Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Prophetic Ministry

I have been thinking lately about the prophetic ministry. Particularly, I have been thinking about how this ministry is manifest in the Church. Coming from a Pentecostal background, I have a lot of experience in what the prophetic ministry is not. Prophetic ministry does not include utterances in King James English or ecstatic proclamations preceded by “Thus sayeth the Lord.” Nor is prophetic ministry about prediction. Based on the example of the Old Testament prophets and the ministry of Jesus, prophetic ministry is about being aware and helping others to be aware of God’s presence now.

In the Church, this ministry is often seen in the monastic calling but is not limited to that calling. Monks, at least some of the monks I know and many I have read about, are trained to be aware at all times of God’s presence. This awareness helps them to be sensitive to the inner world where angels and demons are perceived as thoughts (logismoi) and spiritual warfare is a matter of emptying oneself of all that cleaves to what is external so that when the evil one comes he finds nothing in them (c.f. John 14:30). And the evil one comes quite regularly; so emptying, or dying to oneself, is not an episodic experience, but a way of being. This way of being—continual self-emptying and awareness of God’s presence—sometimes makes confessors seem clairvoyant.

Although “clairvoyant” is the word commonly used in Orthodox circles to describe an elder or confessor who seems to know what is going on in your life before you tell him, I am uncomfortable with that word. I have associated that word with fortune telling and the ability to read the minds of others. St. Seraphim of Sarov (and other “clairvoyant” elders) have describe their experience of this phenomenon not as a reading of the mind or heart of the other, but as an awareness of what the Spirit of God is saying or doing (as perceived and discerned as thoughts in the Saint’s mind/heart/nous) at that moment. The clairvoyant word of the elder is not something he perceives outside himself (by reading your mind, for example), but merely a continuation of what he does all the time: being aware of the presence of God right now.

Furthermore, and here I get to the heart of what I want to say, without self-emptying love, the whole process quickly becomes a sham. I say this because it is common in some circles (circles I orbit), to label as prophetic ministry the pointing out of the sins of society, organizations, governments and powerful people in general. While clairvoyant elders may point out the sins of others, their ability to see those sins clearly comes from their deep awareness of their own sin and their ongoing struggle to repent of their complicity in the very sin they are pointing out. (btw, for convenience sake, I am using the word “elder” to refer to the one exercising prophetic ministry, but it is possible that grandmothers, parish council chairmen, priests, monks, little children, college students, or even corporate executives and government officials could speak prophetically.)

My favorite biblical example of prophetic ministry is Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. Jeremiah condemns the sins of a nation, a corrupted government and religious establishment, and a compliant populace eager for gain at the expense of others. But Jeremiah’s words are the words of a man with a broken heart, a man who so identifies with his people that he refuses to escape the very judgment that he is warning them about. Jeremiah does not condemn the sinners from a mountain top (literal or mental) but from the bottom of a muddy well in the king’s prison court (both literally and mentally—he is in the middle of it, accepting whatever punishments are thrown his way out of love for his neighbor and awareness of God’s presence everywhere: “I called on your name, O Lord, from the lowest pit and you heard my voice” Lam. 55,56.) Even when the siege is over and Jeremiah’s word is vindicated and Nebuzaradan offers Jeremiah his freedom, Jeremiah chooses to return to Jerusalem eventually to be taken to Egypt by the rebellious remnant to experience with his people yet another siege by the Babylonians, the very thing he said would happen if they went to Egypt.

The point here is that seeing other’s sins does not make one a prophet. In fact, it is the effect of sin that we so easily see the shortcomings and sins of others and not so easily our own. A film I once saw portrayed this dynamic quite well. A wealthy suffragette in the early twentieth century mercilessly abused her domestic workers, yet wondered why no one seemed to take her passion for her just cause seriously. One of her domestics (behind her back, of course) speculated that her motivation was boredom, and the conviction that she could run the show better than her inattentive husband. Of course no one took her seriously. In some of its grosser forms, this might be called arm-chair quarterbacking: the delight we have in finding fault in those much more powerful (athletically, politically, economically) than we. When we add to this arm-chair quarterbacking phenomenon the dimension of personal loss, or potential personal loss—in the form of a job or a freedom or an opportunity or a resource—then we convince ourselves that the emotional response within us is nothing other than righteous indignation. But it is more likely just regular anger motivated by self righteousness and selfishness.

Indeed, the loss, or potential loss (or sometimes merely the loss of an ideal), may be due to sin and injustice of others. But to clearly hear within ourselves what God may be saying about the situation and the actions of others, we must first be trained and disciplined in hearing what God is saying to ourselves. Furthermore, to speak in such a way that we may be heard—if God gives us words to speak—we must be well practiced in speaking to ourselves (and hearing those who speak to us) and practicing these words through repentance.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hiding From God

I got to go up to spend a night at the monastery this week, and while there, Br. Samuel shared the following with me.
In the Septuagint version of Genesis Adam and Eve, after eating the forbidden fruit, hide “themselves within the tree in the middle of the garden from the presence of the Lord” (3:8). This tree in the middle of the garden is none other than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which they had eaten. Some of the fathers speculate that the fruit itself was a fig (not an apple, as is common in the western tradition). If the forbidden tree was a fig (or fig-like) tree, then we can better understand the Septuagint’s “hid within the tree.” Unpruned fig trees grow to be massive bushes with large leaves providing an airy, cool interior area where one is hidden from those outside. In other places in the Scripture reference is made to people resting or hiding under fig trees—it was apparently a common thing in Middle East. It also makes sense that in covering their nakedness, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves, if this is the tree they are hiding within. In a sense, clothing themselves in fig leaves is that same thing as hiding from God within the tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Perhaps one way this story can be understood is that mankind’s fundamental sin is to hide from God within the knowledge that man has seized for himself. Men and women construct theories and philosophies, fantasies and explanations of all sorts to quiet their consciences and explain away the voice of God calling out to them through all creation: “Adam, where are you?” The serpent’s guile, or deceit, enables us to take what God has created to reveal Himself and to twist it in ways that appear wise to us and yet hide us—or better, hide from us—the God that the whole creation exists to reveal. We are still hiding from God within the tree.

This reading of Genesis chapter three brings insight into a hard to interpret passage in the Gospel of John. When Nathaniel is brought to Jesus by Philip, Jesus says to Nathaniel, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.” When Nathaniel asks how Jesus knows him, Jesus says, “When you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” I wonder if Nathaniel represents all men and women who are without guile and so are willing to leave the false security of the fig tree—the theories and theologies that keep God at a safe, mostly irrelevant distance. Nathaniel’s first response to Philip’s exclamation that he had found the Messiah was that it couldn’t be true, it didn’t fit into his preconceived mental picture of the Messiah: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he says. But what shows Nathaniel to be free from guile is that at Philip’s “come and see,” Nathaniel went and saw. Nathaniel did not allow his own mental image or framework, his own theory, knowledge or philosophy to keep him from going outside the comfortable world of his own knowledge to see what others had seen but what he had not yet seen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Realized Eschatology, Revelation and Repentance

I must confess that when it comes to eschatology I am most convinced by the “realized” approach. Realized eschatology interprets apocalyptic literature (Daniel, Revelation, etc.) not so much as predicting the future (although that is there too), but as revealing through symbols the way things are, the nature of reality. This approach to reading apocalyptic literature does not sell books. There is no immediate sense of urgency (usually playing on fear) that offers those who have the “Key of Interpretation” [available today only for three easy payments of $29.95] insight into what the newspaper headlines “really” mean. Realized eschatology doesn’t even have a key. There is no rational certainty about it because it is all based on interpreting symbols that can mean different things in different contexts. The number seven, for example, can refer to completion or blessing or rest, depending on the context—-not only the context in the text, but also the context of the life of the reader.
Some might decry, “Of what use is a biblical interpretation that offers no certainty?” My answer is that such a reading of the Bible has very little use, if by “use” one means the ability to build on the knowledge, as on a logical foundation, syllogisms and discursive arguments that justify one course of action over another or declare whose side God is on in a land dispute in some corner of the world. If, however, I am looking to make sense of my own suffering and the suffering of the world around me; if I am longing for hope that God is still the King of the Universe, in spite of my struggle and often failure to do good; if want to see that my own little battles to be my better self are really and truly a participation in the Battle of the Ages, then realized eschatology is of great use.
After the Apostle John wrote Revelation, toward the end of the first century, it was the terribly persecuted church in Rome that found most comfort in it. In fact, the relatively less persecuted church in the East found the Revelation to be a rather troublesome book, largely because some charismatic preachers used it to stir up fear with false predictions of the future which distracted the faithful from the peace in Christ and the work of their salvation: repentance, love of God, love of neighbor. But in Rome, the Revelation of St. John was life and comfort. It did not predict the future for them, it symbolically explained their experience now.
I have provided this little introduction to the interpretation of apocalyptic literature because I want to share a little bit of interpretation with you: Revelation 9:1-11, the plague of locusts. Please keep in mind that the events in the Revelation are not in chronological order. The third trumpet does not refer to something that happens after the second trumpet. We may experience any or all of the plagues, trumpets or bowls at the same time. These are symbols referring to the way the universe is.
The first four trumpets (end of Ch. 8) announce partial destruction, “a third of… was destroyed.” These are in a sense shots across the bow of our ship, warnings to repent. Whenever we experience tragedy and loss and yet survive it, it becomes for us an opportunity to think about our life and death and final judgment. The fifth trumpet refers to the fall of Satan and his attack on mankind through passionate temptations of various kinds. These are the locusts with faces of men and hair of women and bodies of horses. That is, these are the temptations for men and women to act as animals. The smoke refers to the temporary blindness and insanity that keeps us from seeing clearly our calling in Christ and the deceptive temptations that beset us. Those with the Seal on their foreheads are protected in as much as they are crucifying the passions and living the new life in Christ. They are not stung by the locusts, the swarm of thoughts that are the seed of sin, because they have learned to be more than natural men; they have become spiritual men (see 1 Cor. 2:13-15). However the temptations are real. The sting is in the tail, not in the face. What feels so good and looks so natural, so merely human, so understandable, has its sting in the tail.
Bishops Joseph has often said that “I am only human” is not an excuse for our failure to live godly lives. We are not “only” human. We are humans sealed by the Holy Spirit, called to become gods in Christ. We are granted the gift of repentance, the ability to change, to see our sin and hate it, not excuse it. And even the bitter pain of the consequences of a passionate life (the sting like a scorpion), in God’s mercy, lasts only five months. Repentance and forgiveness are always possible. Are you breathing? Then God has left open for you the door of repentance. Have you failed repeatedly in previous repentances? Are you still breathing? Then the door is still open, repent again—don’t give up on yourself before God gives up on you. Have you been stung by sin. Are you and those around you suffering from the painful consequences of the scorpions’ sting? Are you still breathing? Repent, the suffering will not last forever; God has limited the power of evil.
The persecution by passionate temptations—-laziness, faint heartedness, lust of power, idle talk—-is a fiery trial, if we will enter the lists. And for those in combat, the Revelation of St. John speaks of “our now” just as much as it spoke of the “now” of every generation of Christians.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Pitiable Ahab

The Hebrew Bible presents Ahab as a sinful man like no other: “But there was none like Ahab which sold himself to work wickedness.” The Septuagint, on the other hand, does not contain such extreme words about Ahab's wickedness. Both the Hebrew and Septuagint versions of the story of Ahab contain his repentance/humbling after the prophet Elijah prophesies the grizzly outcome of Ahab and his wife Jezebel. However, in several places, the Septuagint reveals Ahab as a much more pitiable character than the Hebrew version does.
To begin with, after the confrontation on Mt. Carmel and the killing of all of the prophets of Baal, during the ensuing rain storm, the Hebrew Bible says that Ahab “rode and went” to Jezreel. But the Septuagint says that Ahab “mourned [wept] and went” to Jezreel (1 Sam./3 Kings 18:45). This reading shows a contrite Ahab, an Ahab weeping/mourning. After the awesome and public display of God’s power over the false prophets (who ate at his wife’s table), and during the first rain in three and a half years, Ahab is humbled, according to the Septuagint. The Hebrew reading, on the other hand, says nothing of Ahab’s emotional response to God’s manifestation of his power in response to Elijah’s prayer.
Then there is the matter of Naboth’s vineyard. Both the Hebrew and Septuagint versions are about the same except that the Hebrew places the story in Ch. 21 whereas the Septuagint places it in Ch. 20 (before the defeat of Benhadad in the Septuagint and after in the Hebrew). However there is a telling addition in the Septuagint’s version of Ahab’s response to the death of Naboth (or is it an omission in the Hebrew version?). In the Septuagint, after Jezebel tells Ahab of Naboth’s death, Ahab “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth.” Ahab’s initial response is repentant, humble, sorrowful; but not too sorrowful, for the next sentence says, “After that Ahab…took possession of the vineyard.” The Hebrew only says that he took possession of the vineyard. The Septuagint even emphasizes Ahab’s sorrowful response to Naboth’s death by mentioning it again at the end of the chapter (v. 27). The Hebrew only mentions Ahab’s tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth and fasting in response to Elisha’s prophecy of Ahab’s and Jezebel’s demise. However, the Septuagint adds here, “He also put on sackcloth the day he killed Naboth the Jezreelite.”
A third difference between the two versions of this story is in verse 20/21:25. Here the Hebrew text includes the words, “But there was none like unto Ahab.” The Septuagint, on the other hand, not only doesn’t include these words, but adds the word “vainly/foolishly” to the text. Here is how it reads in the Septuagint: “Ahab sold himself to vainly/foolishly do what was evil.” The insertion of these words does not lessen Ahab’s guilt (at least from an Orthodox perspective). Ahab is guilty of doing what was evil. However, the Septuagint presents Ahab as pitiable because he acted foolishly or vainly (i.e. without reason or purpose: “emptily”) as he was led astray or incited by Jezebel.
These three variances in the story of Ahab as it is found in the Septuagint help us interpret other aspects of the story in a way that presents Ahab not as the worst of the worst, but as fool who has “sold himself” and was trapped. We begin with Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel, daughter of the King of Sidon. Sidon is the country just north of Israel and the buffer between Israel and Assyria, one of the major powers of the day; so Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel was certainly one of political convenience. Although marriage to foreign women is condemned in the Law, one cannot be too harsh on Ahab because most of Israel’s kings before him, including David, married some foreign women. Because of the political nature of his marriage to Jezebel and his dependence on the King of Sidon (and ultimately because of his lack of faith in God), Ahab let’s Jezebel kill the Lord’s prophets and maintain at her table 950 false prophets. However, Ahab’s right-hand man, Obadiah, hides 100 of the Lord’s prophets in caves and feeds them during the drought. While Ahab lets his wife get away with murder out of fear of man, he lets his chief advisor get away with treachery, perhaps out of a weak, but present, fear of the Lord. Surely here is a weak and bifurcated man to be pitied.
How might an Orthodox Christian apply such a reading in his or her life? I think the first application is to realize that even the most wicked person may at some level “fear the Lord.” He may be trapped, or think he is trapped, in a terrible situation which compels him to acts that he regrets. Ahab wept, mourned and humbled himself at various times and sufficiently (according to both versions of the story) for God to postpone judgment; yet he is held responsible for all of the evil he lets his wife get away with, including the death of Naboth—which both versions make clear, in spite of Ahab’s initial mourning recorded only in the Septuagint. As Orthodox Christians, we must never assume that someone is too far gone to be touched by the Holy Spirit and a guilty conscience, even if that person is responsible for the deaths of hundreds or even millions of people. There may indeed be such a thing as a conscience seared beyond hope, but only God knows. We don’t.
I think the second thing Orthodox Christians should take from the Septuagint’s telling of the story of Ahab is that “free choice” is never really very free; or at least it is only relatively free. How free is a fool? How free is a weak-willed man married to a strong-willed woman? How free is a double-minded man (c.f. James 1:8) who fears the Lord a little but fears man more? When I look at my own life, my mistakes, my weepings before the Lord, and my ensuing return to folly, I realize that I never want to sin. I am always enticed, deceived by my own rationalizations and driven by lusts and fear. It most often feels like an accident, a mercy from God, that I catch myself in sinful contemplation before it’s too late. I hear a word from a friend who might not have spoken, I read a passage that someone might not have written, I see an act of graciousness that might not have been. Somehow the Holy Spirit pricks my heart through one of His servants and I see my insanity, my foolishness, my Ahab-like tendencies. And of course this makes me wonder: how often have I refrained from speaking or writing or acting, how often have I let fear or laziness or hoplessness keep me from being a servant of the Holy Spirit in the life of one of my fellow Ahab-like brothers?
Lord have mercy on us sinners.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gregory Palamas: Tearing the Roof Off

The Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Lent is the the story about the four fellows who want to bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be healed. When they get to where Jesus is, he is trapped in a house, surrounded by hundreds of people. There is no way they are going to get in to see Jesus. However, some people have just got to have direct contact and will find a way. The way these fellows found was to tear off the tiles on the roof (I'm sure Jesus' host was not very happy about that), strap their paralyzed buddy to the pallet, and lower him down on top of Jesus. "Hey, Jesus, here I am. Heal me." The text says that when Jesus saw their faith(i.e. the faith for the guys who tore off the roof and lowered their friend down), he healed their friend.
The second Sunday of Lent is also the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas. St. Gregory is a 14th century theologian who articulated the Orthodox Church's rejection of scholastic theology. I am not an expert on Palamite theology, so if I get this wrong, please correct me gently. As I understand it, and put very simply, the problem with the scholastic approach to theology was that it was completely rational. Based on revelation, one would reason to deeper levels of understanding. Palamas argued that, while rational understanding had a place, knowledge of God came only through direct "noetic" (often translated "intellect") contact with God through inner silence.
In a certain sense, these navel gazers (as they were derisively called by the West)were much like the fellows who tore the roof off to directly contact Jesus. Everyone else stood around respectfully, happy to learn (or at least hear) all that Jesus had to say. They were going to think about it, and perhaps extrapolate from what Jesus said something additionally profound. But these crazy guys who tear off roofs, what can you say about them. They went higher, deeper and quieter than everyone else. They tore apart the roof (which might be likened to the rational structures which may be useful in some contexts [keeping out rain] but merely hindrances in others [touching Jesus]), they went where no one else was willing to go. And they touched Jesus--or rather were touched by him.
The scholastic theologians said (say) it is impossible to really touch God. They say that the light that some hesychasts (the respectful name for those who pursue God in stillness) saw was not really the Light of God that shined from Jesus on Mt. Tabor, but just some natural experience. The Scholastics say this because for them it is rationally impossible for the creature to actually and directly know, experience, see, etc. the Creator. I guess like the crowd around Jesus, they are pretty sure they have it all figured out--except one thing: that paralyzed inner man is not helped by rational understanding. But a couple of old men and women who pray in stillness are showing signs of the life of Christ on earth.
A roof (like reason) is good, but when it keeps me from my Lord, it's time to remodel.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Jim Forrest was with us this week. He is a man who makes you really want to be a Christian. I am not much of a pacifist. In fact, I have a default "John Wayne" attitude toward violence: It's regrettable, but inevitable in a fallen world. (Jim gave me this "John Wayne" idea.) I've generally thought that there were worse things that could happen to someone than to kill or be killed (such as live in fear). However, in recent years, my default "Johnwaynitude" has been challenged. It has not been challenged by exposure to the tragedy of war--I already agreed that violence is tragic. My assumptions have been challenged first by Fr. Gregory, an Orthodox hermit who lives in the mountains above the Sunshine Coast of BC, eats on a few veggies and grains each day and spends all of his time praying and very little sleeping.
Once I spent a few days with Fr. Gregory. On my last day with him, we took a long walk. On that walk one of the things he told me was the necessity that a Christian be aggressively loving enemies, not doing anything to hurt another human being (very terse paraphrase). When we got back to the cabin, I asked him if he would still love me and let me visit him if couldn't yet accept his words about aggressively loving enemies. He smiled at me and gave me a big hug. He said, "Just think about the words, eventually they will drive you crazy." That was two years ago, and I can now attest to serious cracks in the foundation of my sanity.
Jim Forrest stuck a iron poker in some of those cracks and gave a good pull. Part of what it means for me to be a Christian is to realize that not to love is always not sane. Yet I don't love, and I live in a world of non-lovers.
I remember the words of the Psalmist, "Neither do I concern myself with great matters, Nor with things too profound for me." I think there is a sane Rock--the Rock--on which to stand, but my theories that try to make sense out of a crazy world, a world that says it's okay not to love; I think those theories need to crumble and fall away. I can let go of my insanity that tried to make sense of an insane world. It feels quite naked not having answers (fig leaves and goat skins are better than nothing--or are they?). Maybe it is good not to know, but do my best where I am to love. I think I'll try that for a while. May God help me.