Saturday, June 20, 2009

Moving forward

This next week, I will be relocating to Emmaus, Pennsylvania, to take up the pastorate at St. Paul Orthodox Church. As such, I'm also going to be moving my weblogging to another site, one designed for use from our new home. If you're so inclined, redirect your bookmarks to Roads From Emmaus.

(As a side note, I also encourage you to take a look at a new project I'm part of:

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Seed

Today is the feast day of St. Justin Martyr, also known by "Justin the Philosopher." Since I first encountered this man's legacy, handed down to us over more than 1,800 years, I have been fascinated by him. (I even did a brief podcast meditating on some of his thoughts back in 2007.) He is of course fascinating for having run the gamut of pagan philosophy and then finding what he called the "true philosophy," the life in Christ.

His central insight for us echoes Philippians 4:8, that we should always be meditating on whatever is good, true and beautiful. He wrote that he could see these things everywhere, in every philosophy, every religion, every person. He called what he saw the spermatikos logos, the Logos (Word) of God in seed form. Everywhere we look, there is Christ.

This is, I believe, a critical truth to keep in mind especially when engaging in evangelism. We seek not to change someone's mind or recruit them for our club, but rather to show them that they have been made according to Christ—for, if we are all made according to the image of God, and if Christ is the image of the invisible God, then He is our template. And if each of us is made according to Him, then we have a profound and driving need and often an unexpressed desire for Him. The seed needs only to be watered.

About a year ago, I scribbled out a quick poem as I was thinking about this fascinating time when St. Justin still walked this earth, when paganism was not so much being "defeated" by "Christianity" but rather fulfilled by Christ. I promptly filed it away somewhere and have forgotten about it until now. So, here's a small bit of what I mean. Forgive its poetic lackings.

The Seed

Within these wizards' staves lies some dark power
that wills our eyes to deeply, deeply look
and see there some primordial flashing flint
that even in these pagan rites there shines
the gleam of Light of Light, of God of God,
the Logos, ancient of all kings on earth
or in the sky above, that in this ground
the Seed lies firmly rooted, waiting now.

Can it be true that warlocks' cants and spells
and witchery could lead us to the Son?
How could this blackness, thick with demon night
allow some light to glimmer forth with power?
How can the prostitutes of Artemis
seduce us to a chaste and perfect fire?
Can Dionysios ferment a drink
to wash away our sins and give us life?

Let me say yes, that He Who came to us
did not arrive with fire and fury-might,
destruction bent and condemnation's name
upon His brow, to wipe this world away.
No, I shall call His name Redeemer-God,
that He Who plants the Seed before all time
can water it and tend His garden great,
for even in our deviance, He's there.

Still further, all these evil rites of man
are naught but dry attempts at worshiping
the one true God, Beginning and the End,
Who so fills all throughout His universe
that there is left not one excuse for us,
that we must see Him everywhere revealed:
His face in life, in death, in anguished birth,
in ancient prophecy and modern words.

And so Redeemer, far from finding us
in deprivation total, sees the Seed
within each man, within each culture's life
and with the water purifies,
baptizing everything throughout the world,
that cleansed of incompleteness and disease
our deaths can be transfigured into trees
that stretch to Heaven, filled with holy fruit.

So if that power is dark, it's not from taint
but merely from this glass through which we look,
for in this Fall our incompleteness mars
our vision of eternal, perfect truth;
but intuition leads us subtly forth
to Incarnation and the blessed Cross,
of old we knew that God must be a man
and sacrifice would save the fallen world.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Humility as the Key to the Mystery of the Resurrection

Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers, May 3, 2009

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!

On this third Sunday of Pascha, we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, the most significant event in all of human history. The proclamation that “Christ is risen!” is not a polite seasonal greeting that we share between us, but it is truly a preaching of the Gospel. This is the good news, that He Who was dead is alive again, that when Satan had believed his adversary defeated, He raised Himself from the dead, proving that He is God and opening the way for us to follow Him through death into eternal life, destroying the power of Hell forever.

It’s wonderful when we say “Christ is risen!” for the first couple of days after Pascha, and there is often joy that accompanies it. But within a week or two, it’s a little routine and perfunctory, and it all dies back into “good morning” and “good to see you” within just a few weeks, usually well short of the Feast of the Ascension, when the greeting properly finishes its appointed time.

The Scriptures tell us that if Christ is not risen, then we Christians are the most pitiable of all people—pathetic, really. Our whole faith is a joke. This beautiful building, all the services that happen here, all the programs and activities, everything—it’s all a big sham if Christ is not risen. If He is not risen, then we have no hope. We’re fooling ourselves. We’re wasting our time and money. If Christ is not risen, it’s time to begin looking for a buyer for this property of ours.

But if Christ is risen, well, that changes everything. It means that life has meaning. It means that there is hope beyond the grave. It means that God loves you, that He wants to save you, that He became one of us and suffered and died so that you could be transformed and resurrected with Him. It means that the Creator of the whole universe humbled Himself so that we could be yanked up out of our decay, corruption and complacency into a life filled with joy, filled with depth and beauty, a life which is not subject to the fluctuations of markets, of property values, of whims, of political intrigue, and of crass commercialism. It means that there is a high and noble life possible for each one of us, an experience of the divine reality, a possibility for eternal greatness that is inherent within each of us, if only we will believe and then act on it.

All this is why it is so genuinely disturbing when people’s involvement in church is half-hearted or focused only on the brick and mortar, the administration, the fundraising, the programming, and so forth. It’s so very easy to get consumed with all the busy-ness of church life that we forget why we are here. We are here because Christ is risen, and history will never be the same.

There are many people whose involvement in church life is simply to pay a minimum pledge, to volunteer an hour or two here or there, or even many hours, to being busy for the parish. And yet all of that effort will be found wasted when Christ comes again, if we have not gone about the business of purifying our souls.

Again and again, the Lord woos us from His heart so that we might give Him our own hearts, and yet so many times, we might reply to His passionate calls to us, “Well, I cooked kibbe, I served on the parish council, I sang in the choir, I served as a priest, I taught Sunday School, I gave money to the charity fundraiser—what more do You want?” All of those things have the possibility for deep and eternal meaning, but only if we have filled them up by a life of genuine humility, a life of repentance for our sins, a life in which “Christ is risen!” is our lifelong motto.

How can I tell if my activity in church is enough for me to be saved? How can I tell if it’s the right kind of involvement? It honestly doesn’t matter what one does in the Church—from cleaning out toilet bowls to becoming the Ecumenical Patriarch—but if it is done without humility, it is not only useless, but it is actually damning. One repentant sinner with his elbow up to filth in a toilet shines brightly in Heaven, while the most glorious hierarch with all his shiny vestments who stands up and says, “Well this is what I think!” will find that his considered and valuable opinions will be empty company in Hell.

Today, on this third Sunday of Pascha, we call to mind the myrrh-bearing women who brought spices and ointment to anoint the body of Jesus. This act was one of humility. They had no obligation to go to that tomb. They didn’t even have hope for anything special when they got there. But they went anyway. They went because they loved Jesus. They went because they were so used to ministering to Him that they couldn’t stop, even after His death. Theirs was a faith of the heart, and their hearts’ faith was rewarded by a vision of an angel announcing to them that Jesus Christ is risen.

We also remember today Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who ministered to the Lord in the same kinds of ways. All of these people, both the women and these prominent Jewish men, had something to lose by their actions. They stood to be ridiculed by the Jews, to be rejected by their community. Their devotion to Christ cost them something. But they did it anyway.

The reason that the Church holds these holy people up for our remembrance today is not because we’re looking for supporting cast in this miracle movie about a man coming back to life. Rather, it’s because they show us what it means to be Christian. They show us that a true Christian has courage, devoting himself to Christ no matter what it costs. And believe me, in our times, it’s starting to cost more and more.

They show us that we have to have a developed pattern of devotion and ministry to Christ if we’re going to be partakers of His resurrection. All of these people were serious disciples before Christ’s death, and so they received the experience of His resurrection. They show us that this life of devotion is a faith of the heart, that it comes out of love, a genuine longing for Christ. When people justify themselves and their lack of interest in the very heart of the Church’s life, it is hard to see any kind of genuine longing for Christ in such attitudes. The truth, however, is that a mere “business” relationship with Christ won’t cut it at the Final Judgment.

What these holy people show us most clearly, though, is that Christian life takes humility. Humility is the key that unlocks the gates of Paradise. It’s the only way in, because in being humble, we are opening ourselves up to being transformed by Christ. If we’re not humble, then He’ll respect our wishes and leave us in our corruption and self-involvement.

So what does humility look like? It looks like the myrrh-bearers, who go to be with Christ, to be in the presence even of His body. They expect nothing. They insist on nothing. They take credit for nothing. They’re just there to worship Him, to be with Him, to absorb His holiness and grace. What does humility look like? It looks like Joseph of Arimathea, who with courage and yet quietness asks for the body of Jesus, spends his own money to adorn the body with fine linen, and then gives up his own tomb, his carefully purchased and maintained burial plot, to bury the body of Jesus. What does humility look like? It looks like Nicodemus, who was the prominent Pharisee who came to Jesus at night, wanting to be His disciple, trying to understand just what it means to be born again, to be born from above.

The humble Christian—or should I just say “the Christian”?—never stands up and insists on his own way, never ridicules and belittles someone else, never puts himself first, never focuses on mere busy-ness while neglecting his heart. You see, if we are not looking into our hearts and asking what God would really have us do, not trying to find ways to serve others and put our own opinions and our own desires last, not trying to find more and more ways just to be with Jesus, just to hear His words, just to get closer, just to worship Him as much as we can, to have an authentic spiritual life, then we really have no hope. It is only with humility that “Christ is risen!” has any meaning.

May this holy Paschal season therefore be truly meaningful for each of us, so that when we say that we have seen Him and the power of His resurrection, those words carry the greatness of the eternal and perfect Godhead with them.

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is risen!

Friday, April 24, 2009

"[Truly/Indeed], He is risen!"

I got asked recently why I say "Truly, He is risen!" and not "Indeed, He is risen!" in response to "Christ is risen!" At our parish here in West Virginia, "Truly" is most often used, but there are a good number of "Indeeders" in the bunch. I don't rebuke any of them. (If only because I have heard a story of a first-time visitor at Pascha who once responded to the priest's "Christ is risen!" with "I KNOW. I KNOW. You haven't stopped saying it for the last three hours!") Mind you, I also don't rebuke the "He HAS risen" crowd, but I always feel a twinge every time I hear it. He IS risen. It's an ongoing reality, not an over-and-done-with one-time event.

Anyway, since someone asked last night why I say "Truly" and not "Indeed," I responded then and thought I would comment here, as well.

The original response comes from the Greek Alithos anesti! Alithos is the adverbial form of alitheia, which means, quite simply, "truth." The meaning is almost identical to the English word truth, both in the sense of universal truth and also in the sense of simple fact. It comes from a Greek word meaning "unconcealed," so a sense of being revelatory is also there.

So, it would seem clear that "truly" is truly and obviously better, because it includes the notion of truth in it. (For these reasons, I fall into the "truly" camp.) In most languages, the traditional translation of alithos is connected to that language's word for "truth." (Even voistinu and haqqan.)

Indeed, by contrast, would seem to many to be a synonym for truly, but it really isn't. Indeed in Modern English usage is primarily only ever an emphatic. It does not in itself make reference to the alitheia which truly does.

One thing Indeed has going for it is rhythm. It places the stress in the whole phrase on the second syllable. "Indeed, He is risen!" is a bit easier to say than "Truly, He is risen!" It's also a bit closer to the Greek meter. I will say, though, that the Truly formation makes the whole phrase trochaic (i.e., composed of two-syllable patterns with the stress on the first), which is a more authentically English thing to do. Anglo-Saxon poetry is a veritable smorgasbord of trochées, and English-speakers tend to experience trochées as "powerful." The initial greeting we all seem to agree upon ("Christ is risen!" or even the minority "Christ has risen!") is also entirely trochaic.

So, that's why I say "Truly." Christ is risen!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Palm Sunday 2009: The Nature of True Worship

Palm Sunday, April 12, 2009

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Christian Church, and so it is particularly encouraging to see that so many of you have come here to worship our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ and triumphantly enter with Him into Jerusalem. For many of us, Palm Sunday is perhaps one of our favorite feasts of the Christian year. Indeed, there are many people who like it so much that it’s the only time they ever come to church!

What’s not to like, really? There’s a procession, a parade, a joyous entry into the capital of ancient Israel of the King of the Jews, the Lord of Lords Himself, triumphantly entering to celebrate the Passover with His disciples. When He comes into the holy city, word has already spread about how He has raised Lazarus from the dead. This most spectacular of Jesus’ miraculous signs has inspired the multitudes, and they are ready for the Messiah to enter into His Kingdom.

They shout out: “Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ The King of Israel!” Hosanna means “save now,” and these crowds are hailing Jesus as coming in the Name of God Himself and bearing in Himself the kingship of Israel.

This public display of worship and adulation is contrasted in today’s Gospel with a private act of worship. The first part of the reading tells us a story very different from the enormous spectacle of the crowds meeting Jesus in Jerusalem. Here, we see Mary and Martha, the sisters of the resurrected Lazarus, serving supper to Jesus. The Gospel then says, “Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”

Mary pours out an expensive offering for Jesus and with humility and love wipes his feet with her hair. She is met with scorn from Judas, however, who says that such an offering could have been cashed in and given to the poor.

We are presented today with two images of worship. One is public, a spectacle, a great celebration, while the other is private and humble, appreciated by only a few. One cost the worshipers nothing but a few minutes of their time to shout and cheer for the Man they thought would liberate Israel from the Romans. The other was costly not only in terms of money but also because it cost Mary some of her honor and dignity to get down on the floor and wipe Christ’s feet with her hair, to say nothing about being mocked by one of the Lord’s disciples.

In human life, there really is only one purpose: to worship the Holy Trinity. This is the purpose for which we were created. God made us according to His image in order for us to worship Him. And Who is the image of the invisible God? It is Christ Jesus, the Son of God. So we were made according to Christ. We were made with Him as the template of all humanity so that we could worship Him, and in worshiping Him, we commune with Him. We can share a deep, intense and powerful union with Him. This is what it means to worship, to pour ourselves out before God in offering and then receive from Him the awesome experience of sharing the divine life of the very Creator of the whole universe.

But there are many of us who publicly offer worship to Jesus but do so like the crowds in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. That crowd was really not interested in communion in Christ Jesus with the Holy Trinity. They came out to see a miracle-worker. They came out to see a political leader who would lead them in a revolt against the Romans. They came out for an exciting spectacle.

And yet Jesus, even while He accepted their public praise, showed them His true purpose by a curious choice. Being the God of the universe, He could have chosen to enter Jerusalem in any way He saw fit. He could have ridden in on a chariot or a great white horse, symbols of a conquering general. Yet He chose a humble donkey. This was not merely to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah chapter nine but to make a statement to His people: It is humility, not conquest, that is the theme of His Kingdom. True worship has little to do with getting dressed up and cheering for a parade. It has everything to do with the attitude of the heart.

Mary, the sister of Lazarus, showed us this same truth when she worshiped Jesus by pouring out the costly ointment and wiping His feet with her hair. Her heart had nothing in it but humility. She saw Jesus in her home and immediately had to worship Him. She performed the act not of one of the masters of the house but of a lowly servant, a task normally reserved for the lowest members of society. She gave of herself so that she might commune with her Lord. And in a few days, we will see Him do the same for His disciples when He washes their feet.

So often, I think it’s easy for us to get caught up in the images and symbols of Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Pascha, to let all this glorious poetry and song pass us by without anything more than an aesthetic appreciation or perhaps a sentimental, family feeling. We enjoy the beauty of it, but I think we often lose sight of why it’s beautiful. We enjoy coming together as families and as a church, but we often lose sight of the purpose of our coming together. None of this is a mindless ritual. It has meaning. It has purpose. It has eternal significance. It has an impact on your everyday life on earth and on the shape of your eternal destiny.

If we need any proof of the nature of the worship offered by the crowd on that first Palm Sunday, we need only look a few days later at that same crowd in Jerusalem, who had gone from “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” to “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Their worship was clearly fake, because they had not communed with the Son of God. If they had truly been united with Him, how could they have crucified Him?

The question we should ask ourselves is whether we are imitating the worship of the crowds or of Mary, the sister of Lazarus. Are we like the crowds, who love a good parade, who like to see a spectacle, who cheer for a leader they think will give them what they want? Are we like the crowds, who turned away from Jesus with indifference just a few days later and even turned on Him with violence and hatred?

If we come to Palm Sunday for the fun and the celebration but then do not follow Jesus to the Cross, then we are just like those crowds. We like Jesus when He’s popular, but when we do not follow Him, when we do not enter into communion with Him, when we do not obey Him as He speaks to us in the Church on how we should live our lives, then we crucify Him anew. We show our true selves most clearly by where we put our time and our money. The Lord told us that where our treasure is, there will our heart be also. Let me also submit that, where our time is, our hearts are also there. Unless you put your time and your money into the worship of the Living God, it’s clear that your heart is somewhere else.

Let us instead be like Mary, who with her whole heart followed the God-man and poured herself out for Him. She didn’t care what it cost her. She didn’t care how expensive the ointment was. She didn’t care if it made her look dirty or embarrassing to kneel down at his feet and wipe them with her hair. She only wanted to be with Jesus, to hear His words, to obey His life-giving commandments.

At the end of time, each one of us will stand before God and answer for how we lived in this life. Will we tell God we liked the big party, the impressive spectacle, the promise of excitement, the good times with family and friends, but were uninterested in obedience, in sacrifice, in communion, in worship? If so, then we know what will happen. He will send us away, saying that He never knew us, because we never wanted to know Him. If, however, we have been like Mary and worshiped Him with our time, our money, our talents, and in humility, then we will be welcomed into the Heavenly Kingdom. May God grant that we all have a good answer when we stand before His throne.

To Him therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

An interview

For those interested in such things, I was recently interviewed by a parishioner here at the cathedral for her weblog. In reading it, I think I could have been a little more coherent and organized what I wrote better, but there you have it.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Prayer of Spiritual Fathers for the Beginning of the Great Fast

From the Euchologion

Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.

O God, Hope of all the ends of the earth and of those who far away at sea or in the air, Who foretold these holy days of fasting in the Law, the Prophets and the Evangelists: Grant all of us to proceed in purity along the course of the Fast, to keep the Faith undivided and to preserve Thy commandments all the days of our lives. Command an angel of peace to preserve our comings-in and goings-out for all good works, being obedient together and serving together for a perfect communion of Thine immaculate Mysteries. Accept, O Master, the bending of the knees and the fasting of Thy servants, granting to them spiritual blessings, and to all of us, in Christ Jesus our Lord, with Whom Thou art blessed, together with Thine All-Holy, Good and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Thou art blessed, O Lord Almighty, God of our Fathers, of Abraham, of Isaac and Jacob, Who made heaven and earth, the sea and all in them; Who didst appoint repentance to men for salvation and Who overlooketh their transgressions; Who accepted the tears of Thy servant David the Prophet and gave to him who repented forgiveness of sins; Who accepted the prayer of Manasseh, bound with iron fetters, who with repentance confessed to Thee, and Thou didst forgive his sins; Who saved [Rahab] the Harlot knowing Thy mercy, for, having received the spies, she let them go in peace: Now hear the petition of me, Thine unworthy servant, and overlook all the sins of these Thy servants who have recourse to Thee in repentance, and grant heartfelt contrition to them who are in sickness on account of sins, having risen up against Thee their own Creator Who is able to cleanse them from sins.

Grant them Thy grace, that being fortified and raised up by this, they may bring a remembrance of their own evil deeds, with all fear, to their own spiritual father who has been established by Thee for discernment, and truly confess, and through us call to remembrance that which they are guilty of with a contrite and humble heart, to repent, and to desire complete forgiveness for them. Grant, according to Thy lovingkindness, absolution from these through their spiritual father as Thy servant, for Thou didst say: "Whatsoever ye loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

O Master, Lord Jesus Christ our God, accept Thy servants who are repenting of their sins, known or unknown, voluntary or involuntary, and who have, according to Thy command, confessed them. Mercifully receive them, and by Thy power and grace strengthen them that they not turn back to sins and to evil and unacceptable deeds, for they have fallen into them many times. Lift them up and help them from the snares of devils and from all hostile snares, that without hindrance they might serve Thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their lives.

For Thou art our God and Thou didst come into the world, not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance; Thou didst command that the transgressions of those who have fallen into sins be remitted them seventy times seven. And when the woman caught in adultery was led to Thee by the Pharisees to tempt Thee, Thou didst not judge her, but mercifully says: "Go, and from henceforth sin no more"; for according to Thy love for mankind Thou didst not judge her, but had mercy. And like as to the other harlot who wept and with tears washed Thy feet and wiped them with her own hair, Thou wast merciful for the sake of Thine own mercy, grant to these Thy servants unhindered and warm tears of true repentance.

Confirm their minds and hearts to know Thee the only true Son of God Who didst take up the sins of the world. Accept them as Thou didst accept Peter who denied Thee and who with repentance and bitter tears returned again. Stretch forth Thy right hand and receive them, as Thou didst receive him who was drowning in the sea, and strengthen them against the agitation of demons. Cleanse their souls and bodies of all filth. For Thou the same gracious Lord said not to request a physician for the healthy, but for the sick, and Thou didst not come to save those already saved, but those who are perishing.

O Lord Jesus Christ our God, grant these Thy servants to finish without blemish the beginning of this Holy Fast and in it to fulfill Thy commandments and to remain in prayer, and with all good deeds to please Thee all the days of their lives, that uncondemned and with a pure conscience they may be granted to become communicants of Thy divine Body and life-giving Blood spilled out to the whole world for the remission of sins, and that they may defeat and shame the devils in their warmongering. For Thou, O God, art the God of those who repent, nor desiring the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his way and live. Thou dost not desire, O Master, to destroy the works of Thy hands, neither dost Thou wish the destruction of mankind. But rather, Thou desirest that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.

Therefore now, O Master, do not turn away Thy face from these Thy servants, but rather grant them true conversion to Thee from their sins, as well as deliverance from all evil deeds. Grant all of us to attain in peace the fulfillment of good deeds and to fall down in worship before Thy saving Passion and holy Resurrection, and at the end of our life to receive eternal joy, together with all those who have pleased Thee, having lived in Thee our God and Savior.

For Thou art a God of mercy and compassion and love for mankind, and to Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thine unoriginate Father and Thine All-Holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The priest then blesses them with his right hand, saying: The blessing of the Lord be upon you, through His grace and compassion and love for mankind, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Orthodoxy in America and America in Orthodoxy

One can hardly think of a more American city than Pittsburgh. Further, one can hardly find a greater presence of Orthodoxy anywhere in America than Pennsylvania (of the roughly 2000 Orthodox parishes in America, 250 of them are in Pennsylvania). Thus, it is quite probably of no surprise that a genuinely fine series of reflections on Orthodoxy in America that actually seems to "get" America should come out of the Pittsburgh area, from Fr. Jonathan Tobias:

  • Prospects, part 1: Ebb Tide: "President George W. Bush is ending his presidency...." ("a prequel of sorts")

  • Prospects, part 2: Bad News before the Good: "Some of you know that I grew up in the revivalist part of Protestantism. We were rightly named, as my father’s church put on two revivals every year, consisting of nightly evening services that lasted for one to two weeks.

    We had a strange expression that involved those services. It was 'the saw dust trail.' It stood for the invitation or the 'altar call' that was issued by the evangelist at the end of the service, in which sinners were called to come forward to the front to pray and take Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour."

  • Prospects, part 3: The American Genius: " the fervent search for commonalities, the Orthodox mission has overlooked the significance of difference … it is the separation from Holy Tradition that provides for us the most significant information about what is peculiar to America, her genius, and where we ought to travel to arrive at her center … in other words, where we, in completing the work of Cyril and Methodios, need to go to reach the heart of the indigenous people, the 'national consciousness' America."

  • Prospects, part 4: Orthodoxy at the End of the Sawdust Trail: "The American Gnostic experience seeks to experience the divine, but outside the protective communion provided by Jesus Christ and His Body, the Apostolic Church."

I strongly encourage a careful read of all four of these pieces.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Consumption and the Dignity of Man

This sermon, preached on the Sunday after Theophany 2009, was requested to be posted by one of its hearers:

Sunday after Theophany, January 11, 2009

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

If you follow the news about our nation’s economic woes, there is a word that is used over and over again to describe us as human beings. This word is based on something that we’re supposed to be doing. It really says nothing about who we are or what we are supposed to be. This word says nothing about the inherent dignity or nobility of mankind, but rather says something only about his appetites. What is this word that is used by the media to give us our identity? Consumers.

Most of us probably don’t think of ourselves as “consumers.” That’s a word that means “everyone else” in that faceless economic mass that makes up the rest of our nation. “Consumers” are those people who buy things and use them up, those people who are supposed to make the economy go. When there is a loss of “consumer confidence,” then people lose their jobs and investors pull their money back. When someone has an ingenious idea, they appeal to “consumers” to turn it into a big pay-off. Yes, “consumers” are “those people” who shuffle the money around and keep the economy going, right?

If most of us looked into our own hearts, I think we would find that “consumers” are not only “those people out there.” Rather, as an identity, most of us have really bought into what the media is telling us we are. We’re supposed to acquire things, use them up, and then acquire some more. Buy, buy, buy! Spend, spend, spend! Eat, eat, eat! This very word consume means “to eat up.” In order to see the problem with this way of life, we do not need to look at the destruction that is being wreaked in the rest of the world for our nation’s unending appetites. Rather, we need only look into our hearts.

What are the fruits of this endless appetite for something else to eat, something else to consume, something new and interesting? For one thing, we are often bored. We spend so much of our time voraciously consuming the latest bit of entertainment, gossip, information, politics, and possessions that when we encounter things like beauty, permanence, or—dare I say it?—eternity, our response is “I’m bored.” As consumers, our attention spans get more and more childish.

Our appetite as consumers is such that we don’t just use up entertainment and information, but we also use up people. We see other people primarily in terms of what they can provide us rather than for who they are and the communion we can have with them. This corrupts not only friendships, but also marriages and families. Children and parents use each other up and then reject each other when their appetites are not filled. We expect this from kids, but from adults, too?

The consumer approach to relationships also leads to sexuality without the context of lifelong commitment to family. We want to play by our own rules and use what God created for our appetites rather than for our salvation. Sexuality becomes about what I want, what feels good to me, what I think I should get. This approach can lead to all sorts of delusions which fall short of God’s plan for sexuality—one man and one woman committed for life in marriage.

Anything else—whether it is same-sex activity, pre-marital or extra-marital sex, or pornography and other forms of private self-pleasure—all of these things are based on our appetites and not on the beautiful and perfect balance of complementarity created and designed by God. There are even whole subcultures designed to promote these destructive patterns, to make them appear “normal” and “wholesome,” even to give them the veneer of human “rights.” But how can we say we are the “chief of sinners” and demand “rights”? That is really just delusion.

And none of these things, by the way, is somehow a “better” sin than another. It is not “better” to fornicate with the opposite sex than it is to do it with the same sex. All fall short of the relationship created by God to His glory and for our salvation. If we look into our hearts with true honesty, we will see that such desires come out of our fallen appetites, not out of God’s perfect creation, which has been broken since the Fall of Adam and Eve. So if we see brokenness in our desires, it is because of the Fall, not because God created us that way.

So if we are not to be “consumers,” then what is our real calling? What is this higher, nobler way of living that truly befits human dignity? St. Paul in today’s epistle reading says that “to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” By virtue of our baptism, Christ has given each of us grace as a gift. What are we to do with this gift? What is this grace for? Paul goes on to say that “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists and some pastors and teachers.” Notice that nowhere is there given the grace to be a “consumer.” Rather, this grace given to each of us is for active ministry.

Elsewhere in the Scripture, St. Paul talks about other kinds of spiritual gifts that Christ gives to us. All such gifts are for getting out of our seats, standing up and doing something. This is why, for instance, the traditional posture for Orthodox worship is standing, not sitting. Someone who sits is passive, expecting to get something. The person who stands is active, expecting to give something, to do something.

Indeed, because even our church architecture is made to correspond to elements of the Jewish Temple, we see that where we are right now mirrors the holy place of the Temple, the place reserved for priests! Whether we are ordained to sacramental ministry or not, we are all priests of the Most High God. We are all here to participate in and offer the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, not to sit on our bottoms and wait to get served.

So what is all this activity for? Why did Christ not make us consumers or an audience? Why did He give to each of us gifts of ministry? St. Paul goes on to tell us: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” And what is the goal of this ministry of equipping and edification? It is for all of us to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” What a calling! Perfect unity in faith! The knowledge of the Son of God! Perfect humanity, even to the stature of the fullness of Christ Himself!

With such a noble and beautiful destiny that God has appointed for each of us, how can we be content to sit around and continue to “consume”? How dare the media refer to the adopted sons and daughters of the King of Kings as “consumers”?! Such a way of life is so, so far beneath us. If only we could see ourselves as God does! When He looks around within this holy cathedral, He does not see “consumers.” He does not see people identified by appetite. He sees people called to be saints. He sees adopted, redeemed sons and daughters of God. The angels look at us and see us gleaming with the great light of baptism. The saints look at us and see the grace of God resting upon us as a bright, uncreated Light that illumines the darkness. Truly, as the Gospel reading says to us today, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” This is what has been given to us! This is the light of Christmas, of Holy Theophany, of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ!

The question now is: What are we going to do with what we have been given? Will we turn away from God’s truly awesome gift and continue to be defined by our appetites, to take on once again the low and dirty role of “consumers”? I truly hope not. We are called to something higher, finer, nobler and more beautiful, called by the One Who is Beauty Himself.

And should those who begin to hear this call and respond look down on those who remain struggling with sinful passions? By no means! We are all sinners. There is no sin that is worse than my sin. Just because I am not afflicted with one kind of temptation does not mean that I should condemn those who are. We have mentioned many ways in which sin drags us down and darkens our identity in Christ. None of these ways makes the people who suffer from them worthy of condemnation. Rather, we are all spiritually sick people in need of spiritual healing. There is much hypocrisy among so-called Christians in our time. Let us not join those hypocrites who condemn one kind of sin while indulging in another.

We read in the Scripture that Christ, after He had accomplished all the great works of His life, ascended into Heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father. There sits our humanity. Because God became one of us, now there is one of us seated on the very Throne of the Almighty God. What was the purpose of this holy and blessed ascension? It was so He might fill all things. In partaking of Christ in the Eucharist and in all the other ways He offers Himself to us in the Church, we are becoming filled with Christ. Instead of remaining “consumers,” a title properly reserved only for animals, we are becoming the true consummation of creation, the very pinnacle of what God made through Christ and is now healing and remaking through His death and resurrection.

So let us cast off this “consumer” way of life. Let us take hold of what is eternal, pure and perfect, what is of enduring beauty and holiness, not eating up material possessions and one another, but sacrificing ourselves not just for Christ’s sake, but truly for our own. When we do this, we will encounter other sinners and not condemn them, but rather pour ourselves out for them, just as Christ did for us, even though He was sinless. When we do this, we will encounter God here in Orthodox worship and not be bored, but find ourselves hungry not after earthly appetites, which never satisfy, but after heavenly food and drink, which fill us up and change us forever.

To our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, are due all glory, honor and worship, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy: What are the differences between Orthodox Christianity and other religious traditions?

I've now concluded all the editing for a 7-part lecture series on the differences between Orthodoxy and other religious traditions, entitled Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy. Besides copious notes, I've been producing audio recordings of each part. Here's the final rundown:

  • Nov. 9 - Heterodoxy & Heresy (series introduction)
  • Nov. 16 - Roman Catholicism
  • Nov. 23 - Churches of the Classical Reformation (Lutherans, Calvinists, Reformed, Zwinglians, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Wesleyans)
  • Nov. 30 - Churches of the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists, Baptists, Brethren, Amish, Mennonites, Restorationists, Adventists)
  • Dec. 7 - Modern Revivalism (Pentecostalism, Charismatics, Evangelicalism)
  • Dec. 14 - Non-Christian Religions (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Sikhism, Wicca, Neo-paganism, Zoroastrianism, Modern Gnosticism, Animism)
  • Dec. 21 - Non-Mainstream Christians (Swedenborgians, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarian Universalists, Christadelphians, Christian Science, Unification Church ("Moonies"); also includes series conclusions)

Update as of October 2009: This series is being updated and re-recorded for broadcast via Ancient Faith Radio. Watch for it there, starting October 4th!


Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Incarnation and the Lament in Ramah

A friend who heard the following sermon this past Sunday asked me to post it here:

Sunday after the Nativity, December 28, 2008

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

There is much confusion in today's world. A great many things which have been taken for granted for centuries are all being called into question in our time. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? All of these things, so well-known to our forefathers, are now all up for grabs in a kind of almost universal cultural delusion, where if we pretend long enough like we don’t know, then eventually we discover that we really have forgotten. This is a relatively new state of affairs.

What is not new, however, is delusion. Since the Fall of Adam, mankind has been living under a veil of darkness, unable to see what God created him to see. But in this holy season we are now experiencing, a light is shining into the darkness. The people that sat in darkness have seen a great light! That light is the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God-man.

If we look at the world around us, the Incarnation almost seems like a non sequitur. Most of us are so busy trying to survive or trying to earn more or achieve more or get more that it almost sounds silly simply even to say it. It sounds even more irrelevant to ask why God would become man. For most of us, God is so far away and so irrelevant in our lives that the idea that He would become flesh and dwell among us might sound a bit interesting but really has nothing to do with us.

But here's something that's undeniably true: every one of us is dying. Whether by the slow decay of years or in a sudden and unexpected tragedy, each of us will someday come to experience the awful reality of our mortality. And when that moment comes, will we have taken hold of the Incarnation of Christ and held on tight, or will we have brushed it off as a nice story without any real meaning? So let's consider for a moment what the Incarnation means, not just in terms of a story, but in terms of real theology. And in the Orthodox Church, all theology is practical theology, or else it is useless.

The Son of God, Who existed eternally before all creation, saw that His beloved creation had turned away from Him, had cut itself off from the Source of life. He saw that we were dying—physically, psychologically, spiritually. He saw that we were suffering, that we were alienated from our Maker and from each other. He saw that we were broken. He saw that we were sick and infected with the disease of sin and death. He saw that we were enslaved to the Devil. And looking upon our desperate condition, He chose to enter into it.

He chose to become one of us. He's not merely like us. He doesn't simply look like us or act like us. His humanity is not a fancy illusion. It’s real. He was really conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and by the power of the Holy Spirit took flesh from her just as we all did from our own mothers. Into the womb of that pure and holy young woman entered the very God of the universe, not just taking up His dwelling in her, but making her humanity His own. He stepped into time and into history. He stepped into the genealogy of mankind. He not only has a mother, but grandparents. And great-grandparents. And cousins. And so on. He’s really human, and not just a human, but He has become the human, the new Adam, the new prototype for every human person. Adam himself was made according to Christ, and now in Christ is human destiny fully revealed.

It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul in today's epistle reading can say that God chose him from his mother's womb to reveal Christ. It is for this reason that when we read about the horrifying crime of Herod in today's Gospel, we too weep with Rachel, the voice lamenting in Ramah, whose children are no more. It is because the face of Christ is imprinted on every human person from the moment of their conception.

The world is confused about this question today, so much so that in this country, it is legal to kill a child even within his mother's womb. The place that should be the ultimate in safety, warmth and intimacy becomes a battlefield, where there is a war being waged against the most innocent, the most helpless, the most vulnerable. In Belgium, it is legal for a doctor to take the life of a child who is less than a year out of his mother's womb if he is regarded as "deficient," even if his parents do not consent. Why? How can we do this? It is because we no longer look at human beings, even in the womb, and see the Christ according to Whom they were made.

No matter what the law says, it is still a great and horrific evil to murder a child, whether in the womb or out of the womb. Yes, the world is confused about what it means to be human, at what moment a human being suddenly changes from a blob of cells at the whim of inconvenience into a "someone" who should be protected by the law. But we Christians cannot take what is legal to be what is moral. We cannot let the government interpret for us the Scriptures and the revelation of God. As Orthodox Christians, no matter what political or economic theories or parties we prefer, it is incumbent upon us to work hard to stop the ocean of blood that is flowing from the wombs of women, by voting, by loving, by speaking the truth, by giving up our own convenience to save lives, heal the wounded, soften the jaded, and reach out to the desperate.

Because we as Orthodox Christians believe that a person is a person, whether in the womb or out, it is deeply inconsistent and hypocritical for us to say that murder of a 2 year old should be illegal but that the murder of someone in the womb should be legal. It is no more a "private" decision than is the decision of a doctor in Belgium to kill your infant baby, whether you want him to or not. Murder is murder, and it affects everyone in the community. That we have made it "safe," "clean," and "convenient" should horrify us even more. We have sanitized infanticide.

There are those who say that illegalizing abortion again will drive it into dark alleys. That is an interesting image to me, because it is precisely in such dark alleys that murders are so often perpetrated. How does bringing murder out into broad daylight, making it into a "respectable" and profitable profession, make it any better? If what is in the womb is a human person, and our faith says clearly that it is, then abortion is murder. Period.

Now, you may say that science doesn't really tell us when the sacredness of humanity becomes present in the womb. You may say that many people in our society all believe that it's just fine to kill an unborn child. You may say that philosophy has no clear answers for the definition of human identity. You would be correct in saying all those things.

But what is absolutely clear is what the Orthodox Christian faith has to say about this. From the Scriptures to the Fathers to all the saints throughout the whole 2000 year history of the Church, Orthodox Christians have always believed that the moment of conception is the moment of the spark of humanity, the moment when the face of Christ is present in a new, wonderful and unrepeatable way. There is absolutely no ambiguity in our tradition in this matter. You either stand with the Church or you stand apart from it. This is deadly serious. If you are Orthodox, then you believe this. If you refuse to believe it, then you are deliberately and of your own free will departing from Orthodoxy.

Since we know from the unanimous Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church that abortion is a deadly sin against a helpless human person, what do we say to the young woman who is in desperation? What do we do for the woman who conceived a child without thinking, or because of violence? The answer is that we do everything we can. It is not enough merely to say that abortion is a sin. Though they may not know it or admit it, those who abort their children are harmed forever by what they do, and while many do it merely out of convenience, the desire to have sex without family, many also do it because they believe they have nowhere else to turn. It is a curious thing that abortion clinics are often built in the poorest and most desperate of neighborhoods.

For those who are thinking about abortion out of desperation, there are many things we can do. First, we can offer to help raise the child, to help provide for what she needs to be a mother or perhaps help to provide a mother and father who cannot have their own children. We can offer to provide for counseling to such women, so they know their true options. If you don't want to do any of those things, ask yourself how much human life is really worth. We can do so much for them. Only think for a moment. The only thing holding us back is lack of love.

For a woman contemplating abortion or even one who has had an abortion, or perhaps for the man or other people in her life who encouraged or threatened her into it, shall we turn the awful face of condemnation? Shall we yell at them, blow them up, ostracize them, disown them, gossip about them? Absolutely not. Those who have committed and suffered from abortion need to be healed. They need to be loved. They need to be made whole again through the grace and love of Jesus Christ that we are equipped to give them. But no one can be healed if we refuse to admit that they have been wounded.

This is the truth of the holy Orthodox faith, that it really does reach right into the intimate and concrete depths of our souls. If we believe it, if we claim the name "Orthodox" for ourselves, then we have to live it. It is not enough merely to mind our own business and not egregiously hurt anyone else. We have to take positive, active steps to reach out to others, to touch their lives, to become that miraculous presence of Christ for them.

There's always somewhere we can start. Make a donation to a crisis pregnancy center. Tell that young woman you know who's pregnant and doesn't know where to turn that you're really there for her, and then love her and help her no matter what anyone says or thinks.

Why should we do this? It is because of the awesome reality of Christmas, because the God before all the ages became a human person. I wonder what the Virgin Mary would say to us if we told her that what was in her womb didn't get full human rights until after she gave birth! Or in Belgium, it would be another 12 months! If it is true that Jesus Christ is fully human from the moment of the Annunciation, then we who were created according to Him, according to the image of the invisible God, we are also fully human from that same moment, that holy miracle of conception, when God reaches into the intimacy of a man and woman and undertakes creation all over again. It's the same for us as it is for Jesus.

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is all around us, most especially and clearly in those who are baptized and chrismated as Orthodox Christians, those who partake of His Body and Blood and are adopted members of His family. The Lord told us that whatever we do to the least of His children, we are doing it to Him. If we help the poor man, we are helping Christ. If we comfort the desperate, we are ministering to Christ. If we save the life of an innocent child, we are giving to Christ. The same is also true if we hate, ignore, oppress, gossip about, sneer at, or kill. We are doing it to Christ.

In this holy and blessed season where we are drawn by the Church to contemplate the birth of our Saviour, the God-man Jesus Christ, let us also be drawn to see and to contemplate the intimate connection between Him and His creation. He created us, like a poet dreaming beautiful lines of holy poetry to make into persons, all reflecting something of Himself. But even more deeply than that, He became one of us. He bridged the gulf between the Creator and the creation, becoming part of His creation. And in doing so, He imparted to every human being, from the split second of their conception, the awesome dignity and majesty of being the children of God.

Let us therefore honor and worship Him, let us draw ever closer to Him, by becoming conduits of real, self-sacrificial love and grace for every person with whom we share this Earth, most especially the truly vulnerable and helpless.

To the Incarnate God-man, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Orthodox Gospel tract

I can't remember if I've ever posted this here before or not, but just in case I haven't, I've put together an Orthodox Christian Gospel tract that is absolutely free for you to forward, copy, print, distribute and use. It's designed to be printed on both sides of a standard 8.5x11" sheet of paper and then folded into thirds.

Go forth and evangelize!

Monday, December 1, 2008

What's been keeping me busy lately

I'm now just over halfway through a 7-part lecture series on the differences between Orthodoxy and other religious traditions, entitled Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy. Besides copious notes, I've been producing audio recordings of each part. Here's the rundown:

  • Nov. 9 - Heterodoxy & Heresy (series introduction)
  • Nov. 16 - Roman Catholicism
  • Nov. 23 - Churches of the Classical Reformation (Lutherans, Calvinists, Reformed, Zwinglians, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Wesleyans)
  • Nov. 30 - Churches of the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists, Baptists, Brethren, Amish, Mennonites, Restorationists, Adventists)
  • Dec. 7 - Modern Revivalism (Pentecostalism, Charismatics, Evangelicalism)
  • Dec. 14 - Non-Christian Religions (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Sikhism, Wicca, Neo-paganism, Zoroastrianism, Modern Gnosticism, Animism)
  • Dec. 21 - Non-Mainstream Christians (Swedenborgians, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarian Universalists, Christadelphians, Christian Science, Unification Church ("Moonies"); also includes series conclusions)

Update as of October 2009: This series is being updated and re-recorded for broadcast via Ancient Faith Radio. Watch for it there, starting October 4th!


Monday, November 3, 2008

Election day thoughts: Slouching toward hedocracy

I do not, as a priest, tell people whom to vote for. I have no problem, however, with trying to persuade them regarding how to vote. I'm speaking especially to Christians here, who I imagine probably make up the vast majority of my little readership. Here follows something of a sermon, written in the tradition of people like the Prophet Elijah, St. John the Baptist, St. John Chrysostom and St. Theodora the Empress, holy people who had no problem with political involvement when answering attacks against the sacredness of human life and family.

All of the issues at stake in this election are important. Some issues are more important than others, however. It is of course important to try to create good economic conditions to help people who need help. It is also important to try to create good conditions for good health care for everyone. How one chooses to get there depends on one's economic theories. ("Liberals" tend to think government can do it better, while "Conservatives" tend to think that that the government isn't so good at it. The varying parties have varying records on living up to the rhetoric.)

For a Christian with even an ounce of tradition in his blood, however, certain issues at stake in this election are glaringly important. It is absolutely, unconditionally the case that the whole Christian tradition is universally against the all-out assault on human life and on the God-ordained shape of family life that is now represented by certain candidates and party platforms.

I think that much of our culture has embraced a sort of collective blindness and amnesia with regards to some of these issues. How one can look at a tiny infant in the womb and see anything but a human being is really quite beyond me. How anyone can look at so-called same-sex "marriage" and really and truly see marriage is beyond me. It defies logic, even without any religious faith to inform it. We as a culture have somehow been able to convince ourselves that this insanity is sanity.

How can it be sane to say, "Yes, this could possibly 'develop' into a person, has all the genetic characteristics of a person, looks like a tiny person, but there is some sort of voodoo that happens in the few inches of the birth canal that grants personhood"? And worse yet, now even that "voodoo" is being called into question, if one didn't really mean to let it happen! How can people be dedicated to human and civil rights and yet perpetuate the wholesale slaughter of the most innocent and defenseless members of our society? And, even worse, there is a bill being sponsored by one of the presidential candidates which would make it illegal for people to refuse to kill these children on religious grounds. (Where is the "freedom" or "choice" in that?)

And how can it be sane to say, "Yes, all those body parts seem to be dedicated to particular functions and clearly work in a certain way, but that doesn't matter; we think that people should not only be allowed to do whatever they want with those parts (which they are), but we should also require everyone to accept and participate in the legitimization of this parody of the most basic social unit in human history"? It is nihilistic—aimed purely at personal pleasure and the prevention of the creation of life, family and culture. There is no "freedom" being sought after in this push for the mainstreaming of same-sex practice. What is being sought after is limiting the freedom of people whose consciences cannot allow them to give legitimacy to this nihilistic behavior. Yes, this does have an effect on traditional marriage in our whole society to jettison that tradition and force the whole society to call something "marriage" which isn't. (There are already churches, for instance, being persecuted by governments in other countries for refusing, on religious grounds, to participate in this behavior.)

Words like "freedom" and "rights" are often used to try to legitimize these assaults on humanity. The 1960s civil rights movement is often trotted out in defense of these assaults. But the civil rights movement, along with the women's suffrage and abolitionist movements before it, were all based on the Christian tradition. That's right—it was the Christian tradition that was the basis for freeing the slaves, giving women voting rights, and recognizing non-whites as fully human in every way.

This is not theocracy, but it is simply the basic engine of democracy, that moral and religious beliefs are a major and legitimate factor in how people vote. So you can't steal the moral authority of the civil rights movement while jettisoning its whole basis. That's something that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would not have abided. It's also not "legislating morality"; it's about enacting certain societal restraints against certain major evils, because it's in everyone's best interests, no matter their beliefs.

The Christian tradition is clear not in a supposed "condemnation" or "hatred" of people who want to abort their children or people who want to require others to recognize their choice to engage in self-annihilation—rather, the tradition it is clear that these things are spiritually (and physically!) toxic both personally to the people who do them and also to the society that not only accepts but also promotes such behavior.

One of the great sadnesses of the modern disengagement of serious Christians from public life is that many believe that it is "hateful" to take a strong moral stand. When Hitler gassed people acting on same-sex attraction, that was hateful and evil. But when St. Paul listed such activity among a list of many sins (including many which I believe are worse but are not being touted these days as virtue or "freedom"), he wasn't being hateful—he was being a loving pastor. Your doctor doesn't tell you to quit smoking or quit eating junk food because he hates you or wants to limit your "freedom"—he tells you these things because it's what's best for you.

Now, I understand that a secular person might not believe me when I say that these things are bad for all of us. (Mind you, I think even bare logic shows this, but since all logic is informed by belief, I can see where an atheistic or non-Christian religious belief might lead one away from this point of view.) But for Christians, they should easily be aware that the whole 2000-year tradition has been clear—not in hatred, not in bigotry, not in enacting violence against people who sin, because we are all sinners—rather, Christianity has always said that abortion is evil, that it is is the murder of a human being, and that acting on same-sex attraction is nihilistic, that it is a violence against the beauty of God's creation and against the dignity of the magnificence of the human person created according to God's image. (These things are well-documented not only in the Scripture but in the centuries of tradition that follow.)

I can also see how certain kinds of Christianity are so anti-traditional that they feel free to ignore all of this. (Mind you, I don't regard such groups as really Christian, since they seem to want the label but don't want the faith that goes with it.) But there should be no question whatsoever for at least two groups of Christians on any of this, because our traditions are solid and clear on these questions: Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics. We have centuries of Church Fathers and official statements on all these things.

There are, of course, a lot of sins and a lot of sinners. I know, because I'm one of them. Even St. Paul called himself the "chief of sinners." But sin is real, and it really does destroy people, families and nations, not because it's a "violation" of a "law," but because it's a distortion of humanity, a severance of the person from the Source of all life. And some wounds are more serious than others.

That's why no one, especially not Christians, should be ashamed of being "single-issue" or "dual-issue" voters (or whatever). If there were a major candidate saying that we should kill off all people over the age of 80 who take up more than $10,000 in health care per year, no one would complain if his opponents were "single-issue voters." (He would engender horror if he said that he wanted to make sure that "killing Grandma is safe, legal and rare.") Some issues, whether they are one or one hundred, are so important that it's worth setting other priorities lower.

I'm fully aware of all the arguments and "exceptions" and hypothetical scenarios that are usually brought out for these questions. What I'm talking about, though, is doing what's right, no matter what it costs. I'm talking about saving innocent human life and saving the basic social unit of universal human history. These are profound, universal human questions, and future generations will judge us based on what we did with them.

No matter what happens in this election, we must love and pray for even our enemies, even those who participate in some of the horrors being proposed and promoted. And we must do all we can to help the suffering we see right in front of us. We must offer those works of mercy, those words of comfort, those steps we take outside of ourselves which may even mean our discomfort in order for good to be done for others.

While we take strong stances on major moral issues and vote based on those vital matters of conscience, we must also be willing to sacrifice ourselves even for people who hate us and work against us.

Remember that when you step into the voting booth and ask yourself, "What would Jesus do?" Because even while He told the scribes and Pharisees that they were hypocrites, vipers and white-washed tombs for their distortions of spiritual life, He also willingly suffered in their behalf and died and rose again that their sins might be forgiven and they be welcomed into the Kingdom.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Priorities and Practicalities

In a conversation I had recently, I was struck by how religious fervor is so often given over to nearly everything but religion. In this particular discussion, my interlocutor was greatly concerned about people who had no health insurance, because of a frequent interaction with such people, some of whom are genuinely suffering seriously with life-threatening illnesses. My position in the discussion was that health care, while important, is of relatively lower importance compared to questions of eternal significance. What I didn't know was that that statement would reveal that I "live in la-la land." Something real has to be done, I was told, and I got the strong impression that that meant it had to be some kind political action.

In all honesty, I regard much of politics as the real "la-la land," and not only because the candidates usually lie about what it is they'll do once in office (either deliberately or through a change of course after inauguration). Rather, my concern is that those who genuinely want to see real help for real suffering so often believe that the best (and perhaps only) way to effect such a change is to vote for it. This attitude is directly related to the common (and specious) maxim that "You can't complain if you don't vote." This whole paradigm is based on the diversion of devotion which is deserved only in religious matters to questions of politics.

And yet it was the non-Christian Gandhi who is remembered for saying, "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

Voting, while a potentially useful measure in a limited way, is in my experience one of the remotest and impractical things one can do in order to effect change for the good. What most of us (including myself) are usually unwilling to do is to meet suffering in front of us with a direct action on our own part. It may not be the case that I will be able to pay another's health insurance premiums, but I can say a kind word, offer prayer, offer comfort in numerous ways, or perhaps I may have the funds to pay for one doctor's visit. Or maybe I can try to find doctors who help people at discount or gratis rates. Or perhaps I can work for the reconciliation of that person with the family who were previously helping them with their health needs. Or I may be able to help on a grander scale and put together a private foundation dedicated to helping people in such crises. In comparison with all these sorts of direct and meaningful ways of addressing suffering, voting and all political action seem to me to be a relative "la-la land." Anything which makes responsibility for doing good someone else's responsibility rather than my own is a drift off into unreality.

The spiritual problem that we face in our culture is ultimately one of priorities. Most of us say that God is real, and most of us probably believe that what we do in this life matters in the next. Now, either this is true or it isn't. If it isn't true, then of course we should live for the next pleasure or (perhaps on a somewhat nobler plane) the "common good." But if it is true, then that means even living an ethical life can never be "enough." The reality of God does of course propose a certain ethics to us, but His existence and (especially for the Christian) His interaction with mankind propel us into a realization and an experience far more intense and powerful than mere ethics. For God wishes to know His people and wishes us to know Him. This is what He says salvation actually consists of. "Going to Heaven when you die" is, by comparison, almost a spiritual afterthought.

I've been told that it's a "hard sell" to convince folks that our investments in this life yield dividends in the next. That's been true from the beginning of the Gospel's preaching. But what really astounds is that this is a hard sell even for those who claim to believe in God and in an afterlife. True faith, it seems, is a "la-la land" of impracticality.

But what is practical, our praxis, is what we make of it. If our life's praxis is only ever to pursue goals which will all find their sudden and abrupt erasure at the moment of death, then of course, all that is practical will also be temporary for us. If we have never or seldom actually tried living another kind of praxis, we will not have any concept of what can actually be attained. But those who redirect their praxis in the direction of what is eternal find that what is practical involves a great deal more than what is temporary. And truly, even the temporal can be transformed to have not only temporal but eternal significance.

The ministry of Jesus in the Gospels included a lot of temporal work. He healed many diseases and brought people back from the dead. But in all those cases, those people eventually died. The 5000 hungry He fed all eventually died. The paralytic He healed died. The lepers He healed died. Does this mean that His ministry was useless? Indeed, no, because His purpose in all of that temporal care was to lead people to eternal life. Sometimes, He used it as a "hook" to get people to listen to His words. Sometimes, He used it as a demonstration of the power of God to engender faith. Sometimes, He used it to demonstrate what happens after people show their faith. But in all cases, He used the temporal aspects of His ministry to lead His suffering creation to what is eternal. I cannot imagine Jesus ever merely voting for change.

A well-known statement from C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity sums up this whole question well: "Aim at Heaven and you will get earth 'thrown in': aim at earth and you will get neither." I like the rest of that paragraph, too: "It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining that there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more—food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more."

This axiom is true for all of us. If our aim is at Heaven, whether in terms of the charitable and compassionate acts we do for others or how we direct our finances or whatever else, then we will find earth to be "thrown in," though often not in the ways we initially might prefer. But it's usually better. Here's some more from Lewis:

Most of us find it very difficult to want 'Heaven' at all—except in so far as 'Heaven' means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognise it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.
And, since we are on the subject of "la-la land," and also because I have always appreciated wit, I couldn't help but finish up this little reflection by yet another quote from Lewis's beautiful "Hope" chapter in Mere Christianity: "There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of 'Heaven' ridiculous by saying they do not want 'to spend eternity playing harps'. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them."

Monday, October 13, 2008

The End of an Era

Entropy is, as you know, the fault of Adam.

That being said, the Hitachi TV which my parents bought in 1985 when we moved to Guam finally has gone to its final resting place.

Mind you, I'm not really sure where that is, because I put it out behind our house where we normally put trash. It's now gone, but trash day hasn't arrived yet. No doubt some enterprising soul has decided to see what can be done with such an ancient piece of machinery.

Let us observe a moment of silence for a box that preserved a perfect picture right up to the end... when it suddenly turned green and then shut off! (That I was watching a first season Babylon 5 episode at the time is surely entirely unrelated.)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Some have asked

I've nearly taken this off the market a few times recently, but since some have asked again, I thought I might post the link to my little book of poetry that I published a few years ago.

I'm honestly not quite sure what to do with it. If I were to do it again, it would probably be quite a bit different. One piece in particular I find cited every so often by people I don't know (here's one from last month), which I find a bit curious.

Do with it what you will!

Monday, September 29, 2008

It's back!

After a nine month hiatus, Episode #7 of the podcast can now be downloaded. Its main feature is a chat with my friend Symeon Kees on the topic of Orthodox Christianity here in the mountains of West Virginia. Included is a new theme song, as well as a clip of your humble servant playing his mountain dulcimer.

Get it! (RSS)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Vision of Denethor

I am reminded recently by Fr. Jonathan Tobias in his lament for one recently deceased of the vision of Denethor.

For those who have not delved into one of the more significant literary feats of the 20th century, Denethor is a man whose role was as a steward, taking care of a kingdom which had lasted for centuries without its king, awaiting his return. As part of his stewardship, Denethor gained access to a sort of crystal ball which showed him things as they truly are. Yet his seeing stone was under a dark, demonic influence. So, while what he saw was true, his vision was selective and often misinterpreted. He so fell under the evil influence of his clairvoyant experience that when the king returned, he jealously guarded the throne that was not his and then finally committed suicide in despair and madness.

Denethor's vision and its accompanying madness are rampant in our time. There are many of the literati who see quite clearly, and they often act as ironic critics of society. Yet because they look at the world without the context of Christ, the returning King, they do not see the inexorable march of history toward its fulfillment in Him. Instead, they see only one more criticism, one more exception, one more "demythologization." Though he can see truth, there is nothing for a Denethor to believe in, and so when it comes time for him to participate in the One Who is Truth Himself, he does not recognize Him and instead guards his deconstructive critical theories with zeal befitting only a martyr.

But it is a dark zeal, an ideology that overthrows belief and faith yet itself has no center. If you were to ask Denethor what he was seeking, he could probably give no answer. He only seeks to maintain his sub-throne at the foot of the steps which lead to the true throne which lies empty.

This is a spiritual sickness which can afflict people of any kind, whether religious, Christian or no, though it tends especially to afflict the intellectual. Part of the sad reality of this form of delusion is that it is often mistaken by the deluded as being the same as the prophetic call to repentance of the prophets, apostles and all the saints. But the big difference is that the saints are simple and child-like in their calls to repentance, and they willingly pour themselves out for others. Christ calls us to be like children in our coming to Him, but there is nothing of their simplicity in this kind of madness, because their innocence and humility would instantly banish such a ravenous semi-ideology. And Denethor never pours himself out, but rather watches others poured out and comments on the precise landing place of each drop.

It makes me sad to encounter such people, because into their agnosticism of whatever variety (even Christian agnosticism, if there can be such a thing), the Gospel cannot penetrate. Nothing will ever be good enough for them. Nothing will ever be free from endless speculation, criticism: "Yes, but, but, but!" It is a closed system with no product and no center. Its only consummation—no, not consummation, but simply ceasing—is a return to the nothingness out of which we were called.

As Gandalf says to Denethor when he tries to burn himself and his son alive in the tombs of his forebears:

The houses of the dead are no place for the living. And why do men fight here in the hallows when there is war enough before the Gate?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Appalachian Byzantine

UPS dropped off my new mountain dulcimer yesterday, which I obtained by using some gift cards given me for my recent birthday. The particular brand I bought, Apple Creek, is apparently known for its extreme variability in quality (something I learned only after placing the order!), but mine seems to be in good order, good enough for me to learn on, anyway.

One of the things about the dulcimer which interested me presents a fascinating intersection of cultures which is just the sort of thing I like to post about here. For those not familiar with the mountain dulcimer, its traditional fretting is modal rather than chromatic (you can look up those terms if you like), which places it more firmly with most ancient musical forms. When I first read that about the dulcimer, I thought to myself, Hey, you're already doing modal music in church. I bet this thing would sound cool doing Byzantine chant tunes. And sure enough, it does. (Some people play Turkish music on it with great success.)

There's a para-tradition in the East of Byzantine chant being performed outside church settings with musical instruments, usually the oud or bouzouki. I'm very much of the opinion that my new acquisition should now be added to the list! (And just to add a further touch of authenticity to this intersection of cultures, my dulcimer with the very American name happens to have been made in Romania.)

The mountain dulcimer (also called the Appalachian dulcimer or lap dulcimer) is an instrument native to the Appalachian mountains, although it is probably based on zither-related instruments from Europe. It is billed as one of the easiest string instruments to learn, so in the space of just a few hours of noodling around with it, I was able to get it to play "Christ is risen" in Byzantine mode plagal one (which is roughly the Aeolian mode on the dulcimer). Mind you, I'm not very good at this at all yet. (This is perhaps the most my left hand has ever been called upon to do!) But I already love this thing.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Children and the Cosmos

Children and saints cling to You, O Lord, the rest rebel against You.

Children and saints are the boundary between the Kingdom of existence and the shadow of nonexistence.

—St. Nikolai Velimiromich, Prayers by the Lake XCV (full passage here)
It occurred to me recently in becoming a father that I am even less of an atheist than I was before. (This is predicated upon the truth that we are all atheists to one degree or another—the only truly perfected believers are the saints.) This quote above from St. Nikolai which I ran across this morning alludes directly to this thought that I had sometime last week.

In looking at a little child, most especially one's own, we are enabled to become acutely aware of the awesome reality of creation. Here is this person who until recently was defined only by non-being. Before her conception, my daughter simply was not. To be sure, there were cells and proteins and molecules and atoms which would go into her constitution. But they were not my daughter.

And then, into the nothingness, God stepped once again and called her forth ex nihilo, just as He did the universe itself. It is only with the eyes of faith that one can even begin to perceive this boundary between the total non-being of a person and the sudden, yet secret and mysterious, truth of personal existence.

Here, before us, is this new person, created by God in the hidden and sacred interior of womanhood and then revealed to the world in due time. She is unrepeatable, unique, a singular event in history which has never before been seen and never will be seen again.

And this is the same power which Christ holds out to each of us for our re-creation, that having hurled ourselves toward the nothingness from which He called us, we may repent (turn around) and be renewed in that same life-giving energy and power.

How the heck can we ever allow ourselves to become nominalists? We can only stand in rapt wonder.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

God is Not a Micromanager

This post from a fellow Antiochian priest in the UK (whom I visited in 2001) met with thoughts from the past couple days about religious jargon and the way people talk about their spiritual life. One theme that is dominant is what Fr. Gregory points out:

To hear some Christians talk you would think they had a "hot-line to God." They are so convinced that God is in daily, direct communication with them, to suggest otherwise would be to compromise on the glorious intimacy that faith and grace bestow. So overweening is this confidence that rarely do they stop to ask: "Am I hearing right? Is this God or Satan? Is this perhaps me talking to myself?" There is no room for such doubts on the hotline.
This way of speaking about faith is extremely common here in Appalachia, even among Christians raised outside the Evangelicalism which is the home of this sort of language. I've heard both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians here in West Virginia speak this way, that "God was really showing me ________," "The Lord laid on my heart that I should ________," or "God told me that ________."

As Fr. Gregory points out, there is something a bit awry with this manner of speaking. To be sure, one cannot doubt the spiritual sincerity of people who speak this way, but in all honesty, how can we really be sure that it's God talking to us and not ourselves (or even, God forbid, one of the dark powers)? One rarely finds this sort of language in the Scriptures, except coming from the prophets and apostles. Even then, especially with the apostles, one does not see any indication that they believe that God is directing them in such a detailed way most of the time, and they certainly don't say that they "feel" God is leading them in such-and-such a direction.

Even though I was raised with such language, being from an Evangelical Protestant background, hearing it these days always makes me a bit uncomfortable and even a little suspicious. As a priest, I sometimes get asked about what God's will for someone's life is, usually in terms of whether they should change jobs, relocate, buy a certain house, etc. My response is almost always the same and based on St. Augustine's famous dictum: "Love, and do what thou wilt!" Really, we cannot make spiritual mistakes if we are genuinely living in repentance and self-sacrificial love. (And what does it really matter if we make earthly mistakes?) God's will for us is that we turn away from sin and embrace holiness. The particular details of our earthly circumstances are relatively trivial.

This is not to say that we don't have experiences of the mystical and the divine, but the truth of the matter is that most mystical experience is really rather "mundane" compared to what most of us wish it were. In looking for "experiences," however, we are falling into the error St. Paul points out to the Corinthians:

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock (scandalon), and unto the Greeks foolishness (I Cor. 1:22-23).
Sometimes the scandalon and foolishness of our Christian life is precisely that it is so unspectacular. Seek not for fireworks and voices. Seek ye rather the kingdom and all His righteousness (Matt. 6:33). This involves crucifixion.

Mind you, when I hear an Orthodox Christian speaking in this manner, that God is "leading" and "speaking" to them in numerous minute and detailed ways, I don't try to shut them down. Usually, this is the only language they have thus far learned to express such things. My experience has been, however, that over time as people delve more and more deeply into authentic Orthodox spiritual life, humility eventually teaches them that they're really not prophets and that our own free will is what governs what we do. As Fr. Gregory says:

With this in mind we should not say that we have a "hotline to God" that rather that we have "an ordinary connection." True, God speaks to us. He does answer our prayers, although not always in ways we would like. However, in this life our sin and laziness always generate "noise on the line." Repentance deals with this interference progressively. We should therefore have a more measured sense of what we and others are able to hear. Sometimes it is the "Word of the Lord." Sometimes it is not. Discernment is called for.
The example of the saints is that they would prefer to say that God never spoke to them and thus accidentally ignore an angelic voice than to mistake a voice that is not God's for the true divine word.

Trust me: If you're ever chosen to be a prophet, it will be spectacularly apparent not only to you but by the confirmation of the Church. It's best that you do your best to refuse it, though, and accept that recognition of authentic prophecy usually only comes after death and is typically accompanied by persecution in life.

These days, I'm finding more and more wisdom in the "ordinary." Live life. Don't assume you're getting messages from God. Don't think you're special. Try to be holy. Confess your sins. Receive Holy Communion frequently. Pray frequently. Come to church frequently. Do all this with thanksgiving to God, and the rest will take care of itself.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The God of Healing

The following was my sermon from this past Sunday. I am posting it here at the suggestion of a friend:

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Much noise is being made today by people who reject even the very existence of God. It seems that almost every month now, we hear about a new bestseller which scoffs at believers. And of course right around both Christmas and Pascha, we usually are faced with some archaeological news story claiming to have found new evidence that Jesus was not Who He said He was.

The ferocity with which unbelievers can sometimes attack Christians can be genuinely baffling. How is it that such hatred for God could arise? Why do people expend so much energy on something they say doesn’t even exist? I believe that the source of all this energy is to be found in the way many Christians present God.

To many people, the primary image they have of God is as a Judge. In this legalistic image, God sits in a court and condemns the unrighteous for their evil, punishing them with suffering and hell for their sins. Sin is primarily understood as a crime against God’s law, and hell is its punishment. At the same time, Heaven is the reward of those who believe. It is true that images of this kind are to be found in Scripture, and isolating them and exclusively emphasizing them is what yields this picture that many of us have of God: that He has set up an arbitrary list of usually pleasurable things we’re not allowed to do, and He’ll zap us if we do them. This, I believe, is the “God” that the atheists do not believe in.

Honestly, why would any of us want to believe in such a cruel and arbitrary “God”? In this view, “God” is someone who wants to ruin our fun to satisfy his own incomprehensible and arbitrary standards. And the reward of the so-called righteous is to spend eternity with this “God”? Some who believe in this “God” are plagued with guilt while they wonder for their whole lives if they’re good enough to pass the test. Others are instead filled with self-righteous assurance that they’re in the spiritual “in-crowd” who are justified in condemning and hating those who are not like them, those who happen to commit sins that are less “acceptable” than their own. This is the “God” the atheists quite justifiably do not believe in. And I don’t believe in him, either.

If we read the Scripture with the eyes of our Orthodox faith, then we see a rather different picture of God. To be sure, one of the images that Scripture gives us of the reality of sin is of a crime against a law. But this is only one image, and it is by no means the dominant one. So how are we as Orthodox Christians to understand the purpose and nature of our Christian faith? Who is God, if He is not the arbitrary and capricious judge?

When we look at the New Testament especially, we see the word save being used again and again. Salvation is clearly the goal of the Christian. But what does it mean to be saved? Is it only a question of whether we go to Heaven when we die? If we believe that, then we are essentially embracing the image of “God” that we have been talking about—that faith is about rewards and punishments. It ultimately does not much matter how we spend most of our time, so long as we have fulfilled certain obligations. But this is not what it means to be saved according to the Orthodox faith.

The Orthodox Christian understands the full meaning of the word saved. The Greek verb sozo, which gets translated as “save,” is also the word used by doctors to refer to what they do for their patients. That is, in the Bible, to be “saved” is to be healed. Christianity is really not a faith about rewards and punishments. It’s about personal transformation. It’s about lives changing to become what they were meant to be. It’s about becoming whole human beings, filled with the energy of God Himself. This is what it means to be forgiven of our sins, not simply that we are declared “not guilty” of a crime, but rather that the power of sin no longer can affect us.

In today’s reading from the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus heals a paralytic. Have you ever noticed how often He healed people? Once again, in Greek, when He heals someone, He’s saving them. In this account, Jesus explicitly links forgiveness of sins with healing. First, He tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven, and then seeing the disbelief of the scribes, He heals the man of his physical paralysis, and he gets up and walks.

When we ask God to forgive our sins, this is what we are asking for. We are asking for healing. And when someone is healed, his life is changed. He has new strength and new abilities. And yet many of us who say we believe in Christ seem to want our sins to be pronounced forgiven, but we want to remain unhealed, continuing to lie in our spiritual paralysis, living life just as we always have. Is it any wonder that when we live in such a way, the atheists see Christianity as a big joke?

Christian life is not about rewards and punishments, but about transformation of the whole human person, changing each day to become more and more like Jesus Christ. This is why in confession we bring real, specific sins to the Great Physician to ask Him to heal us of them. This is why when we receive Holy Communion, it is “unto remission of sins and life everlasting.” Everlasting life is not just about living in Heaven when we die, but of experiencing and showing forth Eternity even in this life.

Our relationship with Jesus Christ is not something we’re going to begin when we die. It is something we are living now. We need to be healed now, so that we will have the strength to live in the Kingdom when it comes in all its fullness. Life in the Kingdom is not for spiritual wimps.

When we go to the doctor, he tells us what we need to do to be healed, and the Lord Jesus does the very same. In today’s epistle reading from Second Timothy, St. Paul gives us three images of what it means to live life as a Christian: the soldier, the athlete and the farmer.

The soldier, he says, casts off the cares of this world in order that he may focus on life as a warrior. We as Orthodox Christians enlisted into Christ’s army are no longer civilians, so we can no longer behave as secular people, making material gain our primary concern. Rather, we constantly train and exercise our spiritual muscles, putting on spiritual weapons and armor. We do this by prayer, fasting, repenting of our sins, coming to the sacraments frequently, and coming to be trained in spiritual life in the divine services of the Church.

St. Paul tells us that the athlete who wishes to be crowned, that is, to win the reward of his labors at the end of the race, can only do so by competing according to the rules. We don’t get to make up our own rules for what it means to live as Christians. If we want to share in God’s life and to be healed of our sins, we can only do so if we follow what the Doctor tells us.

Finally, Paul tells us that the hardworking farmer will be the first to partake of the crops. It is only he who genuinely labors in the life of Christ who will experience its fruit.

When people look at us, do they see Christians who like soldiers have put off the concerns of this world in order to focus on being warriors of Christ? Do they see spiritual athletes, who run the race according to the rules and not according to our own preferences? And do they see genuinely hardworking farmers who cultivate spiritual crops? All of these images are active and dynamic. None of them are images of people who are merely pronounced “not guilty.” These are strong, healthy images of whole, healthy people who are being changed by Christ.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Panteleimon, who is known primarily for one thing: healing. Here was a man who brought Christ’s healing to the souls and bodies of everyone he met and who eventually gave up his life in martyrdom as a result. Do we also have such faith that we are so consumed with Jesus Christ that even death cannot frighten us? This is what it means to be Christians, to be continually participating in the healing of Jesus Christ, always looking for ways to become truly perfect. If we do this, then how can we ever condemn others? How can we ever look at anyone else’s suffering from sin and think of ourselves as “better”? And how can we ever be satisfied with a merely legal image of God, when we can actually experience so much more?

May we therefore truly know the grace and healing of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom is due all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.