Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Being Married to a Eunuch

I’m working on a project for a friend who is developing Sunday school curriculum. The project has required that I reread and paraphrase a lot of the Old Testament for reading out loud to children. It has been a good project for me, even if often I have had to make myself do it. It is not very intellectually stimulating.

However, reading through the life of Joseph this morning I saw something that arrested my attention. The translation of the Old Testament that I am relying on as my primary text is the English translation of the Septuagint found in the Orthodox Study Bible. In this text, Genesis 39: 1 tells us the following information about Potiphar, Joseph’s first master in Egypt: he was a eunuch and captain of the guard. A eunuch?  

As is my wont, whenever I encounter something in the Bible that startles me, I immediately checked the original languages. Yep, both in the Hebrew Masoretic text and in the Greek Septuagint text Genesis 39:1 says Potiphar was a eunuch. But Potiphar had a wife, a wife who tried to seduce Joseph.

In the Orthodox liturgical texts, Potiphar’s wife gets a very rough treatment. She is referred to as a new Eve found by the serpent to seduce Joseph--who is a type of Christ, for no sin is ever recorded concerning him. And while she did become a tool of the evil one to try to seduce Joseph into sin, I feel a little sorry for her.

I had always assumed that Potiphar’s wife was somehow just a wanton woman not satisfied with her husband; but realizing that her husband was a eunuch puts a new dimension on what was going on. It wasn’t that she wasn’t satisfied with her husband so much as it was her husband who couldn’t satisfy her, ever.

I find in myself a tendency to seek fault, to want to blame someone, to want to be able to show clearly who’s at fault, who erred, who made the mistake. But life is really much more messy than that. Certainly as Christians we can say Potiphar’s wife should not be seducing servants, regardless of her marital difficulties. Were she an Orthodox Christian, I would encourage her to look to God for help, to accept the cross she had been given. But she wasn’t an Orthodox Christian. She was an lonely, frustrated yet powerful Egyptian woman several thousand years before Christ. She lived in a culture in which there was no shame in seducing servants--in many such cultures, sex with slaves didn’t count.

Joseph did the right thing in fleeing from temptation. Today, in regard to sexual morality, we live in a culture that is more and more like the pre-Christian world Joseph experienced in Egypt: you are allowed to do what ever you lust to do, whatever you can imagine is acceptable, so long as it is with consenting adult partners. And so we Christians, like Joseph as a slave in Egypt, are tempted to give in to our carnal lusts just because it’s not a big deal culturally, everyone is doing it. Just like Joseph we must flee temptation--even if it means creating misunderstanding and angering those who don’t understand our Christ-like calling.

However, even as we flee the world, we must be careful not to judge the world. The serpent uses hurt and broken people to tempt us, people who don’t realize what they are doing. Aren’t these Jesus’ exact words from the cross: “Forgive them Father, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Like Jesus, we are crucified; but our crosses are often of the self-inflicted kind. We linger in passions until it feels like torment as we try to flee them.  

But let’s not blame the world or those in the world. Let’s blame ourselves and pray that God have mercy on us and on all His broken creatures.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Knowing God's Will

Recently, someone asked me about praying according to God's will. This person understood that it is appropriate to pray, "Lord have mercy," when you don't know what God's will is. But what if you think you do know what God's will is, or this person asks, "Can you ever know what God's will is in a specific situation?" The specific example of praying for someone dying of cancer was given.

Questions like these do not have easy answers. Questions like these reach to the core of who we are as human beings, who God is (as far as we can know Him) and what our relationship with God is. These are the kind of questions one spends a whole lifetime pondering because as our knowledge of God and ourselves increases so does our perception of  the depth and breadth these questions touch on.

Nevertheless, rushing in where Angels fear to tread, I tried to provide an initial response to these questions. Below is what I wrote.

It is a yes and no sort of thing. Discovering the will of God is something that we spend our life doing and is seldom known in advance, and when it is known in advance, it is with a large amount of uncertainty (that is, you only realize that you knew it after the fact--and even then we don't know anything that we think we know as we ought to know it [cf 1 Cor. 8:1-2]). The best we can do is say something seems to be God's will. The problem is that we tend to think that something (some choice or circumstance of life) either is or isn't God's will. But I think God's will has to do much, much more with issues of character and spiritual growth than it has to do with whether A or B happens.  

Everyone dies. Much more important than when one dies (this year by cancer or a few years from now by a heart attack or car accident or thirty years from now with Alzheimer's) is one's state before God and with his or her fellow human beings when he or she dies. And this is something only God knows. We pray that God would have mercy. We pray for what we want to happen, too; but at the same time we know that we do not know what is best. We know that our own fears, doubts, cultural prejudices, and general selfishness and ignorance all play into what we want to happen--and even (maybe especially) into what we think God's will is.

Miraculous healing is a sign. It is a sign to strengthen the faith of the one healed and those nearby. But still, everyone miraculously healed still has to get sick and die again (or die one way or another). St. John Chrysostom said that when God heals someone (and this is not uncommon in the Orthodox Church), God removes one cross to give them a heavier cross. Suffering—of any kind--is part of our sharing in the sufferings of Christ (and thus sharing in His Resurrection), if we offer our suffering to God in faith.  

We are so blind and confused. We want certainty. We want to know whether A or B is God's will. But we are dealing with God here, not our limited perception of reality that reduces reality to concepts and categories that are easy for us to understand. God's will may have nothing (or very little) to do with A or B, but probably has everything to do with how you trust in God and grow into the likeness of Christ and love our sick friends regardless of whether A or B or C or D happens. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Delusion Of Balance

A small affliction born for God’s sake is better before God than a great work performed without tribulation.
St. Isaac the Syrian

Parishioners often ask me how they can find balance in their life.  I often don’t know what to say because the very notion of balance itself, in the actual living of the life in Christ, seems to me to be too self-directed to be very useful.  Balance assumes that ends can be held in tension, that burdens and cares can be shifted by some kind of intentional, rational manipulation so that the sail boat of our life does not capsize.  Balance is a kind of tyrant, a responsibility; it implies that one should be able to “hold everything together.”  Balance sees life as a kind of beam, a linear reality or set of linear realities that must be continually adjusted, tweaked and managed.  Balance never lets you give yourself completely to anything because it assumes a zero-sum reality: to give yourself more to one thing is to give yourself less to another.  It assumes that stasis in life is both good and possible.

When we think about how to live the life in Christ, balance is not a very useful image (and it is not at all a biblical image).  

How then should we think about our life in Christ?  One very biblical image and one I find useful is the way: walking the path of life.  Paths are not static.  They change, they turn, and they go somewhere.  Life is full of seasons, seasons are full of days, days are full of moments.  Each moment presents unique opportunities for communion and love, and unique temptations for selfishness; each day comes with its own set of resources and obligations (physical, psychological and circumstantial); and each season of life has its own limitations and opportunities.  We cannot manage life, we can only live it.  

If we want to give ourselves to prayer, for example, what that looks like on any given day, at any given moment, will differ.  We cannot balance our life as though we knew in advance what any given moment or day would hold and so that each experience of prayer is the same.  We can only live and offer our life to God.  We pray in whatever ways are possible given the limitations, opportunities and resources of that particular season and day and moment of our life.  

Consider this: we hear nothing of the life of Christ between the ages of twelve and thirty--a silence that shouts to us of hiddenness and prayer.  But when Jesus begins his public messianic ministry, He prays in the mountains, slips away at night, sleeps in the back of boats, and is continually (seemingly) interrupted by his disciples and the crowds.  Jesus doesn’t manage his life as Messiah, He lives it.  He drinks the cup His Father has given Him.  

Similarly, we must drink the cup the Father has given us.  

Some may say, “But Father Michael, I have made such a mess of my life.  I’m sure my life is very different now from what God would have wanted.  How can I say I am drinking the cup of the Father when I have made bad choices and I have made mistakes and done foolish things that have come to shape and limit my life as it is now?”  My answer is this: God is much bigger than you think.

Here is an image that I have found helpful.  Our life is like a line on a piece of paper.  Each sin and mistake we make in life bends and twists the line somewhat: sometimes curving it to the left, sometimes to the right.  We imagine that God’s will is a straight line.  We think in terms of lines, as though God were a line and God’s will could only be found on that ideal straight line.  But God is not a line on the paper, God is the paper.  God’s will encounters the squiggly line of our life no matter where on the paper we find ourselves.  A murderer in prison, a holy monk on a mountain, a mother with young children, a business person trying to make payroll: right now, you can drink the cup the Father is giving you.  You can offer your whole life to God.  You can pray and love in whatever ways are possible for you now, where you are.   

The ideal does not exist, not in this life.  There are only our lives, lives that are shaped outwardly by circumstances mostly out of our control, but shaped inwardly by the God who is everywhere present and filling all things.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Salt In Soup

I am often asked by devout parishioners why it is that many of their loved ones have so little interest in matters of faith. The most correct answer is, of course, I don't know; but a possible explanation has to do with the nature of salt.

Jesus says in Matthew 5 that his disciples are the salt of the earth. Then Jesus asks a question: if salt loses its saltiness, how will it be made salty? [the 'again' in many English translations is not in any Greek manuscripts]. Most English translations assume that the 'it' in the second clause is referring to the unsalty salt. This makes sense in English because 'it' appears in both clauses. In Greek, Jesus' question reads more like this: If the salt becomes insipid (literally, foolish), how will it be salted? Reading the sentence this way, the possibility becomes clear that Jesus may be speaking of the earth--how will the earth be salted?--rather than how will the insipid salt be salted (again), although that too is a possible reading.

However, since Jesus' salt metaphor is immediately followed by a light metaphor that focuses on the effect of the light on others (the light is seen, it enlightens), I think it is safe to say that in the salt metaphor, Jesus was focusing on the effect the salt has on others, on the earth: "you are the salt of the earth."

In my previous post, I wrote that I used to think that to be elect was synonymous with to be saved. I used to see salvation as an individual matter. You were either in or out, saved or damned, missionary or mission field. However, I have come to see that salvation is much more nuanced. It is more like a body (to use one of St. Paul's favourite images). Some parts are strong, some are weak; some parts are public, some are hidden; but no part is unnecessary, and what any part does affects the whole.  

To go back to the image of salt, perhaps what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5 is that the earth is like a pot of soup. Jesus says to his disciples that they are like salt to that soup; but, He asks, if salt loses its saltiness (becomes insipid or foolish), how will the soup (the earth) be salted?

Salt is very salty. It takes very little salt to bring out the best flavours in a pot of soup. Perhaps Jesus' point here has to do with the whole and not just the part. Perhaps His point is not that the salt has to stay salty for its own sake, for its own salvation. Perhaps what Jesus is saying is that His disciples, like salt, exist not for their own sake, but to bring out the flavour of the soup of the earth, to shine in the darkness.

Just about every devout person I know has loved ones who don't seem to get religion, who don't seem to feel or see the importance of spiritual things. Perhaps that is the way it is supposed to be. Perhaps those of us who are devout and serious about spiritual things need merely to be the salt in the soup and stop worrying that the carrots are not as salty as we are. They will become salty enough just by marinating with us in the soup of life. A little salt is all it takes to bring out their flavour, for them to be their best selves, who God made them to be. Maybe if we salty ones are just ourselves, God will see to it that the others get just the right amount of saltiness that they need.

Of course, just being our salty selves is not so easy. Jesus outlines in the Beatitudes that precede the salt metaphor that misunderstanding, false accusation, mourning, hunger, thirst, poverty, and persecution are indeed the evidence, the blessing, that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, being salt in a world of carrots, potatoes and beets.  

Thinking about things this way gives me peace and purpose. My spiritual life is not for me alone. I am salt in the soup. My prayers, my sufferings, my tears, my struggles--these are not for my individual salvation. These are the salt of the soup. These are for the salvation of the world, for the carrots, potatoes and beets, for my friends and enemies, my loved ones and my not-so-loved ones.  

I am not a universalist, at least not in the sense that I think God is bound by some logical, legal or moral imperative to save everyone, nor do I think that any human being ever loses freedom so that he or she is forced to be saved. However, I do think that atomized concepts of salvation, as if God were picking red buttons from blue buttons, are even further off the mark.  

I don't think there is a line one must cross in this life in order to be saved. Salt permeates the whole soup--even if there may be some small bits that refuse to soften and absorb the brine (perhaps that's what the image of heat in the afterlife is all about--softening up the hard bits). In as much as some of us seem to be salt and light and in as much as we manifest the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives, our loved ones are being saved.  They are soaking in the same soup we are, in the same world. Salvation may not be immediately manifest. Who knows but God how long the soup needs to simmer? Who knows but God what will soften the tough bits (both in ourselves and in our neighbours)?  

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

On Being The Elect

Many are called, but few are chosen.

Who are the elect? Throughout the Bible the term "the elect" is used to refer to "God's chosen people," and I had always assumed, influenced by culture and my Protestant background, that the elect were synonymous with the saved. However I read an article lately that has challenged this unexamined assumption.

The article was written by a Russian Orthodox priest, R. P, Alexander Turincev, in France in 1966. The article is now being translated into English, and I have been privileged to see a pre-publication version of the translation. I imagine that I will be speaking much more about this article once it is published, but for right now I would like to consider with you just one idea, an idea Turincev mentions in passing.  

Turincev says that the elect are not synonymous with the saved, but that the elect are those who are called to be the light and salt in the world. And just as salt saves (preserves) meat (the body), so the elect work with and by the Grace of the Holy Spirit to save the whole world.

Such a thought had never occurred to me before.  ut as I think about it, Turincev's interpretation makes much more sense than what I had thought before. Salt preserves something else. Light illuminates something else. Israel, the Old Testament type of the Church (or even the Church of the Old Testament), was called God's elect so as to be a light to the gentiles. "Through you," God says to Abraham, "all the the nations of the earth will be blessed."

That such a thing as God's elect, or chosen, exists, does not necessarily mean that the non-elect (if we could even identify who those are) are damned. It seems more likely to me that Turincev is right, that like Israel of old, election has to do with our calling to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit to save the whole, to transfigure the universe, to be salt and light in the world.