval fundamentalism nor modern liberalism escape this condition.

Within Christianity, human nature is expounded in the Old Testament scriptures, and the perfect ordering of that nature is supplied in the Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ.

History, especially Christian history, is a result of the misapplication or intentional denial of the precepts of Jesus Christ, taking notice of nature but not fulfilling it, abusing it instead.

This abuse has resulted in every social upheaval and revolution in the name of human rights, but none of these reactions have produced anything different, because the Gospel is rejected.

Human society has not been transformed by the Church under submission to its leaders. It has remained a victim of human nature mismanaged for gain, in spite of having the truth written down.

The test of any and all social movements and philosophy is, whether the individual is free thereby to be what he or she is by nature and at peace with all other members of the society.

Democracy without an educated, intelligent, and self-regulating populace is worse than personal dictatorship. True monarchy leads humanity to the level needed for true democracy.

In the end result, the maturity of humankind will be brought about by right application of the Gospel and acceptance of nature, a society where hierarchy is operating in universal monarchy.

That universal monarchy is the true form of what some propose as anarchy and others as democracy, and what is prophesied in the New Testament scriptures, ‘a nation of priests and kings.’

The masculine terms always include the feminine, a semantic equivalent of the mythic Eve hidden in Adam’s side, and so this nation is comprised of priestesses and queens as well.

Only in the true freedom of the Gospel does humankind enter into these—goodness, life, and peace. Must Christ return bodily before this is accomplished, or is His presence among us in each other enough?

Two ships

A certain brother coming into Scete asked that he might see the abbot Arsenius. And when the other brethren would have persuaded him to rest a little, he made answer, ‘I shall not eat bread, until I come at a sight of him.’

Then one of the brethren led him to the cell of the abbot Arsenius, and knocking at his door, brought him in. And they were received, and prayer made, and they sat down.

Now since the blessed Arsenius held his peace, he who had brought the brother said, ‘I take my leave.’ But the brother who had come out of a great desire, seeing that the abbot Arsenius had naught to say to him, was sitting silent and confused: and he said, ‘I, too, brother, will take my leave with thee.’ And so they both departed.

Now he had also asked that he might be taken to the abbot Moses, him that had been converted from among thieves. And the abbot Moses received him, and kindly entertained him, and sent him away.

Then the brother who had taken him to both said to him, ‘Behold, thou hast seen both those whom thou didst desire to see: which of the two is more to thy liking?’ And he said, ‘To my mind, he seems to me the better who gave us good welcome and a good meal.’

And one of the Fathers heard what he had said, and prayed to the Lord, saying, ‘Lord, reveal to me this, I pray Thee, how one man for Thy sake withdraws himself from all sight and speech of men, and another for Thy sake is a good fellow with all.’

And behold, in a trance, he was shown two ships upon the river: in one he saw the Holy Ghost sailing together with the abbot Arsenius in silence and peace: and in the other ship he saw the abbot Moses and the angels of God, and they were giving him honey and the honeycomb into his mouth.

The Desert Fathers,
translated from the Latin by Helen Waddell

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Making us His

Transfiguration, by Edward Knippers
                            Sharers of the Divine Nature
                            held out to us as promise
                            to be fulfilled
                            while He who takes our nature
                            old and troubled as it is
                            undoes our fears
                            with love
                            and transfigures those who dare
                            to follow His gracious call
                            like Moses and Elijah
                            one raptured from the grave
                            the other rendezvous’d
                            to sit with Him
                            upon His Father’s Throne
                            annihilating time
                            with the lightning flash
                            of His eternity

                            This is no God of heavens only
                            encircled by prostrating priests
                            hymned by eyeful animals
                            Himself appearing
                            in guise of manlike shape
                            but Man Himself
                            the God of heavens
                            and earths without number
                            appearing as a new-born
                            first-born Son
                            under the same skies
                            upon the same land
                            as One of us
                            not in appearance only
                            not in mere similitude
                            sharing our flesh and blood
                            that we share His

                            Masses and liturgies
                            rise up to persuade us
                            prayers and rosaries
                            recited to claim us
                            yet He opens the Temple
                            to show us within
                            enlarging its courts
                            encompassing the whole world
                            enduring all moments and all times
                            and holy days of obligation disappear
                            into the sublime shadow of the Almighty
                            as He walks with us
                            holding hands
                            and talks with us
                            face to face
                            and embraces us
                            making us His

                                          — Romanós

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Unchanging, eternal

The unchanging, the eternal. Christians like to turn to these words, and frame concepts behind them which petrify into inflexible fortresses, from behind whose walls they take careful aim, at whatever and whomever they believe is the enemy. This is the crisis of Christianity, even of the Church (the two need not be the same), as it faces the modern, or even any, world. We see and feel it today, but this crisis has followed the followers of Jesus probably from the beginning, and we, victims of, or maybe even children of, its ravages, find ourselves always painted into a corner, held back while watching helplessly.

Watching helplessly? Watching what helplessly? Watching the world, watching humanity, ebb and flow around us, as if we were rocks in a torrent that part its waters, to right, to left, immovable, moistened by what we cannot join, defining unchanging and eternal by our inability, our incapacity, of movement. We rehearse the Lord’s world-grappling words without grasping them, making of our rehearsal a righteous practice and religious devotion, justifying all, excusing ourselves, by our beliefs, from exhibiting anything resembling the truly unchanging, the inexhaustible eternal, that which mainsprings the universe.

Of which there is only One who, though springing forth from us in the words of holy and divine scripture, has not made His home there, does not desire us forever to rest there, but to enter with Him, finally and forever, the only true Holy of Holies, the bridal chamber of the marriage of Heaven and Earth, delivering ourselves, all without exception, into His hands. For that is what we are made for, why we have appeared, where evolution has ceased its struggles, where we finally meet the unchanging, the eternal, shedding our shadow, exchanging our shame for glory, fearlessly walking in love, with all, for all, as all.

Yes, the unchanging, the eternal.

Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will never pass away.
Mark 13:31

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Dry wood

We are dry wood, and the Word of God is fire.

Everything in us aches to be burned by that Fire, to be transformed from mere sticks into bright light.

Why we are not transformed is because
we do not let the Fire near us.

Our holy and divine ancestors, the saints of all times, were most of them unable to read or write, yet they were saved by coming to the divine services and hearing the Word of God, seeing it in the ikons, feeling it engulf them in the liturgy. Like men drowning in the tempestuous seas who find a piece of wreckage tossed about, they grabbed onto it and held fast, and the currents brought them at last safely to shore.

And here we are, we can hold the written ikon of the Word, the precious and all-divine and only Holy Scripture, the Bible, in our hands, our eyes can see the letters, our lips read the words, and our minds understand them, by day or by night, alone or in a crowd.

Yet we hide ourselves from the Book who is a Man who walks among us unobserved by our lack of desire, while we speak of faith and feel justified by our works, all of them worthy in our eyes, but worthless because we use them as Adam used the bushes to hide from his divine Lover.

We are dry wood, that is the weakness of our nature,
and dry wood is made for the Fire.

Come, brothers, let us run to the Word brighter than all created things, Himself the Creator and Lord of all, the Almighty, and let ourselves catch fire from Him. That is what He made us for.

As He spoke at the beginning, so He speaks at the end,
'Let there be Light.'

There was evening, and there was morning, one Day.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The cross of the earth

With more than 30 million people dying of hunger every year (many more are unreported), and one billion living with hunger on a daily basis (not to mention another hundred social pathologies plaguing the planet), you would think we would have realized that humanity has gotten too big to rely on politicians to run the world and solve its problems.

Away with borders! Away with politicians! But until citizens do more than complain and fuss about why they have no power in their various countries to promote welfare and justice, nothing will change. There is only one human race and only one planet where we can live, so why do we entrust this complex yet fragile universe to a handful of self-interested, visionless functionaries?

Russia is no friend, especially not to Syria, and its Orthodoxy was so flimsy that it let godless Communism take over and rule the country for more than seventy years. If every Orthodox Christian had simply refused to comply, the Communists would have had a killing field so gigantic, they would have had to give up. Yes, millions might have died in Russia, but all of history would have been different.

Gandhi was right, because Thoreau was right, because Jesus is right, ‘Offer the evil man no resistance.’ Deprive the politicians of slaves that they can rule. Yes, they won't be afraid to kill a few million disobedient people who deny their power here and there, but they were not afraid to kill the Son of God either. Christ knows the cross of the earth because He hung on it, and He died on it, to show us the way.

Why do we desist? Why do we remain Hebrews at heart, grumbling in our camps, instead of sallying forth to take what God promises us, a ‘land where milk and honey flow’? There are many ways to do battle, but the most powerful, though the most costly, is simply to say ‘No’ to false authorities, to refuse to cooperate with them. Meanwhile, even as they are killing us, we are building a world that will last.

Khrushchev, addressing the United Nations in 1960, is said to have taken off his shoe and banged it on the podium, declaring ‘We will bury you!’ No, he didn’t mean that the Soviet Union would wipe out its enemies by nuclear war, but that Communism was the irresistible wave of the future, and would outlive (and hence, bury) its opponents. His boast flopped horribly. It had to, even without a formal surrender.

The Soviet Union did not collapse because of civil disobedience for the cause of right. It collapsed because the very politicians who ran the system saw the prosperity of the capitalist countries and were propelled by greed to betray the principles of ‘people’s revolution.’ We see an even clearer example in the evolution of the Chinese People’s Republic—people’s in name only, but a paradise for politicians.

America, that idea which gave birth to a nation on the continent that bears its name, is again preparing another revolution. Though a feeble counterpart of the prophetic populism I am advocating, we are in a position to possibly choose a non-politician for President. Two of the candidates could not be farther apart in every way, except their not being career politicians—Donald Trump, and Dr Ben Carson.

I wrote ‘feeble’ when I only meant ‘humble’ or ‘almost to be missed,’ the lack of recognition some event gets when it is actually happening, or some person when they are actually doing their work. Don’t kid yourself. When Jesus was performing His three year ministry, even when He was arrested, illegally judged and convicted, and punished with crucifixion, He was very nearly an unknown and largely unrecognized.

The three years He spent doing His work of teaching and healing, and the three days He suffered the ultimate degradation and death doing His work of redemption, passed practically unnoticed, though He Himself was hardly unremarkable. This is the law of prodigies, of people and events that are so far ahead of their time that they practically stand outside of it, and are not ‘discovered’ until the world catches up.

At the present moment, the planet has enough resources of every kind to satisfy the basic needs of every human being, but those who jockey the steed of civilization divide and conquer their spectators with the false thrill of the race, making people competitors and enemies of one another for gain, and wasting, even sentencing to death, whole populations of the helpless, without feeling even a hint of remorse.

‘The cross of the earth, the four winds point them, body to body, seas to anoint them… Rise up, Lazarus, sweet and salty. Brother soldiers, stop your gambling and talk to me. The thieves were stealers, but reason condemned Him, and the grave was empty where they had laid Him.’ Yes, the cross of the earth, the same as the Cross of Christ though the world know Him not, but we know, so what will be our next move?

This day and every other

A coldish, overcast dawn is gradually yielding to a cool, perhaps sunny, morning and day as I find myself, sick with a sudden head cold, reading a few paragraphs on the history of ethics from The Science-History of the Universe, Volume X, ‘Philosophy,’ Part III, Chapter II (1910), while I eat a plate of eggs scrambled with garlic and peppers and quaff a half-pint of hot apple cider to wash it down. Hopefully these will revive my sluggish soul. Finished with both book and breakfast, my reading reminds me by its references that today is Columbus Day. Let’s see, that means ‘no mail today’ and school is out.

Forty-two years ago almost to the day, I nearly suffered a serious accident on the farm in Alberta, Canada, where I worked. The land was frozen and snow lay on the ground, and almost white-out conditions, yes, a blizzard, made it nearly impossible to see the road before me as I drove a front-loading tractor back to the barn. My wispy beard and moustache hung with breath-fog icicles, and my spectacles spotted with frozen droplets, I couldn’t wait to get back to the house, and warmth. I felt the tractor tilt as it started to slide off the road into a drainage ditch, all but invisible in all that whiteness.

A shiver of fright worse than the shivers of cold I had been feeling came over me, and reflex action, instinctive and automatic, somehow straightened out the tractor’s trajectory, and I avoided rolling it into the ditch, as I had rolled my dad’s new car into a ditch a few years earlier. I stiffened up for the remainder of the drive back to the barn, crying not tears of joy and thanks for having been spared what would have been an embarrassing and nasty accident, but lamenting my fate of being a landless, misguided hippie trying to be a farmer in a frozen wasteland. So much for my new life in Canada. I wanted to go home.

And I did go home, sort of. Not quite two years later, we arrived in sunny, warm, leafy Oregon, at the beginning of autumn—we three, self, wife, and infant son—the eve of the Jewish new year feast, Rosh Hashanah, and stayed our first night with some friends who took us, the next morning, to the synagogue in Salem, for the service. A most fitting beginning, I’ve always thought. Life never seems to exhaust itself of beginnings, I muse, seeing that this day too, an almost anonymous Monday in October, marks also a beginning. Columbus Day, the twelfth of October. A beginning, but I wonder, did anyone know what they were in store for?

Certainly not the native peoples who gradually became familiar to the first starry-eyed European adventurers, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, French, Dutch and English. So familiar, in fact, that these newcomers somehow came to believe that they owned them, along with all the lands they lived on. A few of these original inhabitants were taken back to Europe as curiosities to entertain and amuse, most without their consent, and few ever returned home. The justification for the plunder and conquest of the continent I am now living in was humanitarian, the cultural and ethical superiority of the conquerors.

The book I was perusing at breakfast time, published in 1910, fleshes out this justification nicely, when it compares the ethical foundations of the West to those of non-Western peoples. In the paragraph below it even includes the ancient Hebrews in this latter category, and contrasts them with the Greeks, for whom it makes great claims. But of other races and religious groups, it has the same opinions, that they are incomplete, inferior, and destined to be replaced. It seems to me that what is termed ‘Replacement Theology,’ that the Church replaces Israel in God’s eyes, is the ‘manifest destiny thesis’ of the West.

‘… Ethics, pure and simple, finds its first true origin among the Greeks. In the lower culture-steps high morality is neither inculcated by the priests nor attributed to the spirits or gods. Even to races merely barbaric and outside the strict pale of savagism divine goodness means nothing more or less than personal favoritism. The ancient Jews, it will be remembered, regarded it as a signal mark of divine wisdom that the sun should be stayed from its course in order that they might ruthlessly massacre and cut to pieces a hostile army; which, moreover, was seeking its homeland, stolen from them by the rapacity of the Semitic invaders’ (ibid., p. 238).

The depth of irony in the above passage is that while disparaging the ancient Hebrews in their occupation of Canaan, the author of this chapter doesn’t seem to have made the connexion that for all our ‘high morality’ the West hasn’t behaved any better or more ethically than the peoples it claims are inferior. I suppose here as everywhere else, the West imposes a ‘sliding scale’ that makes itself look good, and though we may look back with a patronizing shudder at the colonization of the American continents, we still follow the same principles and continue to do the same in similar circumstances.

However, this is not symptomatic of the West, but of humanity in general. We live in a world where we can only say ‘what would have been’ but we cannot change the present to conform to it. Lost civilizations are gone forever, at least on this side of the general resurrection, and few today would be able to live in their hypothetical pasts. As for ethics, though, no one culture or people has a corner on the subject, none is more ethical than any other given the same circumstances. Only one course of ethics is convincingly true, that is the ethics of Jesus Christ, and not anyone’s interpretation of it.

Because the ethics of Jesus Christ cannot be interpreted, only applied, and any attempts to deduce from it anything different from what the Lord intended are doomed to failure. This is what history teaches us, if nothing else. This is what validates Jesus Christ among a host of other ‘religious teachers.’ This is why Jesus Christ is still the most active person in the history of the world. This is why heaven and earth may pass away, but His words will never pass away. Ethics, real ethics, are solider than the big bang and all that followed from it, and everything that exists can be said to be the outcome of holy and divine ethics.

But what of Columbus Day—or, if you’re a Canadian, of ‘Thanksgiving Day’? For the native Americans, this is a day of infamy, a day for great sorrow. Yes, how can we disagree, but there’s nothing we can do now, is there? We are all victims of the irreformable past, if we take it upon ourselves to be. No one people is any more glorious or deserving of special honor than any other. The lovely life that ancient native Americans lived, that is gone forever. What has replaced it for their descendants is still a dream in the making, part of the greater destiny of the whole race, on this or on any continent or island.

In the life of the world to come—here I do not mean the ‘dying and going to heaven’ world, but the future of the human race—every people has a glorious and honorable share. Every people shall be acknowledged for the greatness sown in them by the Creator, which bore good and abundant fruit. Every excellence shall be proclaimed worthy when the Son of Man reigns in a world where He is now mostly crucified. That world begins now, begins whenever we want it to, when we hear and keep the words of Jesus, when we finally build our house on the rock, when ethics is what is seen, not only heard.

That we are free, not by our own struggles alone, but by the ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God, free to live in a beautiful way, in an honest and just way, yielding ourselves to one another in brotherly love which is the cornerstone of all ethics, this is what we are thankful for, this is the new world that still waits to be discovered, and it’s all about beginnings, this day and every other.