Monday, May 31, 2010

On Avatar and Nature Worship

Bonnie and I rented Avatar last night.  It’s a cliché-filled (but still fun) Cowboy and Indian movie set on one of Jupiter’s moons.  Instead of the U.S. government, you have a huge, nature-destroying cooperate interest; but other than that it’s Dances with Wolves on a new planet (well, moon actually).  For the natives, the deity is the conscious being of all the moon’s beings.  This deity does not take sides, but only brings balance--Yin and Yang, you might say.
The Good Guys are the ones with the religion.  Have you ever noticed in movies that the Bad guys never have religion unless it is fundamentalistic Christianity or Islam (or the dark side of the Force)?  And when the Good Guys are religious, it is seldom as devout believers in a monotheistic religion.  Of course, I am not one to talk much about this topic.  I don’t see many movies.  Maybe I just don’t see the right movies.*
In Avatar you have obvious links to Buddhism mixed with heavy doses of Native American nature worship.  It’s all fine and good, if you ask me.  After all, Christianity is a matter of a revealed reality above nature--not separate from nature, but within, through and yet above and beyond nature.  Those who have not known this revelation (or those who have rejected it because of the terrible state of the church they have been exposed to), are thrown onto their own resources to figure out this Unknown Creator and do their best to patch together some systematic understanding of what they see and experience.  Science, it seems to me, is a kind of nature worship (sans many of the gritty rituals, but with rituals enough of its own--ask anyone who has earned a Ph.D.).
Some people reject Christianity because they don’t want to change their lives.  For many of these people religion--both the kind with blue body paint and erotic rituals or the kind with white lab jackets and a peer review process--becomes the means of justifying their passions.  “It’s only natural, after all.  There is no good and bad.”
Others, however, have never encountered Christianity--at least not a Christianity that looks like Christ.  What they have rejected is a caricature, not Christ.  They have not seen Christ yet to reject Him.  For some of these people, religion (of any sort, even the scientific sort) is a means to cope with the pain, to make sense of a sick, fallen world, a world in which the hawk feeds it’s babies with the babies of the bunny.  Beauty and harsh death are mixed.  It makes no sense without a revelation.
So to a certain extent, I appreciate the nature worship of the native people (in Avatar).  At least they seem to be trying to connect with what is beyond themselves; even if, in the words of the Prophets, it is a vain (empty) endeavour--after all, their deity is not personal; it doesn't care, doesn't take sides; it only brings balance.  Revelation of the personal God and Creator comes from above; and like the sunrise, you must be awake and watching to see it.  At least these creatures seem to be watching.  There are many sincere scientists and even practitioners of Wicca (I imagine) who would love to see the Sun rise.  May God grant that I would become a real Christian, and that some day when others look at me they will see what is beyond nature and come to know the Creator who is a person, who loves, who takes sides, and who gives Himself so that we may live.
* A romantic exception that Bonnie and I like is Return to Me in which Carol O’Connor plays the devout Catholic father who asks for St. Michael's help when his daughter receives a heart transplant.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

On Books and Dogs and Natural Behaviour

What if we could explain everything?  What if all our human behaviors from birth to grave could be explained in terms of evolutionary development, hormones, chemical imbalances, family of origin issues, and cultural setting.  What if I found out that it is normal and quite reasonable and even somewhat predictable that a fifty year old man would throw a book at his wife’s little dog just because it unexpectedly started barking and gave him a shock, especially after working with the dog for weeks not to bark in the house and after a terrible morning making Holy Bread with the wrong flour and burning four loaves?  What if it all could be explained?  Would it make a difference?
Sure it would make a difference.  It makes a difference to know that my book throwing impulse is not insanity--or at least not an unusual insanity.  It makes a difference to know that I struggle with the same impulses, fears, lusts, and ambitions that most fifty year old men struggle with.  Sure it helps to know this, but it isn’t news to me.  St. Paul said the same thing to the Corinthians: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man.”
In a clergy meeting once, bishop Joseph was commenting on a certain behavior that he considers inappropriate for priests and deacons, when one of the brothers in defending the behavior used the expression, “it’s only natural that….”  When the priest had finished, His Grace asked, “Are we Christians or mere men?"
At the end of 1 Corinthians chapter 2, St. Paul makes a distinction between the spiritual person and the soulish person (translated natural person in New King James, or the person who relies on the resources of the soul without the Holy Spirit).  In chapter three, “carnal” person becomes a synonym for the “natural” (soulish) person.  The babes in Christ--those who have not trained themselves to rely on the resources of the Holy Spirit, but who rely merely on the resources of their own soul and thus become carnal or flesh-driven--these are the ones who experience envy, strife and division in the Church.  These are the ones who are “behaving as mere men” (1 Cor. 3:3).
Sts. James and Jude say the same thing.  St. James says that bitter envy and self-seeking are “earthly, sensual [soulish] and demonic” (James 3:14,15).  St. Jude seems to come down the harshest on mere humans.  He tells his readers to remember the warning of the Apostles that into the church would come mockers who live according to their own ungodly lusts (impulses and desires).  “These are sensual [soulish] persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit” (Jude 18,19).
Morality isn’t really the main problem with mere humanity.  Moral weakness is a symptom.  The real problem with being only natural is eschatological.   The natural person cannot “receive the things of the Sprit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14), and therefore cannot be transformed by the Spirit of God and cannot participate in the life of God.
Throwing a book at a barking dog may, at some level, be natural; but it is not spiritual.  Repentance is in order, again.  Slowly, slowly, slowly this mere human being is becoming a Christian.

Love and Dancing

"Made one with Thee by love, and purely and sincerely taking delight in Thee, the company of Thy Saints doth dance the perpetual dance with the Angels in joy round about Thee, O Seer of all things, God and Lord of all."*

Love and dancing go together--especially in the Kingdom of Heaven.  All of the talk of death and martyrdom that surrounds the feast of All Saints (and has made up a good deal of my blogging lately) can easily take our minds off the dance, and the delight, and the love.
A Prayer:
Grant, O Lord, that we might keep our minds in our hearts where all of heaven is found, and where the dancing angels call us out of the shadowy corners where we timid wallflowers hide.  Teach us to delight in your love and leave behind self consciousness, no longer looking at our selves, but looking steadfastly at You, 'O Seer of all.'  Because You see all things, we can let down our guard, we can be Your children, purely and sincerely delighting in You--and dance with the angels.  

 *The Canon of All Saints for Matins, Ode 4, "Of All Saints," v.1.  The Pentecostarion published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery.

Friday, May 28, 2010

It’s not my fault

As I stand at the window this dreary Friday morning and watch the cold drizzle fall from the grey sky, I feel somewhat justified in sleeping in and skipping my morning prayers.  The weather affects moods.  Depression is a disease.  It’s not my fault.
Growing up I had all the good excuses: HDD, abandoned, abused, asthma, eczema, social misfit (too slow minded to be a geek, too smart to join a gang, too awkward to play sports), and a psychological complex that mixed an adolescent boy’s raging hormones with a deep longing to find motherly comfort in any female I met.  It was not my fault.
Fault is overrated.  In fact, fault is generally irrelevant.  
I think every North American should go through a twelve step program.  Understanding why I want to do selfish and hurtful things, and why I don’t want to do what will bring health and peace to myself and others does not make my behavior or attitude any less hurtful.  I cannot change what has happened to me.  I cannot change any thing I have done up to to this moment.  I cannot change anyone else.  I can, however, change myself.
Alone, I can’t do much to change myself.  That’s one of the first things you have to learn.  To change, I  have to trust in God and listen to others.  I have to believe that 
God will take the little I can do and make it work more change in my life than I alone have the power to bring about.  (By the way, this is not theory.  Look at how many times you have tried to change and failed.  Even learning to trust in God is a process that involves successes and failures, both of which you learn from--if you don’t give up.)
So what am I going to do?  I am going to end this blog, close the door, stand up and say my prayers.  I’ll probably do a terrible job.  I’ll probably be distracted the whole time.  But maybe, God will see my little effort to change.  Maybe, God will have mercy and come close to me (which I know is a theologically incorrect view, but it is an emotionally accurate view).  
It may not be my fault that I am glum; nevertheless, what I do is still mine to choose.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Beauty of the Queen

The Church reads Psalm 44 (45) as a hymn revealing the relationship between the Mother of God and those devoted to Her. The beginning of the psalm describes the beauty and greatness of the King--Christ. Then in the middle (v.10), the focus shifts to the “daughters of kings,” the most significant of whom is the Queen who stands at His right hand “arrayed in a vesture of inwoven gold, adorned in varied colors.” The Queen most often in the Old Testament is the Mother--not the wife, for a King had many wives. These virgins who follow after the Queen (v. 15) and who are brought to the King are to be wed to the King. They have forgotten their people and their father’s house because the King greatly desires their beauty (v.11). That is, they have left all to follow Christ. Their desire for Christ is more than matched by Christ’s desire for them, a desire that took Him all the way to death and hades for their sake.
Following the Queen, these virgin companions of the Queen are brought with “gladness and rejoicing… into the temple of the King” (v 16). In place of their fathers (i.e. what they have left to follow Christ), sons are born to them, the fruit of their desire for God and God’s desire for them. These sons are “new creatures in Christ” who rule over the earth the same way the King rules: in truth, meekness and righteousness (v.5).
“The glory,” the Psalm says, “of the daughter of the King is within.” The metaphor of wife and daughter is mixed. The purpose is to show the closeness of the relationship. The virgin companions of the Queen become both spouse and daughter to the King and themselves, like the Queen, are arrayed with gold-fringed garments, adorned in varied colors (v. 14). The gold reflects the glory (or beauty) that is “within” the virgin daughter/bride of the King. It is the same beauty that is in the Queen and seen in her garments (v. 10). The varied colors represent the specific virtues and acts of love and self sacrifice of each virgin daughter. Each garment shines with the same gold, but is adorned in varied colors.
This Psalm teaches us to honor and follow the example of the Mother of God. Hers is an example of inner beauty, a beauty that the King greatly desires.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Going to Heaven

I just finished reading a proposed prayer book for children. One of the matters that I commented on was that it seemed as though all references to eternal life and being with God were in the context of “going” to heaven (presumably when one dies). One of the struggles I have as a priest is helping my adult parishioners grow up-and-out of the concepts of God and the spiritual life that they learned as children. This is one example: It seems that when we talk to children about the spiritual life, we almost always refer to heaven as some “place” were people “go” when they die.
Instead of this “go to heaven” language, I suggested language that focused on being. For example, instead of the phrase, (in the context of the Second Coming of Christ, and not being lazy in our spiritual life) “let me go with you to heaven where all who love you sing your joy”; I suggested the following, “Help me get ready to be with you in heaven where all who love you sing your joy.” This is not perfect, but it is an attempt to move from the idea of heaven as a place where someone will go one day, to heaven as a spiritual reality that exists at all times and “where” one can be right now. In fact, right now is the only time one can be in heaven (heaven has no time--in the sense of duration--only a never ending now).
When we talk about spiritual things, we have no other language than the language we use to talk about our physical reality. Consequently, when talking about death, for example, we may use language like “go to heaven,” but this language is misleading. At death we don’t “go” anywhere. At death we are confronted with the reality of where we are (already). “Where” in this context, does not refer to place but relationship. Heaven is a relational reality. We are in heaven now, in as much as we are receiving and responding in love to the love and grace that God is giving us right now. We are in heaven now; however, being joined to “this body of death” and often distracted, confused and deceived by various lusts and fears, heaven seems very far away. It seems as if heaven is a place we need to “go” to.
But this is the reason why we pray. We pray to clear the air and see what is really there. We pray to pay attention to (or learn to pay attention to) that place within ourselves “where” we can know and love God--there it is always heaven. We pray in order to put our life in order, to remind our body that it is our servant, not our master. We pray to taste heaven, to smell its fragrance, and then, as much as we are able, to carry that fragrance, that flavor, with us throughout our day.

Friday, May 21, 2010

So Where’s the Joy?

I had a funny experience this morning.  Feeling overwhelmed with too many things that needed to be done and having no clear idea how to do many of them, I felt like going back to bed and hiding.  Maybe no one else ever feels that way.  It doesn’t happen to me very often, but every now and then, I feel that way.  (That’s not the funny part.)
Then I accepted my lost, confused feeling and let go of my demand to know what I was going to do next and how I would do it.  I just began doing the thing before me that needed to be done.  I didn’t want to do anything, but I was nevertheless doing and kept doing.
Before long, I found myself humming a chorus from my old Pentecostal days, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart to stay…”  I was happy, beneath my sadness.  All day long, I kept going and kept humming or saying the Jesus prayer or thinking about how much easier it is to write about the Christian life than it is to live it.
The joy is not outside us. It does not come from “blessed” circumstances.  The joy is inside us, hiding just below the sadness.  When we stop fighting the sadness, when we let go of our demand to understand, to figure it out, to be right; then joy and peace and the Life of God filter through.  God has not gone anywhere, I just stopped looking at Him.
I am reminded of a movie called “Bless You Prison.”  It is about a woman who rediscovers her peace in Christ while suffering in a Communist prison.  Bonnie and I watched it again tonight after dinner.  It’s one of those movies that everyone should see at least once--multiple times if given to bouts of paralyzing brooding.  
My favorite part of the movie is where she begins to pity the guards, and they think she is crazy because she smiles at them and says thank you when they bring her food.  She found the joy under the sadness.

...But We'll Have To Kill You First

“The good news is that we can save you. The bad news is that we'll have to kill you first.”

I recently saw a movie (I think it was Mission Impossible III), in which the “bad guys” would torment those they captured by inserting a mini bomb into their brain. The only way to disarm this mini bomb once it had been activated was to run an electric current through the body of the victim strong enough to fry the circuit board of the mini bomb. The downside of this procedure was that it would also stop the heartbeat of the victim. However, the same defibrillator that stopped the heart and disarmed the mini bomb in the victim’s brain, could be used again, and with a little luck and dramatic tension, start the heart up again.

One of the prayers for Kneeling Vespers contains the line, “Who gives life through hope of resurrection unto them that are wounded with the sting of death.” The sting of death is something like a time bomb planted in us.

The good news is that we can be saved. The bad news is that we will have to pass through death to conquer death.

In St. Paul’s discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, he makes the point that it is only after our corruptible bodies are sown into the earth that we will be clothed with the bodies of incorruption, and then death itself, the last enemy, will be destroyed. But this passing through death to resurrection is not merely something that takes place when we die--i.e. our hearts stop beating. Death and resurrection are something Christians are called to experience daily. Daily we put off the Old Man and are clothed with the New Man--if we want.

Ah, there’s the rub.

It’s a frightening thing to face death; but if you do it a lot, you get used to it. There is a sweetness, the Fathers of the Church teach us, to the resurrected life that can be tasted even before the resurrection of our bodies. St. Paul called it the fragrance of death and of life. As we die daily to our selfish, fear-based wants, desires and “needs", we experience the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, meekness, goodness, self control. A foretaste of the resurrection, the fragrance of life.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Be Angry and Do Not Sin

Recently I was talking to my Father Confessor about my reluctance to do what I know I should do (or not do what I know I shouldn’t do).  He suggested that I have not yet become angry enough to repent.  I asked, “Who should I be angry with?  Myself?”  He smiled, “Who else is there to be angry with?”  Like many conversations with my spiritual father, this one ended with no resolution.  He planted a seed (smiling, knowing that I didn’t know, but knowing that I might come to know). 

Of course, I have been angry with myself before--but not often.  Most times my anger with myself has to do with some physical limitation, often having to do with eye-hand coordination [read: lousy basketball player].  I also get angry with myself when I embarrass myself socially.  Generally speaking, however, almost all of the time when I am angry, I am angry at someone else.

Father Gregory's word has been growing in my heart. I read Psalm 4 this morning and a verse began to have a meaning for me that it had never had before.  It says, “Be angry, and sin not; feel compunction upon your bed for what you say in your hearts.  Sacrifice a sacrifice of righteousness and hope in the Lord.”  In the past, I  had always interpreted that verse as meaning, "it’s okay to get angry [at others], just don’t sin."  Until recently, I didn’t have any understanding of anger except as something generally directed at others.

But this verse is not talking about anger at others.  The verse says that we are to feel compunction for what we say in our hearts.  It is not about others, it is about our response to what we say in our hearts. The verse seems to be saying that if we are angry (with what we say in your hearts) we will not sin.  Isn’t that what the second part of the verse tells us: “Sacrifice a sacrifice of righteousness and hope in the Lord”?  To sacrifice means to give to God something valuable, something you normally wouldn’t willingly give up or want to lose, something that keeps you from having to trust completely in the Lord.  But what will motivate us to give up what we don’t want to lose?  What will motivate us to let go of that thing, idea, privilege or relationship that keeps us from having to trust completely in the Lord?  Anger.  Anger at ourselves and the sinful things we say in our hearts; anger at the attachment I have to possessions, positions and people that keep me from sacrificing a sacrifice of righteousness and hoping in the Lord.  (Note, the anger is with my attachment, not with the possession, positions or people.)

St. Paul quotes this verse in Ephesians (4:26), where he seems to be making the same point.  Since we are members of one another, we should be "angry, and [thus] do not sin."  Specifically in the context, we could read it this way: Due to the righteous sacrifice and trusting in the Lord of the one who is angry with his own sin, he does not lie to or defraud (steal from) another.  Anger here cannot be with another because five verses later St. Paul tells us not to grieve the Holy Spirit, but rather to “let go of...anger...and be kind to one another.”  St. Paul is talking about two kinds of anger: the anger at another (which we must let go), and--quoting Psalm 4--the anger that keeps us from sinning. 

"The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force."  Somehow in my struggle to "take" the Kingdom of Heaven, to take what I know has already been freely given, I must allow my heart to be roused from it's comfort zone.  I must allow the anger at and compunction for "what I say in my heart" (as I "lie on my couch") to rouse me off my comfortable inner couch and to offer the sacrifice of righteousness and so to force myself to trust in the Lord. After all, no matter what great gifts I have been freely given, if I do not get up off the couch and take them, they do me no good.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dying with Christ

St. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ,” thus identifying himself with the two thieves who were crucified with Christ. Two were crucified with Christ, yet only one was raised to paradise. Both thieves, at the beginning, railed against Jesus, mocking Him, and saying with the crowd of onlookers, “if you are really the Christ, come down from the cross and save yourself and us too.” But one thief had a change of heart. One thief was enlightened. One thief realized that death was unavoidable. One thief turned to Jesus and begged: “Remember me!”
It seems that whenever I suffer, I begin complaining against God in my mind: “God why have you let this happen to me!” It seems like I rail against God with the two thieves, “If you are really the Christ, deliver me from this painful ordeal. It’s killing me!” And as I languish in pain--mental, emotional, physical--my attention is drawn to the One suffering with me. Death is unavoidable. To attain to the Resurrection, I must pass with my Savior through death. And so I whisper, “remember me.”

Friday, May 14, 2010

Blessed Isidore the Fool for Christ

I was thinking about the life of Blessed Isidore the Fool for Christ.  He was a convert to Orthodoxy who became a Fool for Christ.  His “foolishness” was that he lived in rags and had no home except a hut made from branches.  He spent his nights in prayer and his days teaching and preaching.  What I find interesting is that he was considered insane and thus a Fool for Christ because he chose to live this way.  But in a sense, in order to live his own calling, he had no choice.  If he worked as a tradesman or a servant, he could not devote his nights to prayer and days to teaching.  If he joined a monastery,  he would have to submit to the rule of the monastery.  In taking on this life of homelessness, he was free from the burden of supporting himself and could devote himself to God--but such devotion is considered insanity.  Were it not for the miracles that accompanied his life, both during his life and after his death, his holiness would never have been known--except by those few who really knew him and were humble enough to listen to him.  He would have been thought of as merely one of the unfortunates. 
Another thing I find interesting about Blessed Isidore’s life is that the life itself teaches us (none of his words were preserved).  He completely left all and followed Christ.  Yet, one of his miracles was to save a wealthy merchant from drowning.  The merchant had fallen off a boat and was drowning.  Isidore appeared walking on the water and led the merchant to the shore.  When Isidore died, this merchant built a church in Isidore’s honor over the spot where his hut had been.  What I find most interesting is that neither God nor Isidore despised the wealthy merchant.  Just because holy Isidore found salvation and great freedom in poverty--and this was a lesson to all that wealth is an unnecessary hinderance to salvation--God still saved the wealthy man (through Isidore!) and allowed the wealthy man to use his wealth to build a church in Isidore’s honor (which is probably the main reason why we know anything about Blessed Isidore today).  The merchant had his own demons to fight, his own gifts and callings to struggle with, his own path to follow to Christ; yet it was the voluntarily poor, voluntarily insane, Isidore who led the way for him.  
It reminds me of the words of St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily: “To the one He gives, to the other He is gracious.”  That is, God gives liberally to those who labour diligently (to those who come at the first hour), and to the others He is gracious (to the ones who come late).  In this case, coming early refers not to time, but to calling/effort/giftedness/zeal.  The pay is the same, but the ability/opportunity to enjoy the Master’s presence and share in the Master’s labor is not.  In a mystical sense, that is the pay: the Master’s presence and a share in the Master’s labor (suffering) and joy.  Those who come late (or labor little) are not with the Master early to enjoy the Master’s presence and His lavishly bestowed Grace for the whole day; but when they eventually come, the reward is the same.  

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reading the Parable of the Good Samaritan

Almost every contemporary biblical commentary interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan as moral exhortation.  But this is not the primary way this parable is understood in the hymns of the Orthodox Church.  
Most commentaries (and most sermons) read this parable as though the audience is called to identify with the Good Samaritan (who helped the wounded man), not the priest or levite (who passed by “on the other side”).  Jesus’ “Go and do likewise” at the end of the passage fits neatly into this interpretation.
However, the hymns of the Orthodox Church teach us to identify with the wounded man, whom Christ (the Good Samaritan) rescues, binding his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, placing him on His own beast, and taking him to the inn keeper to be cared for until His return.  According to the Church hymns, the inn keeper represents the bishops and priests of the Church, the oil and wine are the healing Grace of the sacramental life, the beast is Christ’s own flesh that bore our sins and carried us from death to Life, and the binding of the wounds is the discipline of Church life (through repentance and confession) closing up the deep gashes of sin so that healing can begin.
These two interpretations are, of course, not mutually exclusive. After all, those who are in Christ are called to become like Christ, to participate in the Life of Christ.  It is little wonder then, that Christians seek to follow the example of the Good Samaritan.  However, participating in the Life of Christ is not a simple matter of morality--in fact, I suggest that it has nothing to do with morality, as morality is commonly understood.
Participation in the Life of Christ is not about morality, it is about mystical union.  It is about being in Christ, and it is this being in Christ that leads us into a Christ-like life, a life that to those around us might appear as a “moral” life.
One of the problems with reading the parable of the Good Samaritan primarily as a moral exhortation is that it is easy to comprehend, easy to apply (or at least feel like you are applying), and easy to teach.  Easy readings of the scripture, unfortunately, often lead to shallow understanding, and most tragically, to the sense that one already knows the meaning of a passage.  Mystery is gone, and the words of Jesus are pressed into a mental box, a category, to be brought to mind as needed.
Another problem with this moral reading of the parable is that it places the listener in the seat of the healer, the strong one, the deliverer.  Many times I have talked with bewildered Christians who have sought to care for the sick, hungry or homeless neighbor only to be offended that this poor wretched soul didn’t want their help--or if they accepted the sandwich, complained that it had too much mayonnaise.  If we in the strength of our own morality seek to imitate Christ, how can we not be offended?  Christ was despised and rejected, spit upon and mocked--even as he was pouring out his life blood to save us.  It takes much more than morality to place a wounded man on your own beast (your own flesh) and carry him to the inn.
In many ways this offense at the ingratitude of others is a good thing, if it teaches us that we are not the Good Samaritan.  It is good to see how shallow our knowledge of ourselves is.  It is good to see that in many ways I am more wounded than the homeless person I think I can help: wounded by pride and self conceit, wounded by a high opinion of myself and my abilities, wounded by the delusion that I am the healthy one. 
The Church's reading of this parable, on the other hand, teaches us to see ourselves as the wounded one, in need of a Good Samaritan to bind our wounds and lead us to the inn.  It teaches us that this is not an I-did-it-once experience, but a spiritual reality that we enter into (“remember” is the correct theological word) constantly.  In fact, the life in Christ is a life of continually remembering that I am the poor and needy one, I am the wounded man in need of the Saviour.  And then [deep breath] somehow a miracle happens.  As I am cared for by the Good Samaritan, I become in some small ways like the Good Samaritan.  The One who cares for me allows me to share in some small ways in His care for others--and in His suffering.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Praying for Joey

A friend of mine, Don Hill, has a son, Joey, who has DMD (I don’t even know what that stands for, but it is a degenerative desease of some sort) and is now in ICU.  Here is an excerpt from Don’s e-mail to me.  Please pray for the Hill family.
.... I am not a medical professional so don't bother yourself with correcting my attempt to describe Joey's medical condition.  I am a father, however, that is well aware of the degenerative nature of DMD and that episodes like this are to be expected.  Even so, this time churns into the deepest part of my being as we and many others care for my only son.  I don't know if I am shallow or just naive, but I never ask why.  I do however marvel at who Joey is.  He hasn't walked for 15 years, he has been compromised in nearly every aspect of his physical and social life, he has suffered excruciating pain, he is many times sleepless, he is dependent on us to care for his every need every moment of every day, he can only move his fingers and barely wiggle his feet, he has been afraid, he is usually exhausted, and he now lies in this ICU bed with more tubes and devises than I can describe.  And in all of this he believes in Jesus and he never complains.  He can't run but he walks with God.  He can't sing but he is heard.  He can't kneel but he is humble.  He can't sin like you and me but he seeks forgiveness with all his heart.  And he trusts God more than I ever will.

So I ask for your prayers that God will be merciful.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Confidence (continued)

Anonymous wrote: What is the difference between spiritual confidence and other kinds of confidence? Is there any kind of confidence that is healthy other than confidence in knowing we are loved by God? Is it normal to feel less and less confidence generally the longer you are orthodox?
Dear Anonymous:
This is a matter of discernment, for a lot depends on what is masquerading under the guise of confidence.  A tradesman, for example, must be confident in his trade.  He must know well what he does, and what he can and cannot do.  However, he has learned this by coming to know his limits, the limits of his tools, the limits of his materials, the limits of his skills.  In a sense, this is a confidence born of humility.  The skilled tradesman knows how to be careful and knows that a lot can go wrong, yet this knowledge does not freeze him.  Rather, a lifetime of failures has taught him that to do nothing is to fail utterly; so he proceeds with confidence knowing that some failure is inevitable (and often, but not always, repairable).
Similarly in the spiritual life (all of life really), there is a confidence, a trust in God, that is born of failure and the fruit of failure: humility.  We make our boast in God (with St. Paul) even as we glory in our weaknesses.  This phrase, "glory in weakness," means something like "know and thank God for my limits."  God is strong in the life of St. Paul precisely because St. Paul knows he is the least of the Apostles and not worthy to called an Apostle.  God's power is manifest in St. Paul's care for the Churches precisely because he knows that he is no excellent speaker or wise teacher.  St. Paul merely obeys his calling (i.e. does what God puts before him to do) and loves those God has given him to love.
This confidence in God born from humility is a good thing.  Unfortunately, most of us have learned to base our confidence on our own righteousness (literally, our being right).  We are confident because we are right. This is the righteousness of the Pharisee: pride masquerading as confidence.  
As we become more like Christ (i.e. grow in our Orthodox Christian faith), false confidence is stripped away. We may even go through periods of feeling emotionally naked as God lovingly frees us of the false robe of our own righteousness to clothe us in the robe of His righteousness.  We may have to accept as failures (or at least possible failures) past actions, attitudes, words, or beliefs that we sincerely held to be right, and that we even taught others and fought to defend.  We also have to accept that our failures have had consequences that have hurt others and hurt ourselves (St. Paul--confident that he was doing the right thing--held the coats of the men who stoned St. Stephen to death).
Accepting my limits, my failures, my sin, my inabilities, I have no refuge but God Himself and those who are filled with God: His Holy Mother and the Saints.  And yet, even a jar made of clay can contain gold.  God fills and slowly heals broken vessels, and in spite of their baseness, makes them somehow honorable.  Just as wood and paint become a holy icon, not because of the wood and paint, but because of the Image they portray.  So we too--failures in just about every way--can be formed into the Image of Christ.  “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Monday, May 10, 2010

Spiritual Masquerade

Spiritual pride often masquerades as spiritual confidence. In fact, in my experience, spiritual pride never looks like spiritual pride--or at least what you think spiritual pride looks like. The context, of course, is detecting spiritual pride in oneself. It is very easy to detect spiritual pride in others (or so we think). In fact, some people seem to have the “spiritual gift” of discerning almost all the spiritual, emotional and psychological faults of others (again, or so we think). But very few Christians have attained to the height of spiritual discernment to see their own weaknesses, their own spiritual pride.
In the Gospels, Jesus sets before us examples of people with healthy spiritual attitudes. In most cases, these spiritually healthy ones are people whom we would normally say are weak or even defective in some way. The sick ones, Jesus teaches by his words and actions, are the first in the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t like to view ourselves as the sick ones. We’d rather see ourselves (by God Grace, we say) as the ones who help the sick. And even when we know we are spiritually weak, we like to tell ourselves that we know what we could/should/might do about it--as if spiritual healing were merely a matter of doing what we already know we ought to do. It is an almost perfect mental game. We have the pride of thinking we know, but because we never really give ourselves completely to doing what we know is right, we never find out that what we so confidently know (and will fight to defend) is really only partial and mixed with lots of imagination.
St. Paul rebukes both the Jewish Christians in Rome and the Gentile Christians in Corinth for their spiritual pride, masquerading as confidence. To the Romans he asks, “You who...make your boast in God, and know his will...and are confident that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness…. Do you [not even] teach yourself? … Do you steal? … Do you commit adultery?” Do you, he asks, cause others to curse God because of the way you treat them (since you are already identified as God’s people)? To the Corinthians he chides: “You are already full! You are already rich! You have reigned as kings without us.” The Corinthian Christians were so confident in their being right that they were willing to sue one another in court, thus proving that they had completely failed to attain the most basic Christian virtues.
“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.” In the Church we repeat constantly, “Lord have mercy.” For the confident, this prayer has no meaning. Perhaps it is merely equivalent to “Lord grant me good luck.” However, to the sick, the blind, the sinner, the woman sorely tempted to sin, the man stricken by guilt for past sins, the father and mother who have no idea how to raise their children, to these people, “Lord have mercy” has meaning. It is the sick who need the Physician; the lost who need to be found; the sorrowing who need the Comforter; the confused and storm-tossed who need the Quiet Haven.
Lord grant that spiritual confidence never take root in our minds, but that we always know ourselves to be the poor and needy ones. Lord have mercy.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

We Have St. Nicholas Church!

We can rent--and possibly eventually buy--the St. Nicholas Church building! The Red Sea has parted for us. Glory to God! The OCA has given us very generous terms. God has been very good to us. I’m sure that more problems will follow, they always do. But for now we can rejoice that we have found a home that should serve us well for several years. We still need to buy property and build a real Orthodox basilica--one large enough for our children and grandchildren to get married in. We need an Orthodox School and an Orthodox grave yard. Our job is not done. But today we rejoice for at least the next step has been made clear for us.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

A Meditation on Almsgiving

by Fr. Thomas Hopko

Christ commanded his disciples to give alms. To “give alms” means literally “to do” or “to make merciful deeds” or “acts of mercy.” According to the Scriptures, the Lord is compassionated and merciful, longsuffering, full of mercy, faithful and true. He is the one who does merciful deeds (see Psalm 103). Acts of mercy are an “imitation of God” who ceaselessly executes mercy for all, without exception, condition or qualification. He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

Mercy is a sign of Love. God is love. A deed of merciful love is the most Godlike act a human being can do. “Being perfect” in Matthew’s Gospel corresponds to “being merciful” in Luke’s Gospel. “Perfection” and “being merciful” are the same thing.

To love as Christ loves, with the love of the God who is love, is the chief commandment for human beings according to Christianity. It can only be accomplished by God’s grace, by faith. It is not humanly possible. It is done by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Acts of mercy must be concrete, physical actions. They cannot be “in word and speech [only] but in deed and truth [also]” (see 1John and James).

Acts of mercy are acts done to Christ himself who was hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, in prison and sick in the form of being wounded for our transgressions on the cross, taking up our wounds, and dying our death.

Christian acts of mercy must be sacrificial. By this we understand that we must not simply give to others what is left over. We have to be sharing our possessions with others in ways that limit ourselves in some way (for example, the widow’s mite). And, acts of mercy should be done without qualification or condition to everyone, no matter who, what or how the are (the Good Samaritan is our example).

Adapted from a flyer produced by International Orthodox Christian Charities: Icon from St. Isaac the Syrian SketeGod

Saturday, May 01, 2010

And the Darkness Does Not Overcome It

Last night I got back from my visit with Monk Anthony. Monk Anthony is a prisoner in the Super MAX federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. He is sentenced to life in solitary confinement. Although his only presenting crime (the crime for which he was originally arrested) was to forge his step-father’s signature on a $150. check, several foolish actions after he was incarcerated--actions of a confused and angry young man--have added up to life in solitary confinement in America’s most secure penitentiary.

After ten years in prison, Rodney was baptized under the ministry of an Orthodox priest who has devoted his life to visiting and corresponding with prisoners. Almost immediately he began painting icons in his cell--using his hair to make brushes and mustard, coffee grounds, ketchup, etc. from his food tray as pigment. A priest in the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry asked Bonnie, my wife, to correspond with him to teach him the techniques of iconography. Along the way, Rodney was tonsured (in prison) “Monk Anthony” by Metropolitan Isaiah of Dallas. Today, Monk Anthony paints beautiful icons using pastels and children’s paints (the only “craft” supplies he is allowed).

Monk Anthony’s solitary life has set him on a path of spiritual trajectory that I, as a married priest in the world, have no direct experience in. So in God’s providence and love I have been able to meet a hermit monk and through letters introduce him to Monk Anthony. Fr. Gregory was so moved by the simplicity of Monk Anthony’s love for God as evidenced in his letters and icons, particularly considering the dry and oppressive context in which this flower of God’s garden grows, that he submitted to the long and invasive process required by the U.S. Department of Prisons to become Monk Anthony’s “minister of record” just so that he could visit him once a year. This process now complete, I took Fr. Gregory from his hermitage in the mountains of British Columbia to meet Monk Anthony in the Super MAX prison in the Rocky Mountains in southern Colorado.

Bonnie and I had visited about a year and a half ago--having corresponded regularly for over ten years, we qualified as “friends” and were able to become “approved visitors”; so I knew how to get there and could walk with Fr. Gregory through the procedure of entering the prison, coaching him on what is and is not to be said and done. After about a half hour of checking and double checking our identifications with their computer records, stamping our hands, taking our pictures and passing through various gates, steel doors that open and shut automatically and a very sensitive metal detector, we descended a long flight of stairs underground into the visiting room: a series of painted cinderblock stalls (if you put your hands on your hips, your elbows touched both sides) with two telephones attached to the wall on either side of a large plexiglass window. And there stood Monk Anthony in a white prison jumper, all smiles, on the other side of the plexiglass.

St. Paul said that where sin abounds, there does Grace much more abound. Here Grace was abounding. For six hours I saw the Light shining in the darkness. Just driving onto the prison grounds, you could feel the oppression. No one smiled: the guards, the administrators, the lawyers, the little pack of FBI agents who were “touring” the place. And yet, Monk Anthony smiled. He smiled the smile of a man who is at peace with himself, who wanted to be instructed, who was eager to hear from another human being what God had already spoken to his heart.

For most of six hours I watched. I could hear only Fr. Gregory’s side of the conversation, but I saw Monk Anthony’s face and gestures. And as time went on I was struck with what seemed to be a glow coming from Monk Anthony—“glow” really is the only word for it, for his facial expressions and gestures caused me to feel a peaceful, intimate, holy Presence, as though we were having the same conversation in the sitting area of the hermitage, not in a vault surrounded by cinder block through a telephone behind plexiglass under the U.S. Super MAX prison.

And then the guard said that our time was up. Our six hours of sweet communion were over. We put our hands on the plexiglass and pushed against Monk Anthony’s hand pushing from the other side. We blessed, we waved, we watched until the guard closed the door behind us. But it was not over. Even now Monk Anthony is in my heart and the peace of his presence--the peace of a very bright light in a very dark place--is still shining in my heart.