Monday, June 28, 2010

Choices and God's Will

Living in today’s world we are confronted with hundreds of choices every day: red or blue, sweet or savory, toast or muffins. We cope with this plethora of choices by habit. We have our usual breakfast, our usual half-sweet, decaf mocha (no whip), our favorite color, our going-to-bed routine. And yet in spite of our routines and predictable patterns, all of the choices in our life serve a purpose in our culture. They preserve the illusion of freedom: “I always choose blue, but I could choose red, and once I did choose red; but I like blue better.” Somehow these options give us the feeling of freedom, a sense of being in control of our life, of being the captain of the ship that is our life.
This life of choices is much more a life of bondage than of freedom. One aspect of this bondage is the burden we feel to make the “right” choice. Here I am not merely talking about which bread (of the 15 to 20 varieties at the grocery store) to buy or which car is best for you. I am talking about the spiritual burden we impose on ourselves of choosing the will of God for our life.
For the overwhelming majority of the people in the world throughout history, what they would eat, where they would live, what work they would do and even whom they would marry was not a matter of their choice. As far as such matters were concerned, God’s will for their life was determined for them. The choice was not whether or not to harvest the grain on the master’s estate; the choice was whether or not to entrust yourself to God, not grumble against your master, work with your whole heart, and love your fellow laborers. The only real choice for a Christian has always only been: “Will I be a Christian right now, today?”
In our contemporary world with its illusionary freedom, earnest Christians often worry that they might not choose God's will for their life. They wish they knew what God’s will for their life was. They are afraid that they have missed God’s will for their life. Such thinking comes from a grossly inflated (and often delusional) sense of control we think we have over the events of our life, and our very small view of the providence of God.
God’s will for our life is that we be conformed to the Image of Christ. This is possible in marriage or in singleness, as a businessman or as a plumber, as a slave or as a master, as a home owner or as a prisoner (although Christ does tell us that it is more difficult for the wealthy than for the poor). The will of God has very little to do with being married or single, or being a firefighter or an insurance salesman; but it has almost everything to do with how we are a married or single person, how we are a firefighter or an insurance salesman. The will of God is that we acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit. It is that we manifest the fruit of the Spirit, that we love God and our neighbor wherever we are or in whatever condition of life we find ourselves in.
The will of God cannot be thwarted by foreign invasion or bad economic decisions or even poor interpersonal communication (with our parents, children or spouse, for example). God’s will is not so much a matter of taking the left or right path at the fork in the road, but of entrusting ourselves to God and embracing as a Christian whatever we encounter on the left or on the right. This, however, does not mean that choices do not matter. They do matter, and the Church has given us quite a bit of guidance about God’s will for our life--particularly about what is not God’s will.
I can confidently assert to every Christian that it is not God’s will for you to fornicate or commit adultery. It is God’s will that you pay your taxes and (in so far as it doesn’t keep you from obeying Christ) obey the laws of the land. It is not God’s will for you to dishonor or abandon your parents or children. It is not God’s will that you kill (or even hate) another human being. God has not left us clueless regarding His will. Our struggle lies in our wanting to control aspects of His will that He has not given to us to control. We think little of the guidance He has given us, and yet we want Him to reveal deeper matters of His providence to us. Our behavior belies that we really do not think that what God says is important, is important. Why should He reveal more to us? In my own struggles to do God’s will, I often hear in my head the prophet’s words, “you draw near me with your lips, but your heart is far from me.”
So what’s a heart that’s far from God to do? We can begin by accepting our life as it is, where it is, with whom it is (or isn’t). We can begin by repenting from the obvious stuff, the stuff we already know shouldn’t be in our lives. We can begin by believing that where I am is where I am called to be a Christian. I can accept that my salvation is nearer today than it was yesterday--despite all of the mistakes and regrets of yesterday (and of yesterday’s yesterdays). Today is the day of salvation, St. Paul tells us. Now is the acceptable time, the Bible says. God’s will is that I commit my life to Him today, to do my best to pay attention to God in my heart today, to love as much as I can those who are in my life today. This is God’s will for my life.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Serving God

All of us have been called to serve God. We do this in our families, our parishes and our secular jobs. We serve God when we serve one another. Our acts of kindness and generosity, our prayers for our loved ones and our enemies, are all offerings to God which He receives from us and uses for the benefit of all mankind.
Bishop Joseph


At the end of Romans, starting with chapter 12, St. Paul begins to give practical application.  It is the common pattern in St. Paul’s letters to start by thanking and praising God (doxology), and then move on to explaining a little about who God is and what He has done for us (theology), and then to move on to behavioral application, the “so what” of theology: how we apply theology in our life to be transformed and saved (soteriology).  One of the practical aspects of Christian life that St. Paul deals with at the end of Romans is fasting.  But he does not say what most people think he will say.
In Romans 14, St. Paul contrasts those who fast (eat only vegetables) with those who “eat all things.”  What is surprising is that St. Paul says that “he who is weak eats only vegetables.”  That is, the weak are the ones who fast while others “believe they may eat all things” and so don’t fast.  Although the exact historical context in which St. Paul is addressing this matter of eating or not eating is not the context of liturgical fasting; nevertheless, the Church presents this passage on the Sunday of Cheesefare (the last Sunday before Great Lent begins) as the model for Christian liturgical fasting: “He who is weak eats only vegetables.”
For almost all of my life I have been under the impression that it was the spiritually strong who fasted.  So when I exegeted this passage, I used all of the exegetical tricks to make this passage not really mean what it said.  I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the possibility that fasting was a manifestation of weakness.  After all, Jesus fasted, the Apostles fasted, great Christians throughout the ages fasted.  How could fasting be for the weak?  Later on in the chapter, St. Paul turns the table somewhat and argues that although “nothing is unclean,” one should not eat anything if it might offend the weaker (fasting) brother.  So I interpreted the first part of the chapter to mean the exact opposite of what St. Paul actually says.  I argued that it was a rhetorical set-up to make the point at the end of the chapter that the strong (whom, I argued, St. Paul was facetiously calling “strong”) should fast anyway for the sake of the weak (whom, I argued, St. Paul was facetiously calling “weak”).  Thus I got the passage to mean what I already believed.
 However, recently I have begun in the smallest possible way to become aware of the mystery of weakness.  Jesus fasted because he was weak--He took on our weakness.  The Apostles and Saints fasted because they knew their weakness, because of their dependence on God, because of their weak, fickle and unreliable self.  In their weakness they fasted, and in fasting found God’s strength.  I no longer read St. Paul’s use of weak and strong in this passage as examples of facetious language.  Rather, I see St. Paul revealing a mystery.  God’s strength is perfected in weakness.
St. Paul’s instruction to those who do not fast is quite interesting.  He says, “let not him who eats despise him who does not eat.”  It is very easy, even natural in a merely human sort of way, for the strong to despise the weak.  “Those who need a crutch use a crutch,” the strong may say (or think) concerning the weak.  The strong see no need to fast too much, to pray too much, to pay too much attention to matters of the soul.  And thus the strong may be tempted to despise those whose religious zeal seems to be too much.  The strong may indeed see (or merely think they see) the many weaknesses of the weak ones who fast and pray so diligently, and because of those weaknesses be tempted to look down upon or despise them.  St. Paul warns the believing strong ones not to despise the weak ones, for as St. Paul says elsewhere, it is when I am weak then I am strong.
To the fasters St. Paul gives this exhortation: “Let not him who does not eat judge him who eats.”  Here St. Paul get’s pretty forceful: “Who are you to judge another man’s servant?”  Whenever those who fast judge those who do not fast, they are doing nothing less that usurping God’s place as master.  It is better not to fast at all than to fast and judge those who do not fast.  Those who do not fast may not be fasting because they are strong (which which may or may not indeed be the case), but those who fast and judge do so only by putting themselves in God’s place as judge (which is sin approaching the level of Lucifer’s self exaltation).  Again, it is better not to fast than to fast and judge.

In the Pachomian communities (Egypt, 4th -7th centuries), the monks were commanded to eat with their large cowls pulled over their heads so they could not see what or how much their neighbour was eating.  We would not be hurt if we practiced a similar discipline.  I don’t suggest that we wear cowls to eat, but I do suggest that we take St. Paul’s words at face value: “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.”  What my brother or sister eats of doesn’t eat is none of my business.  Who am I to judge God’s servant?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Assurance and Spiritual Advice

In War and Peace, Tolstoy describes a certain military advisor named Pfuel, a German expert in military science.  He says of  Pfuel that he is a "hopelessly, permanently, painfully self-assured man...on the basis of an abstract idea--science, that is, an imaginary knowledge of the perfect truth.  [He] is self-assured worst of all, and most firmly of all, and most disgustingly of all, because he imagines that he knows the truth, science, which he has invented himself, but which for him is the absolute truth."

This sentence struck me not so much because it is an interesting take on the limitations of science, but because of the emphasis on self assuredness. While I was in Saskatoon a couple of weeks ago, I had to spend a few hours in a large bookstore waiting for my daughter.  "Had to" is an exaggeration.  I spent the first two hours walking up and down all of the aisles just getting a feel for what was there.  As I read hundreds of titles and thumbed through a lot of them, I began to wonder why I bother writing at all.  All of these books presented perspectives about which the authors were "hopelessly, permanently, painfully self assured."  I felt lost.  I looked at title after title, each assuredly offering me the Answer.  That some answers are contradictory or mutually exclusive or just plain ridiculous seems not to matter to the book seller.  What matters, apparently, is self assurance and an engaging first paragraph.

I don't think I'm a book writer.  I can't keep focused for more than about a thousand words.  But if I wrote a book, I don't think anyone would buy it.  Who wants to read: Ten Things That I Have Found Helpful In My Spiritual Life, But May Not Work Very Well For You.

My assurance is not in my self or my experience (even the bits of it that seem to have worked out fairly well).  My assurance is in God's willingness to take whatever mess we give Him and slowly transform it into something more beautiful than it was.  I am confident that God will guide and help anyone, and I am pretty sure that the guidance and help will be somewhat unique to each person.  So what has been very helpful in one situation may prove to be even harmful in another.  The Church Fathers say something similar.  They say that a spiritual father giving guidance is like a doctor giving medicine.  Care must be taken:  the same medicine that will cure one can kill another.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Wheat and Tares

In St. Gregory Palamas’ homily (#27) on the parable of the wheat and the tares, he explains that one reason why God does not allow the angels to separate the ungodly before the End (that is, to allow death to take the ungodly immediately) is the following: 
“Many impious and sinful people, living alongside those who are godly and righteous, eventually change by means of repentance, learn to be pious and virtuous, and become wheat instead of tares.  So if they were carried off by the angels before they repented, wheat would be uprooted when the tares were gathered.”
Repentance changes tares into wheat. Part of the reason why we suffer in this world is so that the very ones who cause our suffering (directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly) might find repentance.  It is instructive that the Church preserves the memory of St. Longinus, the centurion who was in charge of the Crucifixion of Christ.  The very man who carried out Christ’s Crucifixion, upon seeing how Christ suffered and died, came to believe in him.  So we too get to share in Christ’s sufferings and bear with great longsuffering the torments and lashes of those who “know not what they do.”  

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Role of Apologetics

Based on my last blog post, some may come to the conclusion that I think there is no place for apologetics in the Christian life. That is not the case. I think apologetics have a small, but important role to play in the Christian’s dialog with the world. When Christians communicate with unbelievers in specific contexts, apologetics play a role. For example, Justin the Philosopher and Martyr used Roman religion and law to argue before the Roman government that Christians should not be persecuted. Others, most famously St. Paul, used pagan philosophers, poets and oracles to show that Christianity is the fulfillment of what the pagans have longed for. Apologetics in the form of reasoning in the categories of one’s interlocutor has a place in showing the unbeliever that any philosophy or even reason itself is no more or less reasonable than the Christian assertions. Apologetics show that the highest human longings expressed in the laws, poetry, prophesy, art or other expression of a culture find their fulfillment in Christ. However, in almost all cases, apologetics plays a limited role. It is not the kerygma (and much less the dogma) of the Church; rather, it is the Christian’s bending over to speak to the world in the language, metaphors, categories and paradigms that the world already knows.
However, as I believe Stanley Hauerwas has said somewhere, in bending over to speak to the world, the church has fallen in. Ways of thinking that may be appropriate in limited apologetic contexts have become the standard ways of thinking in the Church. Herein lies the problem. And this has been a problem for “School” Christianity since at least the Middle Ages in the West and in some places in the Orthodox Christian world since the 18th century (e.g. the Latin Captivity of the Russian Church). Knowledge of God in Christ is a matter of mystical apprehension, of knowing in one’s knower (as my godly, Baptist foster mother used to put it), of noetic enlightenment, or as St. Saraphim of Sarov put it, of acquiring the Holy Spirit.
When Christians begin to talk about their faith the same rational categories and language that unbelievers talk about theirs (rationalism, atheism, scientism, whatever it may be, for everyone believes in something), then Christianity ceases to be itself. Apologetics and secular learning have their place (as I have mentioned before); but it is a limited place, a place that must be determined by, and in no way delimits or determines, the inner, mystical life of the Church.

Shall Thy Wonders Be Known in That Darkness?

“Shall Thy wonders be known in that darkness?”
In our culture, the words “faith” and “believe” and “truth” have been hijacked by rational assumptions in ways that limit their meaning and usefulness in a Christian context. According to our rationalist assumptions, to believe (or have faith that) something is true means that you assent to the historical, physical reality of something. To say that something is true is to say that it really happened--it could be observed and measured. This aspect of the meaning of “true” is only a small part of the full meaning of “true” in an Orthodox Christian context. It is the case that the facts of Christianity are true in this popular sense, as St. John says of his testimony: “That...which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled….” However, for something to be true in the sense that it is historical and physical, does not make it true in the Christian sense. For example, the idols of the nations, the prophets tell us, are vain (empty) and false, even though they are historical and physical.
For the Orthodox Christian, to have faith that something is true transcends the mere acknowledgement of the historicity of the matter. To some, such a statement seems to open the door to Christian liberalism. They think this because of the rationalist hijacking of Christianity. Let me explain how this happens. Nonbelievers say that they do not believe, for example, in the Resurrection. What they mean is that they do not believe that the Resurrection was a historical, physical event that one could see and touch if one were present. The mistake Christians make in responding to such a statement is to make a counter assertion that the Resurrection is indeed a historical, physical fact. Then to try to win over their interlocutors (or, perhaps more often, to try to keep from looking like fools in their own eyes and, they imagine, in the eyes of their interlocutors), they search for historical evidence and logical arguments--as if accepting the historicity of the event were the essential matter, and thus they allow the nonbeliever to define the terms of the discussion. The rationalist assumptions of the unbeliever hijack the Christian Kerygma (preaching/teaching). For Christians, historicity is assumed, but is not the essential matter.
At the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus appeared to his eleven disciples after the Resurrection. The text says, “When they saw Him they worshiped Him, but some doubted.” Doubted? They saw (and according to other passages even touched) the resurrected Christ, yet some doubted. How can that be? Certainly, doubt here has nothing to do with accepting the historicity and physicality of the Resurrection: they saw Him and touched Him. But, at that point, the Holy Spirit had not yet been fully poured out on the Disciples to reveal to them all things. Their hearts had not yet been fully enlightened. Doubt had to do with the heart, not reason.
I suggest that doubt and faith in an Orthodox Christian context have little to do with accepting the historical and physical facts of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, but have almost everything to do with the “enlightening of the eyes of our understanding” (Eph. 1:18). This is Christian faith, to have an enlightened heart so as to know (not just assert or accept) “what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe...which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead.” This is an enlightenment that must occur whether one has seen and touched the historic physicality or not. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe”? Some of the disciples saw and touched yet doubted; and millions, maybe billions, have not seen and yet believed. The Psalmist tells us that those in darkness cannot know God’s wonders. Isn’t it rather foolish for Christians to try to “prove” the historicity of Christianity to those who are in darkness because of their unbelief? Seeing is not believing; much less is accepting a good argument enlightenment of the heart.
Instead of trying to prove the reasonableness of what St. Paul said was a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others, I suggest that Christians focus of becoming the Light of the world. I think unbelievers will much more likely be convinced of the truth of Christianity if Christians just focus on acquiring the fruit of the Holy Spirit than if we try to prove to the world the reasonableness of what St. Paul said is foolishness to this world. Only light dispels darkness. And those in darkness cannot know God’s wonders.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Who Sinned?

Saturday as I was mowing the lawn, a young woman, somewhat disheveled and wearing very dark glasses, came walking up my driveway (we live in the countryside) and asked me if she could use my phone. She explained that someone was supposed to pick her up, but she was afraid that he had gotten lost. I got her the phone and as I took a closer look at her and caught phrases from the emotionally distraught message she left on someone’s voice mail, I began to form some idea of what kind of help this woman might need. After the phone call, I offered her some water and she said, “Do you have anything to eat?”
We exchanged a few more words and it became obvious that this was a desperate woman with no place to go and who was used to being abused by men.
I got her some food and set up a little table and chair in the shade outside (even though Bonnie was home, I did not feel safe inviting her inside--I think she felt safer outside too). She ate like a hungry person, explained that she had nowhere to go and had lost all her belongings (having left her backpack at some “guy’s” trailer), and she made a few more calls. Then she started crying, the angry crying of someone who is very angry with herself. I asked her if she wanted to talk about what was upsetting her. She said, “I’ll be okay. I just have to figure out how to stop piss’n people off. It’s really not fair to Randy, for him to spend his gas to come and get me when I have no place to go.”
I offered to help find her a shelter. She said that would be good because Randy might never show up.
I made a few calls and found a bed in a shelter in Langley, but just then a man in an old dump truck stopped in the street and she said, “I got to go.” She thanked me, confessed that she had looked into the freezer. She said she was jealous of all the food we had. I said, “God bless you.” She said, “God bless you, too.” And she walked out to the street and climbed into the dump truck and was gone. I forgot to ask her name.
Since then I have found myself thinking about this woman as the disciples thought about the blind man: “Who sinned, this woman or her parents or her society, that she is so terribly addicted, abandoned and abused.” In my mind, I worked through all of the arguments relating to human freedom and the affects of sin and the “perfect storm” of destruction that can be caused by combinations of inherited weaknesses, abuse, neglect, bad choices and addiction. I wanted to answer the questions, “Whose fault? Who sinned?”
Jesus answered his disciples, “Neither this man sinned nor his parents. But that the works of God might be made manifest…. While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.” Then I began to see that whatever other factors have played into this miserable woman’s plight, my sin has not only contributed to it, but my sin also kept me from manifesting the works of God, from being enough Light to heal her blindness, to deliver her from her wretchedness. Jesus made clay with his spittle and healed the blind man, I reached into the empty chamber of my self-consumed heart and found only some left overs from breakfast and a telephone. Sure it is better than nothing. It is a little Light. It was enough Light to reveal to me that the only relevant answer to the question “Who sinned?” is “I sinned.”

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sequoia Blackberries

Sin is a little bit like Sequoia Blackberry bushes. It’s an invasive species that takes over, yet because of the sweet berries, you let it. But the berries are only there for a few weeks, and the thorny bush it there all year. At first you decide you can live with the thorns. You try to avoid and ignore the thorny parts and think longingly about the next season of sweetness. And each spring the bush grows several feet larger.
Then one day you realize that your whole life is organized around the thorn bush. You say to yourself, “I’ve got to do something about this.” But you don’t. And the bush continues to grow. And finally you get so sick of this thorn bush taking over your life that you attack the bush with sheers and shovel. You cut it back. You dig up as much of the root as you can. You bleed and sweat and win--for a moment. But it’s not over. Like sin, no matter how much you fight it, it still keeps coming back. Mercifully, fighting second growth is much easier than battling an established bush, if you don’t get lazy. If you dig it out as soon as you see a new shoot, it’s easy and only takes a minute. You can even grab it with a bare hand near the root and pull (but it does get your hand dirty). If you get lazy, if you say, “I’ll get it tomorrow; I don’t want to get my hand dirty right now.” Watch out! Before you know it the sweet taste of August black berries is calling your name and you are saying to yourself, well maybe a small thorn bush is not so bad...

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Proud Man

"The proud man thinks he can comprehend everything with his mind. The Lord does not grant this ... The Lord does not manifest Himself to the proud soul. Pride is difficult to detect in oneself, but the Lord leaves the proud to be tormented by their impotence until they humble themselves." -- St. Silouan

Our Duty

"It is our duty, therefore, to be faithful to God, pure in heart, merciful and kind, just and holy; for these things imprint in us the outlines of the divine likeness, and perfect us as heirs of eternal life." -- St. Cyril of Alexandria

Oil and Miracles

[Last day on the farm]
I've got  mixed metaphors rolling around in my head.  They have to do with two kinds of oil, small amounts of oil that are given away.  The first picture is of an oil pump on the side of an engine.  Compared to the engine, the oil pump is very small and has very little power. It just squirts oil, a little bit at a time, onto the moving parts of the engine.  The pump provides no power to the engine; in fact, it consumes power. It just squirts oil.  But without that oil the engine would burn out.
Switching metaphors, the Widow of Zeraphath had only enough oil and flour to "to eat and die."  Elijah asks the widow to make a small cake for him first.  The widow takes her little oil and gives it away.  And then a miracle happens. 
I often frustrate myself trying to figure out how to get more oil into the system: more righteousness, less oppression; more compassion, less selfishness; more peace, less driving passion.  I grieve that the world is not a better place, and I'm frustrated that I don't have very much oil to give.  I only have enough oil to "eat and die."  And then I remember:  I am not the Power that turns the engine.  I rely on that Power to pump my little bit of oil.  Not enough oil, it seems to me, to make a difference in this huge, hot, grinding engine of a world.  And still, I give my oil away.
Like the widow of Zeraphath, only a miracle will save me.  Only a miracle will save the ones I love, the ones I hate, the ones I don't even know.  Only a miracle will save: not better teachers or techniques, not better bishops or priests, not more opportunities or more money, only a miracle.  I can't make miracles happen.  But I can just keep pumping my little bit of oil.  I can keep giving away the very little bit that I have to give. I've seen miracles before (small ones).  I know they happen.  So I keep pumping.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Light in the Darkness

[On the farm in Saskatoon] We’ve been looking pretty hard and long at the darkness over the past few days, and if we’re not careful, we’ll forget to lift up our eyes.  God saves those who come to Him, even you and me.  Instead of bringing our broken hearts to God, if we are not careful, we will let the serpent beguile us into figuring it out.  The deceiver will give us plenty to keep our minds busy, there is always more tragedy, anything to keep us from looking up.
There is light in the darkness, a bright sadness that shines in our hearts, if we will lift up our eyes. There is no figuring it out, but there is bright sadness, there is light in darkness.  Lift up your eyes!
(By the way, this is not about my salvation while the world is damned.  The light that saves the world shines from our hearts, if we let it.  If we let ourselves be beguiled, who will shine?)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A Quote

Sin, first and foremost, is the cause of every damage in this world. The evil one is the master of this sin, the master of this damage, but we have the Lord Jesus Christ, the Master of the Kingdom of God to defeat any kind of sin.

Bishop Joseph

Monday, June 07, 2010

God Gave Them Up

[On the Farm in Saskatoon]
What does it mean to give up?  In English, a lot depends on the preposition and word order.  I can give up, as in surrender, and stop fighting.  I can give up something, as in to stop smoking:  “I gave up smoking.”  I can give up on someone, which means to despair, to no longer hope that the person I have given up on will succeed.  And then there is the expression to give someone up (or over) to someone or something.

In Romans chapter one, St. Paul says three times that God has given mankind up (or over) to self defeating and destructive ways of thinking and acting (because men and women do not want to keep God in their knowledge—to glorify Him and give Him thanks).  This does not mean that God has given up on mankind.  No, no, no! It means that God has given mankind what it wanted—or better yet, has not forced mankind to embrace reality, but has allowed human beings to create and live in a fantasy of their own creation.  Instead of life in Paradise, mankind preferred death, the slow dying of existence outside of Paradise, in the false reality of their own creation.  However, God has not given up on mankind.  In fact, God’s call and purpose for human beings has not changed.

When we reject Paradise and go our own ways, we suffer the consequences.  The consequences are not God’s punishment for our being “bad”; rather they are the brick walls of reality that we run into.  I might say to my son, “Don’t drink too much or you’ll get a nasty hangover.”  My son might not believe me.  My son might not want to believe me (even though at some level he knows I am right, but something inside him keeps urging him to disobey my advice).  And so he drinks too much, gets sick, has a nasty hangover, and then learns that reality has limits—brick walls.  If you run into these walls, they will not budge; you will break, not the wall.  And then, perhaps, my son will learn that I have given him advice not because I want to control him, but because I love him and want him to understand the way the universe is.  I want him to learn it the easy way.

When people have to make a moral decision, sometimes they ask me for advice.  They will sometimes want to know if God will abandon them if they make the wrong decision.  I often tell them that God will not abandon them—no matter what they do—in the sense of giving up on them.  However, God will give them up to the consequences of the decision they make.  I will sometimes summarize the matter by saying, “You can do this the hard way, or you can do this the very, very hard way.”  It is hard to do the right thing.  You will suffer doing the right thing.  However, sin has very, very painful consequences that can almost never be seen or even guessed beforehand.   

And the consequences of sin are never just individual.  The common lie we tell ourselves is that I will be hurting no one but myself. It’s a convenient self delusion. How is it that we can look at the problems of our life and clearly see how they are the fault of our parents, our government, those who have abused us, those who have not helped us, large corporations, etc. and then still say with a straight face, “my sin hurts no one but myself”?    We don’t want to think it through.  Sin and selfishness hurts people—lots of people, people we don’t see, people we love and don’t want to hurt, people who need our help but whom we cannot help because we have damaged ourselves through sin, through running into brick walls.

And still, God has not given up on us.  One of the prayers of matins says that God has given us an example of repentance in the Prophet (King) David.  Even those who seduce the wife of a poor but loyal friend, and then arrange a contract to have their loyal friend murdered to cover up their tracks, even such a sinner, God has not given up on.  However, David learned the very, very hard way.  Sometime, read 2 Samuel beginning at chapter 11 to the end and see how very, very hard it went for David.   Not only does David suffer, but his family suffers and his nation suffers.  Everyone suffers.  Sin hurts people.  And yet, in the midst of it all, David repents.  Sin, even the consequence of sin, is not the final word.  There is always a door open for repentance.  It is always possible to change, to learn and to grow.  God does not abandon us.  He is always there, even if our God-sensitive antennae have been so damaged that we can barely perceive Him.  God is there waiting to meet us and help us, waiting for us to turn around and begin the long walk back to Paradise.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Wrath of God

[In the Calgary airport]
Carl Barth, a famous Protestant theologian and a hero of mine at one point of my theological development, once said, “God is not man written in capital letters.” What he was saying is that you cannot understand who God is by working back from who you are. A good example of how we tend to work back from who we are to try to understand God is illustrated by how people normally understand the wrath of God.

In the Bible, the wrath of God is a term that is used to describe terrible events that happen (such as earthquakes, foreign invasions or plagues). Almost always these terrible events have to do with either God’s judgement of people who have so given themselves over to evil that there is no other way to correct them; or it has to do with people who have chosen a way (in the broadest possible sense) that God had warned them not to take because of the dangers God foresees down that road, but the people, nonetheless, take that way and thus suffer the consequences. In almost all such cases, the bad things that happen are referred to as the wrath of God.

Because we try to understand God as “man written in capital letters,” when we read the phrase, ”the wrath of God,” we tend to assume that God is angry and is doing these terrible things to people to punish them for making Him angry. However, this is not the case at all. God is not like man—although man was created be like God.

God does not blow up. God does not experience anger in the same way fallen human beings do. When the Bible talks about God’s wrath or anger, it is referring to the human experience of suffering from the consequences of sin—consequences that usually involve disease, environmental catastrophe or specific human evil (like wars, the oppression of the poor, or political injustice) taking their destructive course. There is a sense in which all suffering is God’s “fault.” That is God created human beings with freedom to disobey Him, thus He created the potential for suffering. This is why it is appropriate to talk about God’s wrath. However, even though God created the potential for human suffering and knew from the beginning of creation that human beings would disobey Him and suffer terrible consequences, God both laments that humans suffer (see Gen. 6:6 and the entire Old Testament book of Lamentations, for example), and Himself shares in their suffering: God becomes man in Jesus Christ and experiences “the wrath of God.”

You might ask, “Why did God create human beings with freedom if He knew they would misuse it resulting in suffering?” The answer is love. And love can only be real if it is freely given; but freedom, to be real, has to be free. You can’t cheat and say someone is free but has to do what you say. That’s not freedom. That’s slavery. God wants us to love Him. We are free not to love God, but then we shouldn’t blame Him if we suffer the results of rejecting the wisdom of the One who created the universe.

Friday, June 04, 2010

On The Correct Use of Secular Leaning

His Grace Bishop Joseph, Antiochian Bishop of Los Angeles and the West (our archpastor and my boss), was given an honorary doctoral degree from St. Tikhon’s Seminary.  His Grace’s commencement speech gives an excellent overview of the Orthodox Christian understanding of the relationship between secular learning and what we in English normally call spirituality (which in Orthodoxy is just called experience or noetic knowing, or knowing above reason).  He provides a nice summary of the development of academic Protestant theology; unfortunately, he does not mention the development of popular Protestant thought.  But then you can’t say everything in a nine-page lecture.  I recommend this lecture to anyone who is interested in or involved in academic learning and would like a little insight into how Orthodox Christians have seen the relationship between secular learning (both as content and process) and faith.
P.S.  If you don’t like big words and philosophy and theology, skip it.  Just take my word for it: it’s pretty good.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

God Is On Our Side

In my blog about the movie Avatar, I mention that God is not like an impersonal, balancing force in the universe that does not take sides. God is personal. God takes sides. This idea needs a little more unpacking.
When I say that God takes sides, I do not mean that, for example, God is on my side of an argument and not on my opponent’s side. Neither is God on the side of “good.” (Which, incidentally, I am always on. Right? Who chooses to be on the side of “bad”?) You might say that God is on our side, but not in our way. God is on our side in God’s way.
In the Bible, God is on the side of the poor, oppressed and needy: the orphan, the widow, the alien. But this does not mean that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed in order to make them rich and powerful (so they can have their turn, as children might put it). God is on the side of the poor and oppressed and needy because God Himself became poor and oppressed and needy. God came to be with the poor and show the way to Life in the midst of poverty, to show the way to resurrection through suffering death. “How difficult it is,” Jesus said, “for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” It is hard for most Canadians to believe this. It is not nearly as hard for most Haitians to believe.
And yet we are all poor. The wealthiest may be the poorest. God is on our side to help us see our poverty, to see our need for Him, to see our need for salvation, to hear His call for repentance. God is on our side to reveal our poverty to us. To rub it in our faces (if necessary), so that we can find Life, God’s Life that only comes to the poor and needy. God is on our side to gently lead us to embrace death, death in little doses, death to my selfish desires and ambitions and rights. He teaches us to embrace death so that we might participate in the Resurrection--not only on the Last Day, but today. Every little death is a little taste of the Last Day, the Final Judgement, the Account before the Throne of God. Every little death is a gateway to a little resurrection.
God is on our side to make us Christians: Little Christs.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Religion in the Public Square

I just read an interesting article on religion and public life by Ray Pennings.  I think Canada much more than the U.S. has the potential for a sane working out of religion in the public sphere.  I'm clueless as to what it would look like, but I think it will have to do with respecting the other's right to be themselves--even if it includes a God part that is different or even non existent in ourselves.  That is, just because someone uses God language doesn't mean they are condemning or judging others who don't.  Just as those who use, for example, an evolutionary framework do not necessarily have be condemning of those who don't--even though they sometimes are, but it is not necessary and can be overcome by allowing the other to be themselves (i.e. "other").

For conservative or traditional Christians (just as much for Scientists and Atheists) this may seem impossible for, we (I consider my self traditional) would ask, "How can you compromise on what is true?"  In answer to this question, at least for Christians, I can offer a biblical model that may be helpful.  But first I have to deal with a knee-jerk reaction to Old Testament examples.  The Old Testament is full of war and it all couched in god language.  Some naively argue that it is therefore god language that leads to war.  This is naive because in the last hundred years or so more people have been killed in wars in the name of the godless State than in all of the previous wars in the entire history of the world put together.  Human beings fight and kill in the name of whatever they think justifies their killing.  So, please don't go there.  Try to follow my point about how we can get along with people who are other, people who don't share our God (our Science, our Politics, or Atheism, etc.).

In the Old Testament, the Hebrews were the People of God.  When they coexisted with neighbours who were not Hebrews (either because they had conquered or been conquered, or because they were peacefully co-existing), the Hebrews did not expect their Moabite (for example) slave or master or neighbour to eat the same diet or live by the same rules as they did.  There is no judgement or expectation because, well, they have a different god.  My God, the Hebrew would say, is the True and Living God and their god is a false god; but the Moabite probably said the same of the Hebrew.  And so there it stood.  To put it in dualistic language, you might say the Moabites had an excuse to be "wrong" in that they didn't have the "right" God.  In other words they were Moabites so it is okay for them to be Moabites.

If we translate this into our modern framework of "rights," we might say that Buddhists have a right to be Buddhists because they are Buddhist.  I/we don't need to put our Atheist or Christian or Scientistic expectations on them because they are not me/us.  It's okay not to be me.  I may believe that I am right and they are wrong.  I might believe that no one is right and everyone is wrong.  Or (and this is my favourite one) I might believe that everyone is right and therefore those who think someone else is wrong are wrong.  But if I can leave judgement to God (or to Chance or to Science or to Whatever You Think Is Ultimate) and respect the reality of otherness and the responsibility of faithfully living according to the teaching of our God (as Christians), then we might be able to find a place to peacefully coexist.  We might be about to be ourselves and let the other be other.

God's promise to Abraham was that "all nations" would be blessed through him--and God gave him the covenant of circumcision.  It was not a command to go out and circumcise the Moabites.  

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Denying Christ Before Men

“The Lord said to His disciples, ‘Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father Who is in heaven’” (Matt. 10:32).
Until recently, I have understood this passage to to refer only to those who acknowledge (by word or action) their faith in Christ in the context of persecution. The persecution could be severe or mild. It included a range of possibilities from confessing Christ in the face of death or torture, to going to church on Sunday, instead of soccer practice, even though it might cost you your place on the team. It included speaking up for your faith or doing actions (like crossing yourself or praying before meals) even if you incurred teasing from teachers, co-workers or friends. Basically, I have assumed that this injunction not to deny Christ only referred to contexts in which the persecution came from others. A logical assumption. After all, the text does say “before men.”
However, Jesus summarizes this passage which focuses on acknowledging Christ before men and not loving family more than Christ with the following words:
“‘And he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it’” (Matt. 10:38,39).
Most Christian Canadians live very insulated lives--at least since their school days.* Basically you can confess Christ all you want and people will leave you alone--until you become obnoxious, but then that’s not persecution for Christ’s sake.
I think this matter of acknowledging Christ “before men,” refers to much more than many of us have thought. I think the extreme example of facing death or hating parents and children for Christ’s sake provides a target, a goal, an image for Christian becoming. That is, denying or acknowledging Christ does not begin when colleagues threaten to make fun of you or the Roman soldier ties you to the gibbet to be scourged. No. Denying or acknowledging Christ begins with every opportunity we have (and we have them all day long) to take up our cross and follow Christ, to suffer--whatever it is we suffer--as Christ suffered.
Just as earlier in Matthew Jesus says that adultery and murder begin in the heart, so too taking up our cross and thus acknowledging Christ before men begins in our heart. I have never had the opportunity to murder someone--not without consequences to myself that I selfishly considered more important than the life of the person I hated at that moment. But in my heart, I have murdered. I have stolen. I have lied. I have denied Christ before men by not suffering as Christ suffers. Like the Children of Israel in the desert, I have complained (sometimes unceasingly) to God about my circumstances. Those around me have seen me deny that God loves me by my doubt of His care. They have heard me deny God’s life in myself in a thousand sarcastic, biting, and self-pitying comments. No, you don’t need a gun to your head to deny Christ before men.
Take heart, though. Don’t despair. In the same Gospel of Matthew Jesus tells Peter, when he asks how many times he should forgive someone, that he should forgive seven times seventy times--a symbol that means until it is complete, until there is no more to forgive. God forgives us seven times seventy times. God forgives until it is complete, until there is no more to forgive.
So to sum up: On the one hand, the possibility of denying Christ may be something we face several times, maybe constantly, every day--whenever we have a cross to carry. On the other hand, God’s forgiveness is limitless. The only real failure is to stop turning to God. The “multitude of our transgressions” are set against the “abyss of [God’s] compassions.” Our many transgressions are numbered, God’s compassions cannot be.
*The Charter of Rights and Freedoms hasn’t trickled down to the playground yet.