Monday, February 29, 2016

The word of Jesus

If Christ really is the supernatural Being that He claims to be in the Bible, and not some mythological character that the Church has put together over the course of (I don’t care how) many holy and great councils, then He can be approached as He is, anywhere, by anyone who believes in Him, by anyone who believes He is who He says He is in the Bible, without knowing the fine points of Christological dogma, without having partaken of any valid sacraments, even without being a deliberate member of the historic Church or any of its offshoots.
Anyone can approach Him and, by calling upon Him with faith, can be saved.

This is foreshadowed in the raising of Lazarus after four days on the faith of his sister in the word of Jesus that He is ‘the Resurrection and the Life’ and that ‘anyone who believes in’ Him, ‘though he be dead, yet shall he live’ (John 11:25).

This is enacted before the world in the justification of the good thief who, hanging on a cross next to Jesus, knowing with perfect certainty that himself along with Jesus would be dead within the hour, without having done anything good except what Jesus calls good, to ‘believe in the One whom God has sent’ (John 6:29), approached Christ knowing almost nothing about Him except who He is, asked Him only to be remembered when He entered into His Kingdom, to which Christ responded directly and immediately, ‘I tell you, this day you will be with Me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43).

This is the story of many a ‘self-evangelized’ Christian whose perhaps well-meaning but inadequate sacramental baptism and subsequent minimal catechesis seems not to have taken root, and had to be restarted after the attainment of the age of reason, by any number or combination of life events and meetings in the world ‘outside the Church,’ some of whom found their way back to the visible, institutional Church, while others found peace and safety in the company of others like themselves.

What the Church needs to remind herself each day, from head to foot, from congregation to individual, is that the word of Jesus, that which He speaks in the Bible, is the power to save, to save all who have faith, to all who trust Him. The word of Jesus is the truth, and it is the truth that makes us free. That word is life-giving and liberating. Neither the power to save nor the truth are given exclusively to anyone or anything else, not even to the Church, except when she yields, gives way, to what the word of Jesus says. Otherwise we may, without realizing what we’re doing, ‘shut the Kingdom of God in men’s faces, without going in’ ourselves (Matthew 23:13). The Church will always be so much bigger than we think.

So remember, brethren, what the Church is: it is a pan-human reality, it is the human race in process of being integrated with the Divine Nature, the whole race not just ‘our part of it,’ and remember what the Message is:

For anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation;
the old creation has gone, and now the new one is here.
It is all God's work.
It was God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ
and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation.
In other words,
God in Christ was reconciling the world to Himself,
not holding men's faults against them,
and He has entrusted to us the news that they are reconciled.
So 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.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Love and respect

Enough sermons have been preached, books have been written, rules and regulations legislated, about the divinely ordered relationship between the male and female genders to tear off the heads of many chickens, and those headless birds keep running around in circles as if their lives depended on it, yet in the end they all end up in the pot.

I have nothing of my own to tell about these matters, only what was handed over to me to encourage, and in turn to hand over to encourage others. The Holy Bible is full of writings of God and of men, and we, filled with the Spirit of the former, discern what is His, and what is ours, not that both are not inspired, ‘God-breathed,’ but that what is strictly of God cannot change, as what is ours, must.

Traditions are hedges and fences we are instructed to raise for purposes temporal in keeping the people of God on the pilgrim way, that we stray neither left nor right, but not the barriers against dangers but the way itself is what is for us, unchanging, unchangeable. The Book, only holy and divine on earth, still is not uncreated, but the mingling of our sorrows and our joys with the Lord’s—Our testimony.

And so writes the holy apostle Paul to the church at Corinth,

You have done well in remembering me so constantly and in maintaining the traditions just as I passed them on to you. However, what I want you to understand is that Christ is the head of every man, man is the head of woman, and God is the head of Christ.
1 Corinthians 11:1-3

The holy apostle here commends us that we remember each other ‘so constantly,’ and we think, he speaks of praying for each other, but there is more than prayer that he here commends. To remember each other is to remember with whom we are involved in this earthly life, other humans, like us images of God, but more than that, other people for whom Christ gave His life, eternal beings, gods.

Christ Himself tells us, ‘Whatever you do to the least of these brethren, that you do unto Me.’ So Paul commends, ‘You have done well in remembering me so constantly,’ and the Corinthians may have felt a tinge of pride, they had prayed for Paul and treated him well, respected Him (in other words) so constantly, ‘maintaining the traditions just as’ he had handed them over, and he had noticed.

But what about each other? Paul was an important apostle, mentor, and friend. To be sure they respected him. But what about each other? Of course they were maintaining the traditions he had passed on to them, they worshiped ‘in spirit and truth,’ they honored their teachers, those who brought them to saving faith, but what about ‘the saints’? How did they regard, how treat, each other?

And so writes the holy apostle Paul to the church at Ephesus,

Give way to one another in obedience to Christ. Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, since as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church submits to Christ, so should wives to their husbands, in everything.
Ephesians 5:21-24

Writing to a church community in Asia, at Ephesus, the holy apostle commends the same thing in different words, he brings the matter ‘down to earth,’ down to our level, and reveals how and why. ‘Give way to one another,’ he tells us. Stand back, yield to the other, let the other live, not only yourself. Give him room. Give her room. The reason that this is right is no less than obedience to Christ.

Is this not another way of stating ‘the Golden Rule’? Is this not a powerful antidote to the tempter’s poison which, once it enters our lifestream, kills not only us but anyone in reach? ‘Give way to one another,’ love and respect each other, yield to one another. Christ Himself tells us, ‘How blessed the merciful!’ and ‘How blessed the peace makers!’ for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.

What greater thing can there be in this life than to be called a son or a daughter of God? Who dares open his lips to call anyone by this awesome name? We whisper it to ourselves and turn away our faces from that one, when we see him or her come anywhere near us, and we flee. Or else, caught up in the majesty of ‘divine service’ we verbally adulate saints sealed into painted ikons, and inwardly flee.

Again to the Ephesians writes the holy apostle Paul,

Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her to make her holy… To sum up, you too, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband.
Ephesians 5:25-26a, 33

Taking another look at what the holy apostle here writes us, we have no choice whether to acknowledge or to ignore his words. Our burden is the revelation of the divine order, ποίησης (PEE-ee-seess), in the divine creation, κτίσης (K’TEE-seess), as it is expressed in the relationship between man and woman, a burden which cannot be borne without first taking on the yoke of Christ’s obedience, to remember one another, as befits each.

Infusing with divine presence the relationship between man and woman as they approach each other for every need in marriage, the apostle wastes no time in getting directly to the point. He tells us men, ‘Love your wives,’ and us women Respect your husband.’ He spares no efforts here or elsewhere in his letters trying to explain the reasons for these divine counsels, but it all comes down to obedience.

The Divine Mystery at the heart of God, the Eternal, the unearthly Triad of Father, Son, and Spirit, loses no article of Their awesome and untranslatable grandeur as it is replicated by Them in ‘all things, seen and unseen,’ in every particle of the things, even the beings, They have made, fashioning mankind in Their image, even as male and female, first one then the other, co-eternal, co-equal, even as They.

Now, returning to the holy apostle’s words, ‘what I want you to understand is that Christ is the head of every man, man is the head of woman, and God is the head of Christ.’ I ask, how is this order any different than the order we see at work in every act of the Holy Trinity? The Father is the principle of unity in the Divine Nature, from whom Son is begotten, and Spirit proceeds, all co-eternal, co-equal.

How is this order any different than the order we see in every facet of the life of Jesus Christ? There, especially in John’s gospel, Jesus speaks and acts in complete union and unanimity, single-souledness, with His Father and the Spirit. Then, as He distributes His work, will, and Spirit to His disciples, in Divine Marriage with them, yes, with us, the Church, the Divine Mystery is again replicated, in us, as us.

And so the holy apostle tells us, ‘Give way to one another,’ and begins to unfold the divine order in which this giving way is to take place. What follows is not a suggestion, but in very truth, commandment, because commandment is not arbitrary. Commandment is ‘the way things work,’ the way they’ve been designed to. Like natural laws discovered by science, you cannot by-pass them. You cannot ‘fake it.’

‘As Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife,’ Paul continues. Why does he leave out ‘and saves her, wholly?’ This is written elsewhere in the scripture. Was it because he didn’t want us to blur the fine line of truth? How fine the line is between Divine Nature and human nature! Why? Because it is not there to divide, but to invite us to make our move.

‘As the Church submits to Christ, so should wives to their husbands, in everything,’ is what Paul tells us, speaking as much to the Church in our relationship to Christ as he is to the individual married woman, but neither by nature agrees. What does ‘in everything’ mean? He cannot be serious! Who is this Christ to be so demanding? Who is this man to think he deserves to be obeyed ‘in everything’ by his wife?

We have already been instructed, we have already been told, ‘Give way to one another in obedience to Christ,’ and we cannot fall back on our own interpretation because we have been given not a suggestion, but a commandment. No work, good or bad, can be accomplished unless someone begin. ‘Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her to make her holy.’

What kind of despotism is this? The holy apostle, himself a man, and unmarried (sometimes complaining about it, sometimes proud of it), has the audacity to tell us that a man should love his wife and, even worse, love her as Christ loves the Church? Again, this is not audacity, but the truth. This is how things work, or else they don’t work at all. Marriage can, as love does, cover all offenses, but in the wrong way.

To be called to be a husband is as much the call of Christ as is any call to serve. Marriage is a priesthood just as glorious as is the priesthood of the altar. The husband is lord, he is priest, he is father, he is teacher, he is law-giver and judge, of his family, all by the mandate to love, first, his wife and, second, their offspring as God grants them. He sacrifices himself to make them holy, ‘in obedience to Christ.’

Why does the holy apostle spend so many words on the role of the man in the marriage covenant? Why does he keep repeating to men, ‘Love your wives’? Can anything be more obvious to one who is himself a man? By nature it is easier for a man to respect than to love. His self-centeredness is natural even when not leading to sin. He has a job to do for those he loves, even at the cost of forgetting to love.

It may seem a small thing, but for a man not to love his wife, that is, not to express that love in ways that a wife needs—not by money, not by vacations and presents, but—by ‘presence’ with her, near her, in her, in ways that save her and make her holy—for a man not to love his wife, especially in sight of their children, is not only to disobey the commandment, but to destroy the family, present and future.

‘And let every wife respect her husband,’ is not added by the apostle as a mere afterthought, as if it were not important, as if women and what they say and do did not matter. No less is this the commandment, the very same commandment, ‘Give way to one another in obedience to Christ.’ No less is the role of woman, as queen of her king, than is man’s, as king of his queen. Together, they reign.

It may seem a small thing, but for a woman not to respect her husband, that is, not to express that respect in ways that a husband needs, but instead, to disobey him, to overrule him, to humiliate and belittle him, mocking his love and self-sacrifice, especially in sight of their children, is not only to disobey the commandment, but to preach and practice rebellion, destroy the family, present and future.

It is a man’s nature to respect. It is a woman’s nature to love. God knows this. The holy, undivided, divine Triad made us in Their image. They made us with the sole object of loving us and raising us up as one of Themselves, as scripture testifies from beginning to end, by making us overcome our earthly natures, ‘giving way to one another’ to become as They are, unearthly, holy, almighty, eternal.

To sum up, you too, each one of you, must love his wife as he loves himself; and let every wife respect her husband.
Ephesians 5:33

Friday, February 26, 2016

Now Your Word is a Lamp

Psalms for the 26th Day
119: 105-176 — 97-176 (Hebrew)

נ (Nún)

Now Your Word is a lamp to my feet,
a light on my path.
I have sworn to observe, I shall maintain
Your righteous rulings.
Yahweh, though my suffering is acute,
revive me as Your Word has guaranteed.
Yahweh, accept the homage that I offer,
teach me Your rulings.
I would lay down my life at any moment,
I have never yet forgotten Your Law.
The wicked have tried to trap me,
but I have never yet veered from Your precepts.
Your decrees are my eternal heritage,
they are the joy of my heart.
I devote myself to obeying Your statutes—
compensation enough for ever!

The Hebrew discipline of daily psalm reading starts the reading for the 26th day at verse 97, at the letter Mém…

מ (Mém)

Meditating all day on Your Law
how I have come to love it!
By Your commandment, ever mine,
how much wiser You have made me than my enemies!
How much subtler than my teachers,
through my meditating on Your decrees!
How much more perceptive than the elders,
as a result of my respecting Your precepts!
I refrain my feet from every evil path,
the better to observe Your Word.
I do not turn aside from Your rulings,
since You Yourself teach me these.
Your promise, how sweet to my palate!
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Your precepts endow me with perception;
I hate all deceptive paths.

Meeting again the verses of the psalm for the 26th day is always, for me, like running into a faithful and comforting friend at the end of a long and arduous day of struggle. He holds me closely to him for a moment, then looks me in the eyes and says, ‘Don't worry! That day is over. The new one is here, when we can serve the God of heaven together and joyfully keep His commandments! You are Home!’

It is fitting that the psalm for the 26th day falls on Thursday this month, the day of Christ's holy eucharist, His giving thanks to the Father, and by the mercy of Christ our God, I too give thanks, for I am home, in His Word, where I want to live, and where He lights up my path.

The psalm of this day is so precious! Listen to this, just one more stanza, starting with verse 129, at the letter Pé…

פ (Pé)

Your decrees are so wonderful
my soul cannot but respect them.
As Your Word unfolds, it gives light,
and the simple understand.
I open my mouth, panting
eagerly for Your commandments.
Turn to me, please, pity me,
as You should those who love Your name.
Direct my steps as You have promised,
let evil win no power over me.
Rescue me from human oppression;
I will observe Your precepts.
Treat Your servant kindly,
teach me Your statutes.
My eyes stream with tears,
because others disregard Your Law.

As anyone who prays the psalms will have noticed, much of their content forms the basis of Orthodox liturgical chant. The familiar doxology at the conclusion of the orthros (dawn) service includes a whole series of psalm verses after the original text of the ancient hymn Δόξα σοι τω δείξαντι το φως (Glory to Thee who hast shown us the Light), and among them is the thrice-chanted verse from Psalm 119, "Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your statutes" (Psalm 119:12), in Greek, Ευλογητός ει Κύριε, δίδαξον με τα δικαιώματα σου (Evloghitós ei Kýrie, dhídhaxon me ta dhikaiómata su), and in Hebrew (omitting the Hebrew script), Barúkh attá Adonáy, lammedéyni hhukéykha. This hymn is so deeply engraved in my consciousness that I often wake up in the morning singing it.

Glory to You who have shown us the Light!

By the way, the full text of the doxology in transliterated Greek with an English translation is hymn #38 in my booklet Singing the Work of the People, which can be downloaded by clicking HERE.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Μη φοβου

Και οτε ειδον αυτόν, επεσα προς τους πόδας αυτου ως νεκρός• και εθηκεν την δεξιαν αυτου επ’ εμε λέγων Μη φοβου• εγώ ειμι ο πρωτος και ο εσχατος

When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead. Then He placed His right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.’
Revelation 1:17 NIV

Μη φοβου, mee foh-VOO, ‘Do not be afraid!’ The words of Jesus, now proclaimed Christ and Son of God by His resurrection from the dead, spoken to His trembling seer and servant John, His beloved disciple, now an old man imprisoned on the island of Patmos, a Roman penal colony—two Greek words spoken to me in my mind as I awoke this pre-dawn, will not let me go. Other thoughts have arisen to replace them, but these two words grip my heart as I arise.

Μη φοβου! The same words spoken by Jesus to a crowd, that little bunch of frightened disciples crammed into their fishing boat in a storm, seeing Him walking over the waters, becomes Μη φοβεισθε, mee foh-VEES-theh. They oughtn’t to have been afraid. There wasn’t just one of them watching the heavens and the earth being torn apart in a vision, only a wind-tossed lake in gale, and they were together, all seeing what no eyes had ever seen, a man walking on water.

Μη φοβου! resounds inside me, and I can almost feel that right hand placed on me as the words penetrate my fearful flesh. It is the day of resurrection all over again, because He who speaks thus, ‘Do not be afraid!’ has already ‘pierced to the uttermost depths the black and lightless rock,’ diving into the impenetrable stony silence of humankind’s mortal imbecility, to retrieve not only our first parents, Adam and Eve, from the common grave, but me as well.

Μη φοβου! cries with the sound of many waters as one Voice the unearthly Triad as They appear fearfully, in aspect terrible, to the demons, but with loving-kindness to Their children, the race of Adam, in the heavenly, only-begotten Son, Jesus. ‘Do not be afraid!’ is the Message He speaks now and ever, having once for all emptied Hades of rebels and robbers, and filled Paradise with a race of priests and kings. This is what He has entrusted to our ears, and to our lips, Μη φοβου! Μη φοβεισθε!

Yes, when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead. Then He placed His right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.’

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

The Church Invisible

What I have come to see and participate in at least a little is the Church Invisible. The visible Church at regular intervals pays its respects to this invisible Church by calling them ‘unsung heroes, the uncanonised unknown saints,’ and the like. Sometimes they even drag out a story or a legend about one of these cross-bearers and extols them—but to what effect?

The Church Invisible

How do you know when you're approaching the borderlands
of the invisible church?

You begin to take on the state of invisibility yourself.

The best thing to do when you sense this happening is… 

Run even faster after Jesus!
Don't look back!

Strain ahead for what is still to come.
Accept the loss of everything
and look on all the advantages you have in the world
and even in the visible Church
as so much rubbish.

Because all these things are really disadvantages,
as holy apostle Paul declares in his letter
to the church at Philippi (Philippians 3:2-16).

Decide now and every day to follow the call of Jesus Christ,
decide once and for all that ‘all I want is
to know Christ and the power of His resurrection
and to share His sufferings
by reproducing the pattern of His death’

(Philippians 3:10 JB).

How do you enter the ranks of the invisible church?

By paying your tithe with more than money,
by not looking to be thanked,
by announcing the Word of God without charge, fear or praise,
by emptying yourself to assume the conditions of a slave,
by putting yourself in places
where faith is not only possible
but inevitable,
by serving those whom the world considers unworthy,
because by doing so you turn tables on the world—
the Word of God calls people like this,
‘those of whom the world was not worthy’
(Hebrews 11:38).

The author of Hebrews continues giving good instructions
for those who are willing to enter the ranks
of the Church Invisible

‘With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, 

we too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us,
especially the sin that clings so easily,
and keep running steadily
in the race we have started.
Let us not lose sight of Jesus,
who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection’

(Hebrews 12:1-2).

 “Three times Jesus encourages His disciples by saying, ‘Fear not.’ (Matthew 10:26-39) Although their sufferings are now secret [invisible], they will not always be so: some day they will be manifest before God and man. However secret these sufferings are at present, they have their Lord's promise that they will be eventually brought to the light of day. … Those who are still afraid of men have no fear of God, and those who have fear of God have ceased to be afraid of men. All preachers of the gospel will do well to recollect this saying daily. … We are in God's hands. Therefore, ‘Fear not.’

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, "The Decision"
One final thought.

Yes, in the Orthodox Church,
the visible church is plastered with ikons,
that is, images of the saints, to remind us
of what the author of Hebrews wrote,
‘With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us…’
When we worship there, we are visibly present
and the ikons are visibly present,
to incite us to look beyond them
to the invisible presence of the saints.

I almost wrote, ‘What if we took seriously…’
but instead, I want to say,

Just take God at His Word
and ‘throw off everything that hinders’ you,
‘especially the sin that clings so easily…’
What sin is that?

The sin of being satisfied with the externals,
with what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched
in the church visible.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus!
Then, follow Him, no looking back!
The visible church with its visible ikons fades out
as the Church Invisible with its living ikons
invisible to the world
reveals itself—and you among them,
a living ikon.

Yes, go with Jesus.


‘Dýnamis! More fervently! With strength!’ I have always loved this exclamation, this exhortation in the divine liturgy. The deacon, hidden from our view inside the altar comes momentarily to the beautiful gate in the center of the ikonostasis, as we pause after singing the thrice-holy hymn of the Trisaghion, to exhort us, ‘Again, but with greater fervor! Dýnamis!’ And we take up the song one more time, ‘Holy God! Holy Mighty! Holy Immortal! Have mercy on us!’

Fervor is much misunderstood by all classes and creeds of people. For Christians, fervor ranges from being religious, or ‘Goddy’ as some Baptists I once knew defined it, all the way to being positively hateful of the ‘unsaved’ because ‘God hates these sins and those who commit them.’ Recently I was appalled when I read a tract published by Westboro Baptist Church that asserted in the most unequivocal terms the hatred of God, that is, not that men hate Him, but that He hates them!

Lord, have mercy! It’s no wonder that the man in the street has little use for God or His Christ. Look at what has been made of Him by those who say they serve Him! This is not going to be an accusation or even criticism of any denomination or fellowship. Misguided fervor afflicts us all. Believers make themselves easily offended, and justify their retaliation by declaring that it is God who is offended, and they are only His defenders. Don’t we realize how absurd this is?

Yes, we, not just they. As I just wrote, misguided fervor afflicts us all. I wonder, is this what St Basil means when he writes, ‘We are all deceived’? Yet fervor itself, far from being a bad thing, is a very good thing, perhaps even an indispensable one. ‘Dýnamis!’ cries the deacon, and I can hear the echo of Christ’s own words, ‘I have come to bring fire to earth: how I wish it were ablaze already!’ Prometheus was only the mythic longing for Him who really does bring fire to earth, the Christ.

So what can fervor be, if not the acceptance of the fire from Him, of whom holy and divine scripture says, ‘our God is a consuming fire’? We must first, of course, decide for ourselves, who or what this God is. Yes, we know He is almighty, that He is creator and Lord of all. We have been told that ‘the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,’ but what exactly this fear consists of, we cannot know until we experience that God for ourselves. Until we do, we can only be afraid. That is not fear.

Fear is akin to awe but surpasses it, for awe is engendered by our love and appreciation of beauty, but fear draws us to worship and serve beauty. It is active, not passive. Yet, fear is only the beginning of wisdom, of which the end is love, as the apostle writes, ‘Perfect love drives out all fear.’ Like everything else that pertains to the living God, the passage from fear to love is an exodus and a transfiguration.

I wrote, ‘we must decide for ourselves who or what this God is.’ For most, this decision is made for them: they merely accept what they have been told without question. This kind of decision is found in every form of religion, Christian or not. It is this kind that can deaden sensibility to humanity and, if followed to its logical conclusion, results in a self-justifying fanaticism. Fortunately, most people who believe in God this way never reach the final stages of the delusion. Spinning their wheels satisfies them.

If we are brave and adventurous, not just curious, we will seek God and soon enough find ourselves in the situation where our decision is also made for us, but in a completely different and unforeseen way. It becomes easy to decide who God is because He fills our vision to the exclusion of all else, yet He allows us to see the world around us, especially our fellow humans, in a new light. From this proceeds what spells the end of religion, because it is swallowed up in relationship, with Him, and with all through Him.

‘Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit…’ I remember this phrase from my childhood in the Catholic Church. I was raised by a fervent mother, yet her fervor was not for religion, and she lived her life in Christ as a penitent outside the walls of the Church. Her fervor, as I remember it, was for God’s love. Acknowledging her sins before Him, she relied on His love to forgive and cure her, even when His cure seemed worse than the disease.
She knew better.

The Word of God declares, and quite openly, that ‘God is love.’ The Lord Jesus Christ reveals in the parable of the prodigal son that the Father is more willing to receive us than we are to go to Him, yet to Him we must go. Again, Christ Himself declares that if we see Him we see the Father, that is, the Divine Nature is revealed to us, both who and what God is, according to our capacity and desire, when we come to Christ. This is not an ‘altar call’ but a humble acceptance of God’s will for us.

Fervor is not defending God and His righteousness against the unbelieving world, but seeking God and His righteousness before everything else. Fervor is not withholding grace, that is, mercy, from those we judge unworthy, but returning grace for grace, loving others as we have been loved. Fervor does not wreak depredation, it works miracles. It does not tear down, it builds up. It does not complain, it encourages. In short, fervor, because it is essentially love, covers all offenses, ours and our neighbor’s.

A fervent man is a quiet man. Of course, I include women in this, and it is often women who are more fervent than men, who sometimes mistake zeal for fervor out of manly pride. A fervent man is a strong man, not to defend but to save. His protection is for the weak, and the most potent weapons in his arsenal are peace and love. He knows he can trust His God to command his every move, come what may, and he fears not the judgment of man any more than Christ did.
Even losing, he wins. Why? Because he is Christ’s.

Monday, February 22, 2016


Male and female He created them.
Genesis 1:27 Jerusalem Bible

The mystery of gender. Yes, the mystery, because it is in mystírion that we encounter the living God. What makes a mystery, I should rather ask, what or who makes a sacred mystery? For ‘mystery’ is the Greek equivalent of the more common term ‘sacrament,’ which comes from Latin.

The Church tells us what the mysteries, or the sacraments, are, but that is just a starting point, one entrance into the Eternal. The mystery of gender is the root of the mystery of marriage, ‘why a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and they become one body’ (Genesis 2:24).

In the Orthodox marriage service there are no vows. Why not? Because what the Church does in the person of the priest, who is himself in the person of Christ, is bless the union of a man and a woman whose shared being has already and secretly been attained in another mystery, that of love.

In the sacred mysteries we encounter God Himself, the Divine and Holy Triad, Father, Son, and Spirit. How can this be? There is no explanation of how, only that it is true, and proven true by participation. Outside of that, it is impossible to know what a sacred mystery is, only to believe it as a doctrine.

In the mystery of gender we encounter the living God who, though one in essence, does not remain alone, because His essence is love, which by its very nature and eternally exists as Lover and Beloved, and in time and space manifests as the universe, all that is, seen and unseen, and as man and woman.

In the mystery of marriage we encounter on a smaller scale and up close to us, in fact as us, the living God who has become one of His creatures in Christ Jesus, and we experience His love for us, His eros, and partaking of it, our eros, our love for our spouse, is revealed as holy, and is perfected and fulfilled.

Within this shared experience, the joining, the becoming ‘one body’ is no mere metaphor, but the reality, and all the good that comes from it is only a foretaste of théosis, the union of the soul with God, while whatever disrupts this joining on earth is called ‘adultery,’ no matter what form it may assume.

There is a divine order in the mystery of gender which is fulfilled in the mystery of marriage, which is based on the male and female natures in complement, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate’ (Genesis 2:18). Not chronologically, but existentially, the male precedes.

At this point, every modern, even Christian, objects firmly, having been taught the equality of the sexes. But it is not because the Bible story makes the male precede the female that it is true, but rather that the visible creation, evolving over eons in the palms of God’s hands, unfolds in exactly this way.

In other words, those who think it is progressive to reject the Biblical accounts, mythic though they be, actually rebel not against words crafted to enforce male dominance, but against the truth of all natures inanimate, animate and human, which evolution itself proves despite our philosophical wishful thinking.

There is no male dominance and no female subservience, only a consubstantial and mutual serving of one another, each according to their natures. The male nature is to provide and protect and to build the outer world. The female nature is to nurture and inspire and to build the inner world.

Orthodox tradition in presenting newly-weds with the ikons of the Christ and the Theotokos can be interpreted: The man receives the ikon of the Christ holding the Book. The woman receives the ikon of the Theotokos holding the Child. Man begets children in woman, and woman begets wisdom in man.

Where is the equality in this? Where it matters most, where it cannot be seen except by its participants. In the fulfillment of the sacred mystery of gender, all glory and honor and blessing is bestowed upon the male and the female, and the ceremonial of crowning both is both sign and pledge, if they remain faithful.

Again, ‘idealism’ is the complaint against this mystery by those who wish to refashion mankind in their image, taking the place boldfacedly of the living God. Yet, they cannot fight against evolution which most claim to believe in, which the Creator unleashed and by which the nature of all things unfolds.

Again, we are not being dragged along behind a train of man-made laws and customs designed to benefit one gender over another. Most males and most females exhibit male and female natures, but not all. We cannot use the Bible to inhibit or imprison people. It tells us what is, not what must be.

There are some men who have female natures, and some women who have male natures. This too is part of the evolutionary process by which the Creator unfolds all natures in time and space, and we have seen examples of it all through history, some glorified, some punished, whether wrongly or rightly.

‘There are eunuchs born that way from their mother’s womb, there are eunuchs made so by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can’ (Matthew 19:12).

He who spoke these words knows everything about us, and He alone is the Word of God. His mercy to us and all humans is generous, and He waits patiently for us to catch up with His mercy. And though He runs on ahead, always, He wants us to catch up with Him, to catch Him, so He can embrace us and say,

‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ (Matthew 25:21).

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Open to us…

The Day of Atonement has come and gone. The veil once rent to admit every sinner into the Imperishable Presence, clasping the fringe of the garment of the Eternal High Priest as He goes in to plead for us till the end of Time, has disappeared. The Pharisee in me writhes with embarrassment, knowing that he can’t hide much longer, and the publican in me hasn’t yet arisen from the floor, where his face is cast downwards, his forehead kneading the pavement and drenching his pillow with tears. Why is it that we stone one another so frequently? Why is it that we love to triumph over our defects in others but not in ourselves?

The heartless reasoning that we put on as mental clothing, wrapping ourselves in the very vanity that we thank God we’ve been delivered from! Don’t we understand yet that fig leaves will not cover our nakedness before the Lord? Don’t we understand yet that He has already provided for us a covering, the fleece of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world? We stand proud and cast glances of pious false pity at everything and everyone we feel ourselves superior to. We are caught dead in our tracks as we ready ourselves to stone our infidelities in the other harlot, while ignoring the written Word of God, that His own finger carves not on tablets of stone but doodles in the dust of our hearts.

O heavenly God hidden in weakness and rejection! Becoming sin for us, You have taken away our shame and hold out to us in Your open, pierced palms the Bread of Life, yet we turn away to consume the bread of suffering, of tears, we prefer to remain in our camps and grumble at manna and quails! Forty years are not enough to purge us of our insane cravings, we want to enter the land of promise but without walking there on the only road possible, following Jesus. Instead, pining after dead Moses whose body has disappeared, we collect fragments of broken tablets and stay in the wilderness.
Save us, O Lord! Save Your people and bless Your inheritance!

Help us, heavenly Shepherd. Guide us, quietly but firmly, back to the flock, back to dwell close by the shepherd’s tents. Make us meek again, renew our childhood, open to us the gates of repentance.

The original artwork in this post is by the hand of Darlene Slavujac Thau.
You can see more of her oil paintings, pastels and watercolors by clicking here
or on her link in the sidebar, Slavujac Biblical Artist.

The gates of repentance

Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life,
For my spirit rises early to pray towards Your holy temple.
Bearing the temple of my body all defiled;
But in Your compassion, purify me by the lovingkindness
of Your mercy.

Lead me on the paths of salvation, O Mother of God,
For I have profaned my soul with shameful sins,
and have wasted my life in laziness.
But by your intercessions, deliver me from all impurity.

When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgement.
But trusting in Your lovingkindness, like David I cry to You:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy!

Today we are at the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, not yet Lent, but it's never too soon to pursue repentance, as the hymn quoted above testifies. This Lord's day we met these images once again, spoken by the Word of God in human form, our Lord Jesus Christ. Nor is it ever too soon to yearn for true discipleship, for the grace of God who alone bestows it upon us, praying in the words of Ephraim of Syria…

O Lord and Master of my life,
take away from me the will to be lazy and to be sad,
the desire to get ahead of other people and to boast and brag.
Give me instead a pure and humble spirit,
the will to be patient with other people, and to love them.
Let me realize my own mistakes,
and keep me from judging the things other people do,
for You are blessed now and for evermore.

This prayer is associated with the time of Sarakostí, Great Lent, the forty-plus days of fasting before the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Pascha, the ‘Passover of God’, the Lamb without spot, slain before the foundation of the world.
Yet the fast is not a program of ascetic discipline designed for our pride. As the fathers teach, ‘Eat what you please, anything, but not the flesh of your brothers.’ To remember this prayer and say it faithfully and with all our heart, even if only once in this fast, with prostrations or without, it doesn't matter. God knows our hearts. He knows our lives. All we have to do is bring our burdens to Him, and lay them down before His Cross, and receive from Him what we do not deserve but what He longs to grant us, great mercy.

Prayer. Speaking to God. He speaks to us, we speak to Him. In our own words, or in words that we make our own, partaking of the mind of the Church, when we read aloud or inwardly what we find in our prayer books. Do you think it is really any different, whether we speak to Him out of our private treasury, or out of the treasury that the saints have bequeathed us? Maybe to some of us, but not to Him. Again, He is listening to our hearts, and our hearts are listening to Him. ‘Remembering our most-holy, most blessed…’ and praying with her and all the saints, as we join them in the heavenlies, ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb… wearing white robes… holding palm branches in their hands,’ there we are, together, one in faith, one in hope, one in charity:
There is the Church, and there is no other.

Prayer is the language of welcome between heaven and earth.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Come to Me

‘Come to Me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder My yoke and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, My yoke is easy and My burden light.’
Matthew 11:28-30 Jerusalem Bible

In my bible, this passage has the bold-faced heading The gentle mastery of Christ, and there’s nothing else under that heading. It’s an isolated logion (saying) of Jesus Christ. Apparently it’s a saying that we just don’t know what to do with. Some of us think Jesus is telling us, ‘There, there! I know how hard your life can be. Just come to Me, and I’ll make it all better,’ and so we seek solace and comfort in ‘religion.’ Where else can we find Jesus, and with Jesus find ‘rest’ or peace? Church services, prayer meetings, spiritual retreats, maybe even taking that dusty old bible off the shelf and reading a daily dose when we’re feeling like it, maybe even praying. Where else can we find Jesus to come to Him? Where else rest?

If we read the whole passage, all three sentences, we treat the last two as an after-thought, something that Jesus just tacked on. If we read with attention and try to understand, many of us are baffled. What is this ‘yoke’ that He’s talking about? What does He mean by saying ‘learn from Me’? Learn what? Yes, we know Jesus is ‘gentle and humble in heart.’ How do we know this? We’ve heard it over and over again in sermons and, if we’re Protestants, we’ve sung it in hymns, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ When we visualize Jesus this way, we forget how He treats some of the Pharisees and others who ‘come to Him.’ Or perhaps, we do remember, and try our hardest not to be like one of them. We ‘try’ to be good.

And that last sentence capping it off, talking about His ‘yoke’ again, whatever it is, He says it’s ‘easy’ and so must it be, and as for His burden, it’s light, it’s not heavy. Yes, light and easy, that’s how it is— for Jesus. Even while we read the words or hear them quoted or preached at us, even while we give our assent, say our ‘amen’ to the Word of God, inside there’s a double standard going on, a secret state of double-think. Life is light and easy for Jesus, but not for us. He knows that. He knows all about us. That’s why He tells us, ‘Come to Me.’ He wants to protect us, shield us, comfort and save us. There’s nothing else for us to do, no other ‘working for God,’ just as He says, ‘You must believe in the One He has sent’ (John 6:29).

This is just one example of how the words of Jesus are ripped out of His mouth and selectively shredded before we stuff them into our ears. We don’t let ourselves hear Him as He teaches us in simplicity. We dash ahead of Him to put our thoughts, our empty thoughts, into His head. We fasten onto this fragment or that, trying to save ourselves, clinging to driftwood, from drowning in the stormy sea when, if we just looked up, we’d see a whole ship dispatched to our real rescue right before us. ‘Come to Me,’ says Jesus. ‘Shoulder My yoke,’ He tells us, offering to join Himself to each of us. ‘Learn from Me,’ He commends, revealing what He means to do with us, if we let Him. Gently, humbly, is how He treats us.

But do we let Him treat us at all? We affirm His saying, ‘My yoke is easy and My burden light,’ but we do not say ‘Yes’ with Him and to Him. We do not accept His offer, because we have already accepted our own. We ‘try’ to come to Him by our own will, under our own power, to force ourselves into the safe haven of ‘rest’ to relieve ourselves of our labour and of being over-burdened. Life is hard, but our survivalism, which we call ‘faith,’ will pull us through, because we’ve done all that we’ve been told to do, to ‘come to Jesus’ and to ‘believe.’ It never occurs to us that our lives are still hard, very, very hard, or why they are still hard, why we need the consolations of religion. After all, we’re following the instructions.

No, not true. Something is amiss. We’re following instructions, maybe, but not His. If we’re not in a state of real ‘rest’ and peace, either we’re not coming to Jesus, or perhaps we don’t know what He means by ‘rest.’ We will never know this ‘rest,’ we’ll never know what it is and what it feels like to recognize it, until we know what it means to come to Jesus. He tells us, ‘Come,’ and He tells us what coming to Him means: ‘Shoulder My yoke.’ See what it is that Jesus is doing in the Holy Gospels, and do what you see Him doing. That’s what it means to be joined to Him, in His yoke, and pull the Gospel plough. ‘Learn from Me.’ Hear His divine teachings, say what you hear Him saying. Be as He is, gentle, humble, and ‘find rest.’

‘As Your Word unfolds, it gives Light, and the simple understand’ (Psalm 119:130 JB). When Jesus says, ‘Yes, My yoke is easy and My burden light,’ He is closing His saying by bringing us back to its beginning. He is assuring us—and we can believe Him, if only we will take Him at His word—that coming to Him, following Him, we will see what He does and hear what He says, and doing and speaking the same, we are remade in His image and likeness, we become ‘gentle and humble in heart’ and in spirit and in truth find rest for our souls. ‘Peace I bequeath to you, My own peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give, this is My gift to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid’ (John 14:27). ‘Shoulder My yoke and learn from Me.’

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Faith times seven

What's the ratio between the time you spend on studying the Word of God (to increase understanding and put it into practice), personal prayer (talking to God, and listening to Him, one on one), real fellowship (not just visiting), on the one hand; and all your other activities on the other (including sleep)?

I'm usually not an advocate of measuring, because I feel that when you are serving the Lord, no need to count and measure, especially your progress, because if it's good it tempts you to pride, if it's poor, it tempts you to despair. But just this one time, sort of like sticking a thermometer under your tongue. What's your spiritual temperature?

I know you're a talented person and you give generously of your time to your church. You must get some satisfaction from this. Still, nothing, but nothing, can take precedence over the three activities I just mentioned, not even ministry to others.

We are living at the close of the Church Age. In fact, the Church Age really is over, but the churches haven't figured it out yet. They're too busy talking about the latest mission strategy, fashioning more and more customized nets for those fussy fish out there, thinking up new baits for the old ‘bait and switch’ game. Sorry, folks, you're like Peter and those disciples who gave up what the Lord had called them to do and went back to fishing for fish instead of for men (see John 21:1-11). They ‘worked’ all night, yet they caught nothing. But Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, spoke to them from the shore, asking, ‘Have you caught anything, friends?’ When they admitted they hadn't, He gave them a command, ‘Throw the net out to starboard and you'll find something.’ When they did what Jesus commanded, the net became so full of fish, they couldn't haul it in.

Don't you see? When we have let ourselves, who are Spirit-born, anointed messengers of the Word of Life, ambassadors of infinite Glory to ‘a people that walk in darkness’ (Isaiah 9:1), when we have let ourselves become imbued with ‘life as usual’ and, without realizing it, let comfort and contentment with the world (no matter how guilty we make ourselves feel about it) take the front seat of our lives, we walk out of the will of the Most-High God, and ‘to walk out of His will is to walk into nowhere’ (C.S. Lewis, Perelandra). Have I lost you with this run-on sentence?

James, the brother of God, wrote, ‘Don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?’ (James 4:4 NIV) When you study the Word of God, you have to believe what it says, even if it doesn't seem to make sense, even if it doesn't line up with what's going on in your church. Even this single verse from James puts many, if not most, churches to shame. If you rely on church protocol as a standard for faith, hope and love, you're lost!

For many, church is no longer there for us, to challenge us, to launch us into the place where faith is possible. Faith, not intellectual assent. Faith, not familiarity. Faith, not obedience to programs (the modern equivalent of "man-made traditions"). Faith, not carefully circumscribed acts of do-good-ness. Faith, not entertainment. Faith, not social or religious conformity. Faith, not labyrinths, seminars, pilgrimages, conferences, Bible cruises, liturgical dancing, acculturation.

Speaking about the saints, I heard someone say, ‘I hope one day to similarly be able to live a resurrection life.’

What? One day? Why not now? Is Jesus the Resurrection and the Life now, or in some indefinite future? Do you really think that patterning your life after the ones you wish to mimic is going to bestow on you ‘resurrection life’? What does mimicking have to do with anything?

We look to the saints for encouragement, but it is only Christ that we are to follow. To follow the call of Jesus Christ sets us free from all man-made ideas of perfection, of perfect life (or whatever you want to label it).

Look only to Jesus, ‘the author and finisher of our faith’ (Hebrews 12:2) and, keeping your eyes on Him alone, not on your friends, not on your church, not on your music, not on your mental or emotional state, not on the road ahead which seems too difficult, too lonely, too boring, or too long, enter into that joy, that rest, that peace, that glory, that resurrection, that faith which can move mountains, that wisdom and that God-given worthiness—‘well done, My good and faithful servant’— none of which we can ever enter into or give ourselves by any work we do.

Back to basics. Did you compare the proportion of God's works versus your works that I outlined at the beginning of this rant? The score, right now, doesn't really matter. What matters is only this:

‘…seek first His kingdom and His righteousness…’
Matthew 6:33 NIV

You can never get enough of God, of Christ, of the Word of God, of dialog with the Father in the Son's name, of fellowship in the Holy Spirit and in Truth, which is the kind of worship that the Father wants, not what is performed on ‘this mountain nor in Jerusalem’ (John 4:21). Do not limit what the Father wants to give you. Don't ask Jesus to ‘leave the neighborhood’ before He drives another herd of demon-jockeyed pigs into a lake, and makes you sit down in His presence, fully clothed and in your right mind (see Mark 5:1-20). There is nothing that you can want in Christ which the Father is not ready and willing to give you. You just have to ask.

Though you cannot make yourself into a disciple of Jesus by your own efforts, that is what you will become if you keep your eyes on Him, always set your heart on the things above, on His Kingdom and His righteousness (not on your own, mind you), determine never to settle for less than what is promised in the Word of God, nor to seek human approval, but only God's, to seek His commandments, and to love the brethren with a ready will. Study your Bible. Pray. Seek fellowship in Spirit and Truth.

Up to the time of John it was the Law and the Prophets; 
since then, the Kingdom of God has been preached, 
and by violence everyone is getting in.
Luke 16:16 Jerusalem Bible

Only because of Jesus

The source of the disciple's life lies exclusively in his fellowship with Jesus Christ. He possesses his righteousness only within that association, never outside it. That is why his righteousness can never become an objective criterion to be applied at will. He is a disciple not because he possesses a new standard, but only because of Jesus Christ, the Mediator and very Son of God. That is to say, his righteousness is hidden from himself in fellowship with Jesus. He cannot, as he could once, be a detached observer of himself and judge himself, for he can only see Jesus, and be seen by Him, judged by Him, and reprieved by Him. It is not an approved standard of righteous living that separates a follower of Christ from the unbeliever, but it is Christ who stands between them.

Christians always see other men as brethren to whom Christ comes; they meet them only by going to them with Jesus. Disciple and non-disciple can never encounter each other as free men, directly exchanging their views and judging one another by objective criteria. No, the disciple can meet the non-disciple only as a man to whom Jesus comes.

Here alone Christ's fight for the soul of the unbeliever, His call, His love, His grace and His judgment comes into its own. Discipleship does not afford us a point of vantage from which to attack others; we come to them with an unconditional offer of fellowship, with the single-mindedness of the love of Jesus.

When we judge other people we confront them in a spirit of detachment, observing and reflecting as it were from the outside.
But love has neither time nor opportunity for this. If we love, we can never observe the other person with detachment, for he is always and at every moment a living claim to our love and service.

But does not the evil in the other person make me condemn him just for his own good, for the sake of love?

Here we see the depth of the dividing line. Any misguided love for the sinner is ominously close to the love of sin. But the love of Christ for the sinner in itself is the condemnation of sin, is His expression of extreme hatred of sin.

The disciples are to love unconditionally. Thus they may effect what their own divided and judiciously and conditionally offered love never could achieve, namely the radical condemnation of sin.

If the disciples make judgments of their own, they set up standards of good and evil. But Jesus Christ is not a standard which I can apply to others.

Christian love sees the fellow-man under the cross and therefore sees with clarity.

There is only one judgment, one law, and one grace. Henceforth the disciple will look upon other men as forgiven sinners who owe their lives to the love of God. ‘This is the law and the prophets’—for this is none other than the supreme commandment:

To love God above all things,
and our neighbors as ourselves.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Book 2, Chapter 18

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

Love, respect, and awe

All Saints Orthodox Church, Bellis, Alberta
When I set foot in an Orthodox church for the first time probably as a young man of about 22 or 23 years, it was a small, rustic country church in the Ukrainian village of Bellis – ‘White Woods’ – Alberta, and I was overcome at first by the utter simplicity of the house of God itself. Then, the service began, and from behind an ikonostasis made of white-painted garden trellis a deep voice chanted in a Slavic tongue that reminded me of my native Polish, and a sweet fragrance and clouds of smoke emanated from there as well.

Holy Gospel Book
As the service continued, my earthly eyes saw many things that were strange, though beautiful. At one point the priest emerged with two covered golden vessels and walked carefully through the small crowd of farmers and their families kneeling with heads deeply bowed or down on the floor. As he passed through them, he seemed to hover the cups over each of their heads, and he looked at them with love, respect, and awe, as if to say by his actions, ‘these are the people for whom Christ died.’ Throughout the rest of the service, that was what struck me the most—love, respect, and awe—not just for God, but for one another. This was before I had even come to that point where I was ready to follow Jesus. To me up till now Christianity had been nothing more than a religious exercise with little meaning. I remember thinking to myself, ‘If Christ is real, and if Christianity is true, this has to be it.’

Fr Elias
At the age of 24 years, I ‘accepted’ Christ, or rather, accepted His will for me, and promised to follow Him. At the age of 37 years, I ‘returned’ to the Orthodox Church. Returned? What is that supposed to mean? Well, that's what Fr Elías said to the congregation by way of introducing us on the morning we were chrismated. He said we had struggled hard to get back here. I never forgot his words.

What was I doing between the ages of 24 and 37 years?
Well, let's just say that I was a catechumen for 13 years. Actually, right from the beginning I believed myself to be an Orthodox Christian, identifying with that radiant cluster of Christians I had seen worshipping the living Christ in the village of Bellis, and I hadn't yet grasped that Orthodox Christians belong in the Orthodox Church. I thought the Episcopal church was as close to Orthodoxy as I could get. After all, there were even Greeks going there (at my first parish, Good Samaritan, in Corvallis, Oregon). So the Lord was patient with me. He didn't mind waiting 13 years for me to gradually come to my senses.

But back to the topic.
What I experienced when encountering Orthodoxy for the first time was not a ‘one time’ event. The same thing hit me when I entered the Greek church of Aghía Triás (now my family church) for the first time, an incredible sense of mercy, experienced as—love, respect, and awe—not just for God, but for one another. This initial impression became the foundation of what Orthodoxy essentially means to me.

After being joined to the Church, and growing up in it, as it were, I came to realize what everyone does who becomes an Orthodox Christian—it cannot be learned from books: only in living the life can it be truly comprehended in all its mystery. Theology is a practical science. A trinitarian God may be incomprehensible to the mind, but He can be experienced and understood by the heart of one who lives in the Body of Christ. It is because Christ is in our midst that the Holy Triad also is. Praying for the Church, Jesus says,

May they all be one, Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me. I have given them the glory you gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. With me in them and you in me, may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was you who sent me and that I have loved them as much as you loved me.
John 17:21-23 Jerusalem Bible

Veneration of an ikon, by kissing the picture, is a testimony of one's faith.
Sometimes brethren who are not Orthodox are surprised, even put off, by the kind of love and respect that we show not only to God and the saints of old by venerating (bowing towards and kissing) their ikons and the book of the Holy Scriptures, but also by the fact that we bow down in front of, embrace and kiss one another. Sometimes, even our language seems ‘a bit too much’ for them, as we address the saints that have gone before, as well as the ones that are living now in words and gestures that seem ‘over the top.’ Why are you doing that? Don't you know that only One is worthy of worship, only One is Lord? Well, yes, we do. We are not doing to them and to each other what can be offered to God alone, no, we're really not. But what we are doing, loving one another in Christ, and loving Christ in one another, accounting all that Christ has redeemed by His precious Blood to be worthy, everyone and everything worthy, is the preparation for, and the proof of, our divine worship.

The relationship that the brethren share in the Body of Christ with one another is in fact and must be the primary qualification of the Church. This is what we learn from overhearing the high-priestly prayer of Christ recorded in the 17th chapter of the gospel according to John. How we are to treat one another with love, respect and awe is found throughout all the apostolic writings of the New Testament, but particularly in the first letter of the evangelist John. Yet, even in the Old Testament we are taught how to love one another.

We read of Jonathan entering into a covenant with David (1 Samuel 18:1-8). This is a prophetic image of what relationship should be like in the body of Christ. ‘Jonathan's soul was knit to the soul of David.’ The word for ‘knit’ (נקשרה, niksheráh, ‘was knit’) is the same root word (קשר) used in Nehemiah 4:6, which describes the wall of Jerusalem being built (ותקשר, vatikashér, ‘was joined’) so there were no gaps in it. Jonathan's heart was knit with David's without a gap—no space between their hearts for the enemy to come through. Jonathan loved David as himself. This is our calling in the body of Christ too, ‘that they may be one as we are one,’ such that there is no gap between us of misunderstanding, jealousy, or suspicion through which satan can slip to divide us.

Jonathan made a covenant with David and, as a symbol, removed his royal robe and placed it on David. This act symbolized Jonathan's desire to die to himself as the next king of Israel and to make David king. The holy apostle Paul writes, ‘Love each other as much as brothers should, and have a profound respect for each other’ (Romans 12:10 JB). We are to die to ourselves and sincerely long that our brothers will be regarded as greater and higher than ourselves—we even take our "robe," if necessary, to cover a brother's nakedness, wherever it is seen. Thus can we make our brothers glorious in the eyes of others. This is the kind of relationship we should have with one another in the body of Christ.

If we can have this kind of relationship, by all means we must.
Love, respect, and awe—because Christ is in our midst.

Friday, February 12, 2016

12th Day Orthros

Psalms for the 12th Day
62 63 64 65 66 67

O God, in the night my soul awakens early to You, for Your laws are a light.

Prayer, morning and evening. These are times of thankfulness. I awake in the pre-dawn darkness. I say, ‘Lord, help me! Have mercy!’ Is this a prayer of gratitude? Perhaps it doesn’t seem so, but for me, it is. I awake, a sinner. I should awake fresh and bright. That is how God made me. But I am a fallen creature, and each morning by His power and grace, He must remake me in His image, restore the ikon of myself in Him that I have broken by my dreams. Yes, my dreams. For there is only one reality, one world, and that is His. Into it I must, we must, all awake, leaving behind mere dreams, awaken to the Light.

Enlighten the eyes of my understanding that I may not sleep to death in sins.

And He gives me grace to greet the new day with joy, to know that He is here, with us, even with me, and that unlike our images of Him, He is not angry with me. He loves me. He assigns the psalms for me, this twelfth day, as my prayer to Him, reveals in them to me His answer, teaches me in the words I offer what He knows I need to follow Him today, feeds me by them our daily bread.

God has spoken once,
twice I have heard this:
it is for God to be strong,
for You, Lord, to be loving;
and You Yourself repay
man as his works deserve.
Psalm 62:11-12

‘What works?’ I ask Him, and He makes me remember, ‘How blessed are those who show mercy! for mercy shall be shown them. How blessed are the peace makers! God shall call them His sons.’

And while I am in wonder about these things, time doesn’t stop for a moment. I am awake now, and forgetting myself, I approach Him in the psalms.

God, You are my God, I am seeking You,
my soul is thirsting for You,
my flesh is longing for You,
a land parched, weary and waterless;
I long to gaze on You in the Sanctuary,
and to see Your power and glory.
Your love is better than life itself,
my lips will recite Your praise;
all my life I will bless You,
in Your name lift up my hands;
my soul will feast most richly,
on my lips a song of joy
and, in my mouth, praise.
On my bed I think of You,
I meditate on You all night long,
for You have always helped me.
I sing for joy in the shadow of Your wings;
my soul clings close to You,
Your right hand supports me.
But may those now hounding me to death
go down to the earth below,
consigned to the edge of the sword,
and left as food for jackals.
Then will the king rejoice in God,
and all who swear by him be able to boast
once these lying mouths are silenced.
Psalm 63

Yes, may those now hounding me to death. Who are they? No, what are they? For the holy apostle says, they are not earthly enemies, but powers and principalities—they may be unseen, but they are very much heard, inwardly, accusing those who listen to them of crimes they never committed, except in thoughts or dreams. But the Lord by His Word has dispelled the darkness, and silenced those lying mouths that say, ‘You are unworthy. You have sinned. You aren’t worth redeeming.’ He has made us ‘a nation of kings and priests to serve our God.’ Not then, but now, ‘will the king,’ even I, ‘rejoice in God,’ for ‘these lying mouths are silenced.’

All flesh must come to You
with all its sins;
though our faults overpower us,
You blot them out.
Psalm 65:2-3

What God is this, who treats us this way? Though my faults overpower me, yes, He blots them out. Can there be a miracle greater than this?

The nations are in uproar, in panic
those who live at the ends of the world,
as Your miracles bring shouts of joy
to the portals of morning and evening.
Psalm 65:8

And I offer the rest of the thanksgiving hymn, remembering who is in control of the whole earth, who provides its bounty, who curtails its pride by drought, who blesses and who withdraws blessing when He sees fit, yet doing everything out of love, for love is His nature, and He shows us what love is by what He does.

You tested us, God,
You refined us like silver,
You let us fall into the net,
You laid heavy burdens on our backs,
You let people drive over our heads;
but now the ordeal by fire and water is over,
and You allow us once more to draw breath.
Psalm 66:10-12

I offer these words and breathe a sigh of relief, for neither have I come too late nor been spared these ordeals. My life has had a share in these tests of God’s people, so I must be one of them. He validates me again and again, even as my faults overpower me, and I can praise and thank Him with no better words than He put into my mouth before I ever was born.

Blessed be God,
who neither ignored my prayer
nor deprived me of His love.
Psalm 66:20

O Lord, grant us to greet the coming day in peace…