Friday, May 31, 2013

Eclectic Orthodoxy and Hell

A couple of friends have asked me to comment on a post by Fr. Aiden Kimel on his eclectic orthodoxy blog entitled "What is Orthodox Hell?" It is, in my opinion, an excellent article naming one of the proverbial elephants in the Orthodox living room. Namely, it has become common in the last half century or so in many Orthodox Christian circles to refer to a particular way of talking about hell as the Orthodox teaching on the matter. However, this is clearly not the case.  

The hell-is-heaven-experienced-differently explanation of hell is actually a minority opinion--if we are just looking at the numbers. The majority of significant Orthodox writers throughout history have spoken of hell in much more painfully tactile and even retributive terms. Fr. Aiden quotes two long passages from St. John Chrysostom to drive his point home. St. John's description of the torment of hell is nothing less than frightening, and taken by itself it could paint a picture of God as vindictive and cruel. But Orthodox Christians do not take it by itself.

That's an important point: any depiction of hell must be understood within a wider cultural and theological context. More specifically, I mean that if one holds the retributive justice philosophy that undergirds the substitutionary atonement soteriology of many contemporary Christians, St. John's words will indeed be interpreted as describing the retribution of God through the eternal, inescapable punishing torture of human beings.   However, such a soteriology in Orthodoxy is a (very small) minority opinion. The majority of Orthodox writers speak about salvation in very different terms.  

Since it is Pascal season, we should call to mind the Pascal troparion, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." In other places, the hymns of the Church speak of Christ "bursting the bonds of hell." Such a depiction of Christ's saving action through His death and resurrection causes us to read St. John's words in a light very different from that shed by a retributive justice metaphor. And this "Cristus Victor" way of speaking is not the only way the Fathers of the Church speak of Christ's saving work: Christ as teacher, Christ as example, Christ as exchange (bride and groom imagery is often used), Christ as sacrifice, Christ as ransom and ransoming. All of these ways of speaking about Christ's saving work are true, yet none is exactly it: for the exact nature of Christ's saving work is an ineffable mystery. 

[I am purposely avoiding the word "model," as if the Father's envisioned distinct models of salvation--rather I view these different ways of speaking as just that: different and equally acceptable metaphors to speak of a known yet ineffable spiritual reality.]

And if the means of our salvation is an ineffable reality, certainly the nature of the afterlife, whether we speak of heaven or hell, is also ineffable. Nevertheless, within the Orthodox Tradition certain language, certain metaphors are common when the Fathers speak of hell, even though some are apparently contradictory. Why might that be?  I have a theory--and it is just that, a guess.

Perhaps in St. John Chrysostom's world, a world just beginning to be christianized (and in many similar contexts throughout history), the pagan concepts of the afterlife made vivid imagery of suffering and retribution a suitable metaphor for the ineffable reality of those who in the age to come are "shut out of the bridal chamber." And perhaps, in a world of extreme material/spiritual dualism, a hell-is-heaven-experienced-differently is a more meaningful metaphor than the fire and brimstone image for the same ineffable reality.

I can hear some of my readers screaming: "But which one is true?"  

They are, in my opinion, both true and both false. They both point to an ineffable reality, a real, true reality that cannot be reduced to concepts and words.  It is a reality that can be known and experienced even in this life, but it is a reality that cannot be squeezed into any particular concept, metaphor or vocabulary of this age. It is just like St. Paul's experience of the "third heaven" where he heard words that are "unlawful" for a human being to utter. Heaven and hell are mysteries: they are known realities that in this age can only be hinted at, pointed towards or suggested in parables and metaphors, some of which may even appear contradictory. 

In an on-line conversation about Fr. Thomas Hopko's Ancient Faith Radio podcasts about the wrath of God, Fr. Aiden makes the following comment which seems to me to put excellent perspective into this whole matter.  He writes

I very much appreciate Fr Thomas’s effort to salvage the wrath of God. One of my concerns about Kalomiros’s “River of Fire” is its virtual nullification of the divine wrath, thus making it impossible for pastors to preach huge portions of the Holy Scriptures, both Old Testament and New Testaments. Clearly the divine wrath poses a difficulty for us, but it is a difficulty that is posed to us by the Word of God. Fr Thomas reminds us that we should not too quickly retreat to abstraction, but rather we need to dwell in the biblical story and allow the Scriptures to teach us the meaning of the divine love and wrath. We may end with St Isaac of Syria but perhaps we should not begin with him.

It's the last line the really speaks to this matter. St. Isaac of Syria may indeed offer the quintessential Orthodox Christian expression of the mystery of heaven and hell, but we should not rush in our minds too quickly there. It may do us good to struggle through the violent metaphors and frightening language of the Bible and many of the Church Fathers. St. Isaac spent decades in ascetic prayer to see things the way he does and to discover the metaphors that he offers. As is often the case in our spiritual life, process here may be more important than product.  

But if the process is too frightening for we weak ones, at least let us hold both images for a while, one in each hand, and feel the discomfort of trying to imagine what is unimaginable. Let us learn to love and trust in God, even when we don't understand--which, in my experience, is often the beginning of understanding.

God Is Not An Accountant Nor A Lawyer, But A Father

Sometimes inquirers and catechumens in the Holy Orthodox Church experience a lot of stress.  I certainly experienced a great deal of stress when I was coming to Holy Orthodoxy.  The stress often comes from a sincere desire to be in the Right Church.  It comes from a false notion of God that says God will only save those who get into the Right Church, and who believe the Right Things about God.  According to this false understanding, those who fail to get into the Right Church and believe the Right Things will be damned to hell forever.  Of course, there are milder versions of this false notion about God, but basically in this scenario of things, salvation (or full salvation) all boils down to getting it right.

Many Orthodox converts struggle for years to shed some version of this false understanding of salvation.  Recently I corresponded with an inquirer who spoke with the pastor of her church about her inquiry into Orthodoxy.  The pastor made the case for his particular Protestant denomination, which by itself is not particularly stress inducing.  (And I want to be clear that the Protestant pastor was not intentionally "instilling the fear of God" into the inquirer or threatening her with damnation.)  The stress comes with a false paradigm, an over-arching false understanding of who God is: an assumption that God is somehow vindictive, waiting for us to get things right, to figure it out before we die, lest He smash us, or (in milder versions) lest He relegate us to some place of shame, some lesser place.  This false paradigm, I think has less to do with any particular version of Christianity as it has to do with the North American culture, the broadly held understanding of God in much of North American culture--religious or otherwise, regardless of creed.

This is, I think, in most cases the god that most North American atheists don't believe in.  It is the notion of God that drives many who were raised in a church (almost any church, really) to leave church altogether.

Below is a bit of my correspondence with an inquirer who is experiencing stress because she is looking into Holy Orthodoxy and beginning to be critical of the church denomination where she has spent most of her life.  Have I wasted my life?  What if I'm wrong?  What if I have been wrong?  What if I don't make the right choice?  These are the sorts of worries that beset her, that beset me at the beginning of my inquire.  In my response, I offer a new paradigm, I try to help her see that Salvation is not about being right so much as it is about coming to Christ.  The God we believe in is not an accountant or a lawyer, but a Father.

The most important thing right now is for you to be at peace.  You do believe.  You do have faith.  God is not a vindictive god, sitting in heaven waiting for us to make the right choice about which Christian body has the correct interpretation of the Book of Revelation.  God is not waiting to condemn those who don't make the right choice.  No!  That is not the God of Christianity.  Be at peace.  Remember the prodigal son.  The Father went out to meet him as the son returned.  We all who are sincere Christians are returning to the Father.  Even if we are covered in the pigs' stench of false beliefs, still the Father comes out to meet us.  No Church is perfect, not even the Orthodox Church.  Our salvation is based on the work of Christ, not on our ability to get everything right.  We humbly accept Christ and his saving work for us and slowly throughout our lives we learn to repent, we learn to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we are changed "from glory to glory."  You can thank God for your good experiences in the XYZ Church because they also helped you know God better and grow in your relationship with Christ—yes, even though there are some ideas in the XYZ Church that the early Church did not accept.  Even though we are not perfect, God still loves us.  God uses everything to draw us to Himself.  Certainly, some Churches are closer than others to the original faith revealed to the Apostles and practiced by the early church; but God receives all who come to Him, even if they are mistaken on some important points.  So you can be at peace.  You are coming to God.  "He who comes to me, I will in nowise cast out," Jesus said.  You are indeed coming to Christ, you will not be cast out.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

If Anyone Thirsts...

At Mid-Pentecost--the mid-point between Pascha and Pentecost--we commemorate Jesus's teaching in the temple "at about the middle of the feast" of Tabernacles. Jesus stands in the midst of the religious leaders and teaches, and as Jesus teaches they all wonder,"Where did he get his learning since he was never taught?" Jesus then reveals that His teaching is not His own, but His Father's.  The conversation goes on for almost the whole of John chapter 7, but the two statements that most intrigue me are the following:
"If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God, or whether I speak on my own" (v.17).
"He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water" (v.38).

The first verse tells us that discernment comes by doing, or at least by wanting or "willing" to do. We cannot know that Jesus' teaching is from God, we cannot know that the teaching of the Church is from God, we cannot know if anything is from God unless we already will to do God's will. In other words, one cannot know what is true, right and good--not really know it--unless one is already committed to doing it before one knows it.  

Knowledge, however, is seldom an either/or matter--like elementary school math facts that one either knows or doesn't. But even math facts, one learns as one studies mathematics more deeply, are much more nuanced, much less "hard fact" as we are led to believe as beginners. No, knowledge is usually something that grows. Knowledge grows in such a way that what is new does not abolish what is old; it illuminates it. And once illuminated, old knowledge takes on new meaning, and the new meaning moves us out of what is familiar, out of what is comfortable, out of what I thought I was in control of.

This is what is so hard about being willing to do God's will. We want to do God's will as we think we understand it now, not as it will be revealed to us. Like the Pharisees, we are comfortable with our knowledge of the Sabbath laws (for example), so we are willing to do God's will so long as it is limited to what we already understand, what we feel we already have a certain control over. But to give God carte blanche, that's another matter. To see the miracle performed on the Sabbath and let that illumine not only my knowledge of the Sabbath, but also my knowledge of the One who heals on the Sabbath--that's too much. That's more knowledge than the Pharisees wanted. And perhaps, sometimes that's more knowledge than I want.

However, if I am ever going to grow in my knowledge of God, I must learn to let go of my comfort zone. I have to learn to trust God, to will to do His will even before I know what it is.

The next verse is a promise that I think helps us trust God. If we are thirsty (for spiritual reality and knowledge of God) and we come to Christ to drink, the spiritual water will flow from our own hearts. The spiritual water that Christ gives us is not something that comes from outside us. It flows from our hearts. It is part of us--even while it is something Christ gives.  

The human heart is a mystery. The prophet Jeremiah asks, "who can know it?" We, most of us, spend most of our lives not really knowing our own hearts. We are pushed around by our passionate desires and confused thoughts to such a degree that we don't ever really get to know ourselves. Our minds tell a story about ourselves that we call ourselves, but that is not really us. Who we really are and who we long to be is hidden in our hearts. That's why we are thirsty. We are thirsty for truth, we are thirsty for reality, we are thirsty to be what we were created to be: Children of God.  

It is this thirst that Christ quenches, but not from the outside. Knowledge of the true and the good and the beautiful does not come from outside (although guidance through example and instruction helps us find our way). True knowledge, the knowledge that quenches our thirst, comes from our heart. As we open the door of our heart to Christ, Christ opens the spring of our heart to flow with knowledge of God, knowledge of what is true and good and beautiful, and knowledge of ourselves: rivers of Living Water.  

But to open our hearts to Christ, we must first will to do His will. This is what it means to open our hearts to Christ. We don't need to fear. What God wills is what is in our hearts, in our hearts already. God's will is not something foreign, it is not imposed from above or without. God's will springs from the river of Life that Christ causes to flow from our heart. Yes, it does require a certain amount of letting go, of letting go of our false selves. Certainly, it will be somewhat different from what we are used to. And most probably it will be challenging, something we cannot do or be or become without the help of others. This is God's way, the truly human way, the way of the body of Christ, the way of mutual dependence.

When we are willing to do God's will, then the Living Water starts to flow from our hearts and we start to become ourselves, we start to become ourselves together.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mary In The Temple

Many, I chief among them, have had trouble accepting the historicity of the Church's accounts of Mary as a child in the temple--especially in the Holy of Holies. And I think we need to make clear from the beginning that regardless of the historicity of the accounts, the spiritual or symbolic meaning of the accounts is what is most important. That is, Mary being raised in the Temple of God means that in Mary is fulfilled all of the worship of the Old Covenant. Coming from the Temple of God, Mary becomes most literally the New Temple of God, the type of the Church, which is the Temple of God. Being in the Holy of Holies and fed manna by an angel means that in her is fulfilled all of the holiness of the Old Covenant, and in her is epitomized all of the acts of God to save His people and bring about the Incarnation of God.

Nevertheless, given that the spiritual meaning of the stories about Mary's childhood are most important, still we can ask the historical question: "Was it possible that Mary, a girl, could be raised in the temple and could even dwell in the Holy of Holies?" Actually, several years ago I looked into this matter from a historical point of view. What I found is not proof one way or another. What I found was that most of the reasons why I thought it was impossible for a girl to be raised in the temple are not historically solid.

My problem was that I was taking Old Testament references to how temple worship was supposed to be conducted and imagining that they reflected the temple practice at the time of Mary's youth.  That is, I imagined that worship in the temple at and before the time of Jesus was carried out according to the Laws we read in the Pentateuch. Historically, however, this was not likely the case. The first Temple, Solomon's temple, was destroyed 587 BC. In 538 BC, a new temple was begun and completed about 515 BC. This is called Zerubbabel's Temple. However, this temple was defiled and plundered in 167 BC by Antiochus the IV (beginning the Maccabean Wars). The temple was again defiled by Pompey in 63 BC. Crassus, in 54 BC, then completely plundered it. And Herod in 37 BC, as he was conquering Jerusalem, virtually destroyed it. After eighteen years of rule (20 or 19 BC), Herod caused the temple to be rebuilt. Thus, this third temple is called Herod's Temple.

Although Josephus claims that the main part of the temple was built in only a year and a half, other (and perhaps more reliable) extra-biblical sources claim Herod's Temple was not complete until as late as 60 AD. [See The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol 4, p.770 (Eerdmans, 1988) for a discussion of the sources]. However, biblically, the Jews themselves are recorded as saying to Jesus, "It took 46 years to build this temple" (John 2:20).

So what's my point? My point is that the Temple that Mary entered (about 20 to 12 BC) was just in the early years of its construction. It may not have been officially consecrated yet. The laws for temple worship as we read them in the Pentateuch may not have been functioning yet--and this is a key point: they may have never functioned in Herod's Temple or fully in any of the three temples. We know from both the biblical and extra-biblical history of Israel that many, many violations of the Mosaic Law took place (e.g. the jubilee was never carried out, and at least once the Law of Moses itself was completely lost and had to be "discovered"). Further, we know from Luke's Gospel that there were women in the temple at the time of Jesus' birth. Luke says of the Prophetess Anna, that she lived "day and night" in the temple.  

None of this proves that Mary was reared in the temple nor that she dwelt in the Holy of Holies. However, I think the history of the matter shows that it was not entirely impossible. But like I say above, the most important aspect of these childhood stories about Mary is not their historicity, but their spiritual and symbolic meaning. Nevertheless, those who do believe in the basic historicity of these stories are not completely off their historical rocker.  

Friday, May 24, 2013

Mary the Mediatrix

The following are two answers to questions about Mary the Theotokos. I wrote these to an inquirer recently.

Let me try to answer your questions about Mary. First, about Mary and Original Sin. The Roman Catholics have a doctrine (teaching) that Mary was conceived in the womb of St. Anna without Original Sin. This is a new teaching and was only made official about 150 years ago. The Orthodox do not have this teaching. The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary was conceived and born just like everyone else. However, her parents were very holy people and Mary was a very holy person who from age three was dedicated to God and reared in the Temple by the Prophetess Anna (and others). And, at least for a time, she dwelt in the Holy of Holies surviving on manna brought to her by the Archangel Gabriel. Mary became as holy and full of the Holy Spirit as was possible under the Old Covenant. She experienced the effects of sin, but the Fathers of the Church are not quite in unison on whether or not she ever actually committed any personal sins—most say she never willingly sinned. So it was this holy woman (probably about age 15) who became the Mother of God. In a sense, the whole Old Testament, all of God's covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and if there were any others, all the prophets, and all of the trials and tribulations of Israel existed to produce a race of people who could produce a woman who could bear God in her womb.

Second, why do we call Mary Mediatrix? We call Mary Mediatrix (female form of mediator) because from the human side, She was the one who wholly said yes to God. She is the one who made it possible, from the human side, for God to become man in her womb. Thus she represented the entire human race, or she was between God and the entire human race; and being the one between makes her a Mediatrix (literally, the one who goes between). Furthermore, we call her Mediatrix because as God's Mother, she intercedes for us. She has "a mother's boldness" before God in intercession.
St. Paul talks about Jesus being the only Mediator between God and man. This is true, of course. But the way Jesus, and only Jesus, mediates is not the same as the way Mary mediates. Everyone can intercede (or at least potentially everyone). And while only one person bore God physically in her womb, all Christians bear God in their hearts. Every Christian is called to be a mediator between God and our fellow  human beings, for we are all called to be like Christ. We are called to be Christ-like kings, because we participate in Christ's Kingship, even though Christ is the only King. We are called to be Christ-like priests, because we participate in Christ's Priesthood, even though Christ is the only Priest. And similarly, we are all called to be Christ-like mediators in as much as we participate in Christ's ministry of mediation, even though Christ is the only Mediator.  
I hope this helps.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What Must I Do To Be Saved?

A Protestant acquaintance of mine was able to hear Archbishop Joseph speak this past weekend. He was impressed and (perhaps half jokingly) wrote to me referring to those who heard St. Peter's first sermon: "what must I do to be saved?" He also wrote later, "what must I do to repent?" Below is my response. Perhaps others will find it interesting.

I'm glad you were able to be there. Yes, His Eminence, Archbishop Joseph, is a godly man.  
You are asking the right questions—they are really the same question. Sts. Paul and Silas said to the Philippian Jailer, "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved and your household." But what does that mean? The western, particularly Protestant, tradition has reduced "believe" to an intellectual ascent to the verity of an assertion (the Wesleyans and their children [including Pentecostals] have added a feeling component]). However the Greek concept of belief is much more along the lines of the old English meaning of faith or fealty, as in "faithfulness." To believe is to be faithful. It does not mean "believe or accept the correct propositions." Neither does it mean "feel a warming in your heart" or "know in your knower" (as my beloved Baptist foster mother used to say). Knowing, feeling and accepting are all part of it; but to believe in Jesus is to faithfully follow Jesus. That is how the Church and the Bible understands believe.  
How do we follow Jesus? We follow Jesus by following those who are following Jesus. As St. Paul put it, follow me as I follow Christ (c.f. 1Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 1 Thes. 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thes. 3:7) and "hold fast to the traditions which you were taught by us" (2 Thes. 2:15). The Way, the worship, life, and practice of the Christians, is not something reinvented each generation, it is something passed on as a deposit received: it is a tradition. See, for example,  1 Cor. 15: 3 "I delivered [paradidomi, literally, "I traditioned"] to you as of first importance what I received…" or 1 Cor. 11: 23 "I received from the Lord what I also delivered ["traditioned"] unto you…"
Because of the mess Scholastic thought made of the western Church in the late middle ages and the rampant corruption, several people sought to reform the Church. But instead of reforming the Church, the Princes used the excuse of reformation for political ends. And once the reforming movement left the Church, all kinds of extreme expressions manifested and, you might say, the baby of Tradition was thrown out with the bath water of corruption—only to be replaced by new forms of corruption.
What I and others have found so appealing about Eastern Orthodox Christianity is that it has preserved, basically intact, the Tradition as it has been received and passed down through the ages. The western experiences of Renaissance, Scholasticism, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Modernity were hardly felt in the areas of the Orthodox Christians since they were largely under the dominion of the Turks or in far-off Russia; or, in a few cases, because Orthodox leaders intentionally rejected as heretical the foundational premises of these western shifts in thought. This is not to say that Orthodox Christians are backward—many famous contemporary scholars are Orthodox Christians. Rather, it is to say that the Orthodox Church itself was not morphed and formed in the crucible of these major paradigm shifts as western Christian churches were.
When an Orthodox Christian speaks of being saved, he or she does not understand the term juridically. That is, salvation is not a matter of being reprieved before the Judge of all. Rather, to be saved is to renew the image of God in which we were created, an image that has been marred, but not destroyed, by sin. To be saved is to be filled with the Holy Spirit, manifested by the fruit of the Spirit and the Life of Christ. Salvation is a process, it is a transformation, a transfiguration—in and through time. It requires on-going repentance. Repentance is not something we do once, it is our lifestyle: We are continually putting off our broken selves and putting on our new selves, being renewed in the image of Christ (c.f. Col. 3:10).
So, to be saved, you must follow Christ; and to follow Christ, you must follow those who are following Christ: those who have received and who are passing on the tradition delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
My Friend, I hope you don't think I have been too bold writing to you so directly. I respect your faith and your relationship with Jesus Christ. I don't doubt that. It's just that in Orthodox Christianity there is a whole Church, a whole Tradition of being a Christian that has been largely lost in the West. And I and others have found Life and Peace and sanity here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What Do You Want From Life?

Considering what they have done to their lives, if people lived eternally in this life, there would be no greater hell.
Elder Paisios

Back in the mid 70s, when I was a teenager, I had a foster brother who listened to a punk rock group called The Tubes. I never liked loud music, so didn't much know about contemporary pop music. However, my foster brother made me listen to The Tube's album over and over again. Soon I began to understand the words, and the words of two songs have stayed with me.

One song is entitled, "We're White Punks on Dope".

We're white punks on dope
Mom and Dad live in Hollywood
Hang myself when I get enough rope
Can't clean up though I know I should...

It was a song of despair, about having all the stuff, yet being so bored and lonely that the only apparent escape was drug induced highs followed eventually by suicide. Although this was not my experience as a teenager, I observed it all around me. It is exactly as Elder Paisios says, "Worldly stress is the result of worldly happiness."

The other song, the one that most comes to my mind even today is entitled, "What Do You Want From Life."  The refrain is repeated several times as the song proposes increasingly real desires. In the penultimate verse, we get to perhaps the deepest, most real, desire of the lyricist:

What do you want from life
Someone to love
and somebody that you can trust
What do you want from life
To try and be happy
while you do the nasty things you must

Then the very next line says, "Well, you can't have that; but if you're an American Citizen, you are entitled to..."  which is followed by an amazingly long list of consumer goods and pop culture trifle.

What do I want from life?

I often ask myself that question. It is so easy to be captivated by stuff. My spiritual father says that the Garden of Eden is not so much about something that happened in the past as it is the story of every human heart. Adam, Eve, the Garden, the serpent and God are all in the human heart. Every day we are reaching out for the forbidden fruit, ashamed of past failures, hiding from God, repenting and walking with God in the cool of the evening. What do I want from life? The serpent whispers constantly in my ear. Stuff looks so alluring. What everyone is talking about must be what is worthwhile, right? Yesterday I took the fruit and repented of it, yet today the fruit still has a pull on me. What do I want from life?

Courage is called for. "Wide is the path and easy is the way that leads to destruction." It takes courage to say no to the Stuff. It takes courage to say no to ourselves.

Heaven and hell begin for us in time and move into eternity. We choose heaven or hell, not in a moment, but throughout our lives. We repent. We learn. We grow. We even walk a little with God in the cool of the evening--if that is what we want, if that is what we long for.

What do you want from life?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

An Arch-Surprise

Yesterday, His Eminence Archbishop Joseph, made a pastoral visit to Holy Nativity. As always, it was beautiful. It is a joy to get to spend a little time with His Eminence during his visit, for usually I only see him at seminars or conferences when he is surrounded by seventy or eighty priests and hundreds of parishioners. It is so nice to get him to myself every once in a while (well, almost to myself).  

Of course, since I don't get to serve Hierarchical Divine Liturgy very often any more, I made several small mistakes in serving. When I was deacon, I served often with His Eminence; so after a rough start, I finally became comfortable not only with the rubrics of the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy, but also with serving with Bishop Joseph. Although the Liturgy is always the same, every Bishop or Priest has idiosyncrasies, and these effect the rhythm of the service. The more you can pray the Liturgy, the more prayerful it becomes. When you don't have to think "What do I have to do next?" you can let your mind focus more on the Presence of God. However, since I became a priest, I don't serve regularly with His Eminence, so I am anxious that I will forget something--which, of course, is 80% of the reason why I mixed a few things up.

As we came to the Gospel reading, instead of asking the deacon to read the Gospel, His Eminence asked me to read it. Then the real surprise came, His Eminence told me to kneel down: He elevated me to Archpriest. It seems my sly wife and a few of the parishioners had known for months that this would happen, but no one told me.  

Our parish council Chair had commissioned a woodworker, Jerome Beley, to carve a pectoral cross. It is amazing work. I think it is yellow cedar--I will ask him.  

It is an honour to be made an archpriest. "Arch" means something like "original pattern" or "leading," but not necessarily leading in the sense of going first, but in the sense of setting the example. May God grant that I would show forth somewhat of the original pattern--Who is Jesus Christ. He is our Archpriest and Archpastor. For the Christian, the only true Arch-anything is Jesus Christ. Those whom we call Archpriest we only do so in as much as they show forth--at least in some small ways--the Archpriesthood of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

But What Does the Bible Say?

In one of his mini-talks about the history of Anglicanism, Professor Ron Dart speaks of Erasmus and the the Church Fathers.  In that talk, Professor Dart relates a bit of correspondence between St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Jerome, translator of the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible that was used by western Christianity for almost 1500 years).

In this correspondence Augustine asks Jerome how to translate a particular passage from a letter of St. Paul.  Jerome responds by citing several different Church Fathers saying this one says one thing, that one says another and a third says something else.  Augustine writes back, "But what does the Bible say?"  Jerome responds, that the very reason why we read the Holy Fathers is that the Bible is not clear.   Many passages can and have been read one way by one holy Father and differently by another holy Father.

When I was a young Protestant, I was told that the Bible is God's handbook.  It is the guide to Christian life.  Certainly this is true, but a problem lies in what we think a handbook is.  If we think that the Bible is a handbook like the Betty Crocker Cookbook, then we cannot help twisting and perverting what the Bible says to fit our expectations and then denouncing as fools or demoniacs those who twist the Bible differently to meet their expectations.  And that, pretty much, was my Protestant experience.  People read the Bible and get something from it that is different from what their neighbor is getting and end up condemning their neighbor because they read some biblical passages differently.  This is where the thousands of different Protestant denominations have come from.

But what if we understand "guidebook" differently?   What if the Bible is a guide book like the diary of pioneer might be considered a guide book for those who follow.  Such a diary would certainly be a valuable guide to those who plan to follow the pioneer, even though the diary was not written to be a guide.  It was written as a diary.  And certainly, letters written by other pioneers would also be useful to help guide those who follow.  But again, as useful as these letters might be as a guide, they were not written as a guidebook, but as letters to specific people about specific matters at a specific time.  And what if we were to add to this guidebook poetry, historical records, songs, records of dire warnings of historic events now long past and other writings--all written over a 1500 year period in three languages.  Certainly, all of this would be useful, but it would not be easy to interpret, understand and apply.

And yes, even with the Holy Spirit breathing through the pages of such a guidebook, still it would not be easy to interpret, understand, and apply.  All we have to do is look at the evidence.  Holy people who have spent most of their lives reading and studying the Bible still do not agree on everything. 

And I think that was St. Jerome's point.  

We want so much to have something firm to base our syllogisms on.  We want to remove mystery from our foundations so that we can rely on our speculations, on our logical extrapolations of first principles. We much prefer being philosophers to being theologians.  Philosophy extrapolates from firm givens, theology (in the Eastern Orthodox sense) only knows, knows from experience of God.  Very little can be proven, yet much is known.  And much is messy.

I think that may have been what bothered St. Augustine about St. Jerome's response.  St. Jerome acknowledged the messiness of theology.  St. Jerome could be at peace with three holy Fathers each interpreting a passage differently; perhaps St. Augustine couldn't.  And perhaps all of us (especially in the West) struggle at times with the messiness of Orthodox Christian theology.  We want to know the answer, as though the answer were a statement and not a Person.  We want to know the right position on some matter, a matter that perhaps even the Holy Fathers have seen differently.  We want to know which ones are right.

But Christ is the only sinless One.  Our righteousness and rightness is in Christ alone--not in being correct over against someone else.  The Orthodox Church puts a great deal of emphasis on right believing.  But the actual dogma that the Orthodox Church demands us to rightly believe is not very large--it is all found in the Creed of Nicaea.  And as important as it is to believe the right doctrines, the Orthodox Church teaches us that in the Last Judgement before God, no one will be questioned about what they did or did not believe.  In the end, what will matter is how we have loved, how we have cared for "the least of these, and how what we have believed has helped us enter the Mystery of Life in the Incarnate God.  

The prophets of the Old Testament warned God's people in the past that right belief, as important as it is, is not enough.  In fact, even those without right faith--Ninivites, Moabites, Samaritains and others--found salvation from God through repentance and trust in God.  How easily we forget the teaching of Jesus: Judgement is not based on what we believe but on whom we believe.

Perhaps that's why God has allowed Orthodox theology to be so messy: to remind us that Transfiguration comes through communion with God, love of neighbor and humility (knowledge of self), not through being right.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

With Pain and Love, Elder Paisios, and What Makes All The Difference

I'm reading With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man, volume one of the five volume "Spiritual Counsels" of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (it is a collection of his sayings recorded by his spiritual children). I'm finding myself blessed reading it. There is much, however, that doesn't directly apply to a Canadian context--his counsels on curses and the evil eye, for example do not directly apply to the contemporary Canadian context. I'm not saying that these things don't exist in contemporary Canada, but we generally understand such phenomena in a  different paradigm--not necessarily a better or more accurate paradigm, just a different paradigm.

Still, as I am reading I experience a certain joy, an imparting of Life, Insight and Truth. I felt this way reading Father Arseny: 1893-1973 Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father; Mother Gavrila: Ascetic of Love; and Saint Nektarios: The Saint of our Century by Sotos Chondropoulos. However, this is not what I experience when I read many other contemporary elders. With some I experience a kind of heaviness. I read some of these books with the sense that I should be getting life from the book: others say they have, but I don't. I push myself, but seldom get more than halfway through. It's not that I disagree with anything particular that the elder says, nor that I don't see the truth of what he or she is saying. It's just that the book does not overflow with Life for me.

Recently, I spoke with and older priest in a neighbouring parish, an archimandrite (celibate priest), about this. He said that this is exactly the reason why we need to be guided in what we read. There are all sorts of Orthodox literature out there--especially on the internet. And those on the margins seem to shout the loudest. And even the material of unquestioned quality may be written for an audience very different from the typical western-educated Canadian. Literature written to speak to the spiritual needs of peasants in the Balkans a hundred ago, or written for highly educated monks in the fifteenth century may be exactly the wrong literature to bring Life to a Protestant convert mom struggling to raise three children in suburban Vancouver. And it may also be that the book or article is just not very full of Grace. There may be nothing particularly wrong with it, with the facts or the statements. It just doesn't overflow with Life.

Even as a priest sometimes I struggle, wondering if it's "just me," or if there is something not quite right with the material I am reading or it's fit for my life. As I was discussing this with my archimandrite friend, I mentioned that I was reading With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man, and what a feeling of Life I am getting from the book. My friend told me that he had not read the book, but he had known Elder Paisios himself.

My friend had visited Elder Paisios twice on Mount Athos about thirty years ago. The second time he waited several hours outside his cell (the elder had gone for a walk) for Elder Paisios to return so that he could hear his confession. As soon as my friend began speaking about Elder Paisios, his face lit up--really lit up. He said that you can always tell a holy elder by the way he deals with confession: "Does he make you heavy or make a way for you to go forward? " 

"The thing about Elder Paisios," my friend said, "was that he lived it. He did not write about how to live or go about telling others how to live, he just lived the life with God himself. That makes all of the difference."  

Yes, that does make all of the difference.  

Friday, May 10, 2013

Receiving the Bishop

The bishop will be visiting Holy Nativity next weekend. This is a huge event in the life of our community. In an iconic way, it is Christ, the Head of our community, coming to be with us. How we receive the bishop is an icon of our receiving Christ. And yet, the bishop is but a man--a good man, a holy man--but only a man.

Throughout scripture and Christian history, God has chosen to use the material realities of our existence to manifest the spiritual realities. Bread, wine, oil and water, these bring the presence of God to us. But not only inert objects, but also certain people are chosen and set apart to serve as icons within the community of the Church, to stand as priests offering to God the gifts of the people (and through the gifts the people themselves) and bringing to the people the Gifts of God (and through them God Himself). However, there is nothing automatic about our participation in or even awareness of this Spirit bearing matter.

How we prepare ourselves spiritually makes a huge difference in how we experience the material sacraments, icons and symbols. As we nurture the quiet, inner life with God, the impact and meaning of the outer, sacramental life takes on more significance to us. Preparing to meet the bishop is similar to preparing to venerate an icon. Ideally, when we venerate an icon, we stand before it a moment in prayer. We stand with attention: outwardly standing respectfully and inwardly attending to God in prayer. When we greet the bishop we come to him respectfully asking his blessing ("master bless") and kissing his hand. Inwardly, we are looking to Christ, in our minds bowing before Christ and receiving His blessing in the bishop's blessing.

For Orthodox Christians, all of the material world and every human relationship has the potential of being an encounter with God. What each encounter is to us, however, depends a great deal on how our hearts and minds are spiritually prepared. We prepare spiritually through repentance (changing our minds) which is both facilitated and manifested through ascetic effort. Ascetic effort is the name given to the disciplines Jesus exhorts us to in the Sermon On The Mountain: prayer, fasting, alms giving and forgiveness--all done in secret. "In secret" has at least two meanings. Outwardly, in secret refers to ascetic effort not done to be seen by others. However, in secret also refers to the hidden place of our heart. "Go into your room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father in secret." This has been interpreted by the Church Fathers to refer to the inner room of our heart.

When fasting, prayer, alms giving and forgiveness are matters of the heart, repentance is both brought about and manifest. The repentance of changing our minds, or renewing our minds to use St. Paul's phrase, helps change the way we see and encounter the world. Eventually, we are told by the saints and in the scripture, all physical reality is the Word of God. Every human being is Christ coming to us. However, in the beginning we learn to encounter the world as Christians in the "hospital" that God has provided: the Church. The sacraments, icons and symbols of the Church teach us how to encounter physical reality as Spirit bearing and how to relate to other human beings. We need the Church, this school of spiritual sight, because seeing with spiritual insight requires that we learn discernment.

Discernment is the ability to separate what is good, true and eternal from what is broken, false and passing away. And in the world in which we live, the good, true and eternal is bound up with what is broken, false and passing away: "We have this treasure in earthen vessels." God has given us the Church as a school, as a hospital, as a kind of spiritual therapy centre where we are told in advance what the spiritual meanings of things are, told in words, signs, rituals and traditions; but at the same time we must encounter these spiritual realities in their fully material form. The bread and wine are Christ--even if the bread needs more salt and the wine is too sweet. Water is the tomb of Christ and we enter this water to die with Christ and rise with Him in a new life--even if the water is too cold. And the bishop is Christ in the community; his blessing is Christ's blessing; his words are Christ's words, even if the bishop as a man makes mistakes, forgets your name or is distracted by pain or cares or any of the hundreds of other possible distractions that human beings must endure. What is whole is hidden in what is broken.

Discernment allows us to see what is whole. And not only see it, but when we discern what is good and true and eternal, we experience the good and true and eternal despite whatever failings and weakness may be bearing it. We can experience Christ coming to us as a man by discerning what is good, true and eternal in all of the words, rites and traditions that surround our bishop's visit to us. And as we learn to discern Christ in the coming of the bishop, we become more able to discern Christ in every person.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Is Religion the Root of War?

It is an interesting irony that people who generally have very little regard for power of any religion can have an extremely high regard for a religion's power to cause people to go to war.

It seems to me that people use all sorts of reasons to justify war. Nowadays, religion is actually not a very common reason. People nowadays mostly justify wars for reasons of National Security, or for freedom, or to topple a dictator. Really, religion is only seldom mentioned any more. However, several hundred years ago in Europe, much like in the Middle East today, religion was pervasive. People not only went to war for religious reasons, they milked the cow for religious reasons, they raised their children for religious reasons, they cleaned the house for religious reasons, everything they did was for religious reasons: religion pervaded their whole life.  

So today when we hear Middle Easterners and others who have an all-prevading religious culture talk about holy war, they are not speaking of anything particularly holy--at least not any more or less holy than a holy bath or a holy meal or a holy trip. "Holy" as an adjective can be and often is attached to just about anything in life when one lives in a culture pervaded by religion.  

I think those who blame war on religion are really just looking for a soft target, a scape goat (which, again ironically, is a religious concept). Life is complicated. In my lifetime I have heard compelling arguments claiming that the primary cause of war is class struggle, poverty, race inequality, communist ideology, and totalitarian governments. Is there a box for "any of the above"?  

St. James says that wars come from our desires, that it is the lusting for pleasures and the lack of self control that lead to war.  

The world is full of unfairness and inequalities. And to make matters worse, every human being has an insatiable desire for more of something: more money, more authority, more freedom, more whatever. To be clear, I'm all for doing what can be done in love to remove inequalities; but St. Paul teaches us that contentment is not a matter of what we have or don't have. Contentment is a matter of heart, and inequalities are only overcome through humility and love, not through taking and hating. No one likes this message though, the message of the Cross. It's just foolishness to the world.

Jesus said that until the end of the world there would be wars and talk of wars. After all, it is so much easier to take from and hate the other, than to humble myself and love. And so wars are inevitable. God calls us to humility and love despite inequalities. But humility and love do not mean silence. It is loving to tell the truth. We must speak the truth in love. But to reach out our hand and take--like Adam and Eve in the Garden--is only to perpetuate the suffering: To replace the socialist oppressor with a republican oppressor, to replace a communist inequality with a capitalist inequality, or even to replace a repressive Muslim regime with a repressive Christian regime--and to kill and destroy the lives of millions in the process. As an African proverb says, "When the elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers."

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Resurrection is Never Separated From the Cross

Easter visits us now while our concerns increase, our fears grow greater, destruction expands, evil intensifies and killing is everywhere and at all times. How can we celebrate the resurrection while our country is doomed, the number of hungry and displaced people is increasing? How can we live the resurrection when the cross is always present?

This is the mystery of Christ: “Through the cross joy came to the whole world.” There, where the Cross is, true resurrection is found too. Otherwise Pascha would only be mere poetry and chanting. The world does not like the cross. It seeks to abolish it, while it is surrounded by crosses on all sides. True believers would never have these crosses out of sight; they face them with the spirit of resurrection...

2013 Paschal Letter of His Beatitude, John X Patriarch of Antioch

In liturgical time, it is Pascha, it is Bright Week and "All is filled with Joy: heaven and earth and the deepest parts of the sea."  Yet the cross is not far away.  In the time of our everyday lives, crosses are all around us.  We ourselves, even as we liturgically celebrate Resurrection, may be suffering in a Garden of Gethsemane or even on a cross.  Or if not ourselves, we may be standing--like the Myrrh Bearing women and Beloved John--at the foot of the cross of another.  With them, we may be shedding tears and asking God, Why?  

This is the mystery of Christ, our Patriarch tells us.  The mystery of Christ is that through the Cross, joy came to the whole world....Otherwise Pascha would be mere poetry and chanting.  And this is, perhaps, why we have liturgical time.  We celebrate liturgically all of the events and aspects of our salvation because--were it merely up to our own experience in time--we might never remember Pascha and fall into despair; or we might in good times forget the cross, forgetting how God has loved us and how we ought to love our neighbor.  

There are times when I am tempted to anger.  I am tempted to be angry at God that the cross is necessary, that the Mystery of Resurrection is hidden in the cross.  But this happens less and less these days.  How can I be angry at God for what I myself have caused, for what I continue to promote through selfishness, willful ignorance and pride?  No, the cross and death, confusion and stupidity, pride and ignorance, all of these are my doing--my doing and the doing of all of humanity.  

But we have not been left alone.  God has come to us.  God has made a way out for us, a way that transforms what was merely death.  What was once merely the unavoidable end is now the doorway to a new and eternal life.  And the Good News doesn't stop there.  We don't have to wait until we die.  We don't have to wait until the next life to begin living the new eternal life.  Even as we die, yet we live!

This is a large part of what the liturgy of the Church is about.  Through the liturgical cycle of the year, through the prayers and the disciplines, through the incense and icons and candles and services in the middle of the night: through all of these the Church trains us to attend.  The Church helps us know and experience the new eternal life that is already ours even as we live and love and struggle in these bodies of death.  

"Christ is Risen" is no mere poetic wish.  "Christ is Risen" is the experience of the Church.  Yes, it is a mystical and paradoxical experience, but it is an experience that grows and removes from death its sting and from the grave its victory.

Thus the Christian mourns death--but not as one without hope.  Thus we die daily, but as often as we fall we rise again.  Thus we affirm what we know, even as we weep, even as we doubt, even as we wonder why: Christ is Risen.  Truly He is Risen!

Friday, May 03, 2013

Good Friday and Barbecue?

It's Good Friday.  The services don't begin until 3:00.  A holy person would probably spend the first part of the day in stillness.  I spend it cleaning my barbecue.  Yes, it is my annual pre-Pascha barbecue scrub and meditation.  

Beginners at prayer can seldom spend more than a little while at a time just sitting or standing in prayer.  We get fidgety.  When there is a lot of time that should be spent in quiet prayer, there is nothing so useful as a really messy job to keep people away, to keep my hands busy and to keep my mind from wandering (too much).  True, I don't say many prayers, per se, while I scrape and scrub; but it is a rather peaceful and very messy hour or two.  

Every year at the Pascha party, I get to run the barbecue.  Others offer to do it for me, but I fend them off.  I actually look forward to it every year.  We do the party potluck style, so I never know what kind of meat, fish, fowl or veggie to expect.  It's a fun challenge for me to get everything on and off and cooked to order.  I have to be mindful of what kind of heat and how much time each kind of food requires.  I get to chat with everyone, but I don't get drawn into any deep conversations: "Oops! Got a flare up to deal with!  Quick, go get me a cup of water!" 

And I love that we get lots of visitors, friends of friends, reluctant family members and neighbours.  It's a great mix.  This year my atheist French teacher is coming.  Even an atheist can enjoy the Light of Pascha.  She's a wonderful person (my atheist French teacher).  She's not the angry kind of atheist.  If I had to guess, I'd say she is the disappointed kind.  She doesn't mind "religious" people (though she does jab a little now and then for fun--just to see if we will squirm); she just hasn't herself found any reality in religion, only bad experiences with religious people.  I hope she has a great time and the Light of Pascha gently touches her heart.

Well I'd better get cleaned up and ready.  Good Friday services are always a powerful mix of sadness and expectation.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

On Giving Our Lives To God

What does it mean to give our weaknesses to God? 

On a certain level, I don't know if I can explain what I mean by giving our weakness to God. I think it is something that one has to experience. The words point to something in one's relationship with God that others might explain differently. Nonetheless, let me try.

Since I was a teenager, I have wanted to be God's. I have wanted to follow God wholeheartedly. (If He is not Lord of all, He is not Lord at all--I used to say.) Over the years, my understanding of what it means to follow God has changed, but a metaphor that has been perennially useful for me has been to give my life to God. It seems that at some important level there is an act of volition, an act of choosing, an act of offering. But even my understanding of what this means has become quite nuanced over the past fifteen or twenty years. Still I find the concept of giving my life to God a useful one. It helps me pray. It helps me find peace not only with God, but also with myself and the circumstances of my life (and I'm pretty sure all three are closely connected, for they meet in my heart).

For the sake of discussion, let me talk about three kinds of giving to God. These three roughly follow the line of my spiritual development. I say roughly because like the Ladder of Virtues or any other metaphor for growth, you never really leave one level for the next, but your understanding and experience of each level grows to include other levels.

When I was young, I understood giving to God in terms of "giving God your best." As an athlete, I imagined myself as an Olympian for Jesus--this was in the late 70s and the Jesus People movement was rampant. My goal was to use my talents for the Kingdom. I wanted to love God with all my strength (literally, my strengths). Weakness was to be strengthened, so that I would be more than a conquerer in Christ Jesus (c.f. Heb. 12:12 and Rom. 8:37).  

Such a view of giving one's life to God certainly keeps one busy, but inner quiet is hard to find. Prayer for me was a matter of leveraging "God's Will" as I thought I understood it against the circumstances of my life. There were, certainly, moments of Grace--sometimes amazing--but overall there was not much difference between giving my all for the team and giving my all to God. And then there were the huge personal failures of various kinds. Moral failures, failures of physical or mental weakness, failures of courage, and the general inability to reign in selfishness. And in addition my personal failures (as I saw them at the time) there was the unavoidable reality of circumstance. I began to realize (thank God) that to be faithful to God in any specific circumstance meant that I would also in one way or another end up being unfaithful.  

Let me explain. To marry a wife and be a faithful husband limits the level of faithfulness one can show to the homeless, for example. To be a faithful parent limits the extent to which one can be faithful to friends. Every specific circumstance of life calls for a faithfulness to God that limits one's ability to fulfill any kind of idealized faithfulness to God. This realization led me to a second kind of giving my life to God. That is, I came to give the circumstances of my life to God; or to put it differently, I came to accept that the circumstances of my life were from God's hand. I came to accept that I had to follow God and be faithful to God in the specific circumstances of my life, not in some other circumstance that I thought I should be in, that I imagined was "really" God's will for my life. This is what I mean by giving my circumstances to God. 

Giving my circumstances to God meant trusting that no matter how I got into the fix I was in, it was now God's will for me to be faithful to Him (and to the people around me) in that circumstance. I often struggled with God in prayer. I felt such a failure. So many of the strengths I had imagined that I would or should give to God were now seemingly impossible to give. It was impossible for me, for example, to spend much time in spiritual reading when to do so meant I had to keep telling my children to be quiet. Somehow, I knew it was right to love the people who were actually in my life even if that meant failing in my idealized personal disciplines, failing in my idealized way of serving God with my strengths. This failure caused inner pain; and this pain I learned to offer to God.  Literally, I said to God something like this: "You see how sad I am about this, but I don't know what else to do." The pain itself became a kind of prayer. This also is what I mean be giving my circumstances to God.

But then there were the failures, moral and otherwise. I knew that a big part of the reason why the circumstances of my life were as they were was because I had screwed up: I had not given my best to God (though at times I had so meant to), I had strayed from my first love, my courage or faith or love had failed. I didn't know what to do with these failures. Yes, I knew that God forgave me. But still, my weaknesses and the failures (what seemed to me to be failures) that came from my weaknesses overwhelmed me. I was stuck. I was broken. I had nothing to offer God, nothing that was not broken, no strength that was not tied to sin and weakness. However somewhere along the line, I think it was something my spiritual father said to me, I came to realize that my deep brokenness was no surprise to God.  

When I first heard of offering my weaknesses to God, I had no idea what it meant--well, actually, I thought I knew exactly what it meant and filed it away in my mind. I didn't know myself very well. But as I went through a season of my life that can, I think, best be described as a time of drowning in the awareness of my weaknesses, out of despair I could only pray, "You see who and what I am. Have mercy!" During that time (and now and again since) instead of saying the Jesus Prayer, I repeated the words of the Psalm, "Let none who wait on Thee be ashamed because of me" (Psalm 69:6). It was enough that I had screwed up my own life and relationship with God. I didn't want to mess up anyone else's. The feeling of weakness and failure was freezing me. I didn't want to get out of bed in the morning.

But gradually, a Light began to dawn. If my weaknesses are no surprise to God, then in God's Providence, even these are used by God. The words of St. Paul about glorying in weakness began to make sense to me. I began to become aware of the profound humility of God. "We have this treasure in earthen vessels" (2 Cor. 4:7). This is exactly God's plan: to take a murder and persecutor like Saul and make him St. Paul. It is exactly God's plan to take a loose woman like the Samaritan woman at the well and turn her into St. Photini. God came to save sinners, not the righteous. It is our brokenness that enables us to carry the Treasure without it destroying us. Only as we are aware of and grieve our deep brokenness can "the exceeding glory be of God and not of man."

And so this has become a third way for me to understand giving my life to God. I give to God my weakness, my failures, my brokenness. When I feel profoundly my limitations and my failures to live up to even my own standards (much less anyone else's), when I see how poorly I do what others expect me to do well and how unmotivated I am most of the time, and when I'm flooded with the awareness of my spiritual sicknesses and the mess I have made out of my life: then I say to God the little prayer He seems to have given me: God I am a mess, but I am your mess.

You can't give part of your life to God. He is Lord of all, or not Lord at all. He is Lord of the mess, for God is Lord of me. I give him everything--the whole meal deal. The seemingly good parts, the obviously rotten parts. And He takes me. That is the Love of God. He takes all of me, even the yucky parts. God sees what I don't see. He sees through the yucky to something real, a spark, a sliver of His Image in me. But it's a package deal. He knows that, I'm the one who has had a hard time accepting it.

The Day will come when sin is washed away. The Day will come when everything will be made right. For now however, God has chosen to put His Spirit in broken people like us. Offering our weakness to God means accepting this.