Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Talking About Sexual Immorality

St. Gregory Palamas in his homily to the people of Thessaloniki on the day of  Pentecost ends with a warning.  It seems the "Barbarian" Serbian army was threatening the city of Thessaloniki at the time, and according to St. Gregory, deliverance from God would come only if the people repented.  The people were to repent particularly from four sins that St. Gregory names: fornication, adultery, effeminate homosexuality and aggressive homosexuality (the last two Greek terms have no exact translation into English, but refer to two contexts in which one might engage in homosexual immorality, much as the first two terms refer to two contexts in which one might engage in heterosexual immorality.)

Two things in this warning seem significant to me for the Church in North America today. The first is that St. Gregory makes no significant distinction between homosexual and heterosexual immorality. One is not more heinous than the other. One is not more "natural" than the other--at least not for a Christian. For the Christian, what is according to nature is not determined by biology--as though it were our likeness to horses that determined what natural behaviour is for us.  For the Christian, what is according to nature is determined by the image of God, Jesus Christ, the very image in which we were created, the very image to which we are being restored.  To deviate from this image is to be unnatural.

In ancient Greek culture homosexuality did not carry the cultural taboo that has developed in North America over the last couple of  hundred years.  For St. Gregory, there was no cultural reason why he could not group together these four types of sexual immorality.  Even in the context of a sermon on the day of Pentecost, St. Gregory could publicly exhort the people of Thessaloniki to repent of these specific forms of immorality.  It was not in the closet--or if it was, St. Gregory didn't allow it to stay there.  He publicly urged his people to repent of sexual sin.  Without self-righteousness and without arrogance, with no grandstanding and with humble compassion, St. Gregory did not allow sexual immorality to remain hidden or unnamed.

The second aspect of this warning that strikes me as significant is that St. Gregory ties the repentance from sexual immorality to deliverance from Barbarian invasion.  

More than a few times, I have heard from a young man or woman in confession regarding their sexual behaviour, "It's not a big deal."  It seems we have been almost completely deluded by our culture, by our media rubbing our face in it all the time, by our technology enabling us to manage unpleasant biological consequences.  We have forgotten the image of God.  We have forgotten the God who loves His bride faithfully.  We have forgotten, it seems, whose children we are, whose image we are to grow into.

Perhaps it is the job of the Barbarians, the terrorists, the atheists and the like to remind us that our behaviour actually is a big deal.  

There are many kinds of martyrdom. Perhaps the martyrdom (the witness for Christ) of our time and culture is not to shed our blood publicly.  Perhaps the martyrdom of our time is to endure for Christ's sake in chastity and faithfulness, even when everyone else, it seems, doesn't.  

The suffering one endures to control his passions is just as real as the suffering endured in the Roman arena. To be torn by wild beasts is preferable, it may seem sometimes, to the lonely enduring for Christ's sake of burning desire. It is martyrdom, only not before the crowds of jeering pagans, but before the crowds of heaven encouraging us to bear suffering for Christ's sake, encouraging us not to deny Him in the midst of our personal tribulation.

And what of the Barbarians at the gate?  God is not mocked.  What is hidden will be revealed.  However, my job (and the job of every Christian) is not to reveal what others may have hidden in darkness.  The wheat and the tares are already growing in God's field, we cannot separate them.  Our job is to bring light to our own darkness.  I only can repent.  Only the goodness of God, according to St. Paul's letter to the Romans, can lead others to repentance.  May God grant us such goodness.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Offering Bullocks?

Someone beginning to pray the Psalms asked me about Psalm 50 (51): "Why do we pray that we will offer bullocks on God's Altar?"

The first thing I have to say, just to gain some perspective, is that although the Church has been praying the Psalms from its very beginning, those who are themselves just beginning to pray the Psalms need to allow themselves several years to really start to get some verses and even some whole psalms. Instead of giving you an essay on the spiritual reading of Scripture, let me just share with you what I wrote to my questioning friend.

At the time this psalm was written, about eight hundred years before Christ, the only way to worship God was through actual animal sacrifices, of which part was burnt as an offering to God, part was eaten by the priest, and part was eaten by the person(s) who offered the animal for sacrifice. This was how God was worshiped in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, animal sacrifices are no longer offered, for Christ himself is the final sacrifice. However, every Christian offers him or herself as a living sacrifice, or as St. Paul says, as a drink offering poured out. Psalm 50 (51) is important because it makes clear that the real sacrifice is in the heart ("a broken and contrite heart O God You will not despise"). External acts reveal the heart, but without the humbled and broken heart, words and even actions of giving oneself to God mean nothing. So, when God "renews a right spirit within me" then I "teach transgressors the way, and the impious are converted...then will I offer bullocks [that is, my life in Christ] upon Your Altar."

So in praying Psalm 50 (51), one of the ways to spiritually interpret it is that I, in imitation of Christ, also am a sacrifice offered to God, a living sacrifice. Consequently, the mention of offering bullocks upon God's Altar is a reference to my own life offered to God.  This is the fruit of the broken and contrite heart.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why say the Jesus prayer

A Protestant friend asked me why we say the Jesus prayer. Here is part of my response in our ongoing conversation:

When we petition God, we forget the words of Jesus that God already knows what we need before we ask. So the more fundamental problem is our fear and doubt and misdirected attention and passionate urges and bombarding thoughts ( logismoi). The Jesus prayer is just the most popular form of a prayer technique (or better, a way of prayer) that shifts our focus away from the problems (that we don't understand anyway) and away from telling God what to do about them toward a calling to mind of who God is and an appeal for mercy. Thus every need that may come to my mind or dwell in my heart is the object or recipient of that mercy. My mind free from having to figure out what to tell God to do, I can focus my attention on my heart (my inner, peaceful place where Christ dwells) so that I can attend to that peace.  

The Jesus prayer helps us abide in Christ. It helps us discern what are mere logismoi and what are true promptings of love and of the Holy Spirit (which is, in the end, the same thing). 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Doing For or Being With

Samuel Wells in an article called "Rethinking Service," asks a very fundamental question: What if the essential problem of human beings is not death and limitation, but loneliness?

Wells is particularly concerned with Christian mission and its focus on saving people physically and spiritually from impoverishment, death and hell.  Such a focus, however, manifests a kind of arrogance on the part of the missionary--who may only have the best and most noble intentions.  The missionary assumes that he or she knows what will save the other from death.  And, if you look at what most missionaries actually do (even most Orthodox mission endeavors), saving people means providing them with technology, knowledge and resources so that they can "have what we have."

Even spiritually speaking, overcoming death may not be the most important thing.  Maybe overcoming death is only a means to a relational end.  That is, perhaps the goal isn't to avoid death and hell so much as it is to gain relationship with God and one another--relationships that only grow and never end.  If indeed loneliness is the problem, salvation (both physical and spiritual) is found in being with one another, attending to one another, and not to fixing problems for others. (Wells makes a big deal about the distinction between doing for versus being with.)

In fact, Wells points out, perhaps loneliness is hell.  Perhaps hell, or a species of hell, is to spend one's life and enter into eternity selfishly isolated, consumed with fixing problems and solving puzzles for the betterment of others--others whom we keep at an emotional, social and physical distance, others whom we assume we know all about, but whom we don't really know at all because we are never actually or fully with them.

Being with people may also involve doing for (and with).  But when being with is the aim, then what is actually done for (and with) is something that emerges from actual relationship, relationship that is enhanced by what is done for (and with), not relationship that ends as soon as the project is done.

As a priest and pastor, I am often tempted to do for rather than be with.  Sometimes it is a subtle (but fundamental) difference.  Am I with people in their homes so that I can bless their houses, or do I bless their houses so that I can be with people in their homes?  Am I with people in the hospital so that I can anoint them with oil and pray for them, or do I anoint them with oil and pray for them so that I can be with them?  On a family level, we can ask the question.  Am I with my family so that we can have dinner, or do we have dinner so that I can be with my family?  We can ask this question on all kinds of levels.

But this is exactly the sort of question we don't like asking.  It's easier to fix problems than to know people, easier in the sense that fixing problems does not require that I change.   I have no problem trying to change others or change situations, or change conditions, or change an environment.  None of this requires that I be vulnerable, that I change.  

It might do us all, and me particularly, a lot of good to ask this question through out our day: "what if the basic need here is not to fix a problem, but to nurture a relationship?"

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Beauty for Ashes

One of the books I am reading is called Beauty For Ashes: The Spiritual Transformation of a Modern Greek Community by Stephen R. Lloyd-Moffett, published by St. Vladimir Seminary Press.  The author is a professor of religious studies at a state university in California.  He writes from the perspective of a sociologist who is interested in religion and culture.  He writes as a scholar, not as a promoter of Orthodox Christianity.  Nonetheless, the story he tells has inspired me to no end.

The story--well it's written more like a dissertation than a story--is about a Metropolitanate in Greece that fell into terrible scandal in the 1970s, so much so the city's name became a byword throughout Greece for hypocrisy, cynicism and corruption in the Church.  In 1980, Archimandrite Meletios had gone to Mount Athos with a handful of his disciples to found a small skete and quietly devote the rest of his life to prayer with his five or six young followers.  However, God had different plans.  He was elected metropolitan of this troubled metropolitanate; and taking up his cross (he could have refused it), he with his disciples went to serve this scandal-ridden and spiritually impoverished community.  Over the next twenty or thirty years, the community was indeed transformed.  Today, according to Stephen Lloyd-Moffett, this same metropolitanate has the reputation of being the most spiritually vibrant community in all of Greece.

How did this transformation take place?  That's what the book is about.  To summarize:

Bishop Meletios' "program" (or perhaps "anti-program") hinges on the single belief that lasting change in an individual follows from an encounter with genuine holiness.  Clever promotions may fill churches; dynamic oratory may bring people to the altar; institutional discipline may make the Church appear effective.  However, all these things do not produce a lasting change within an individual compared to one moment with a genuinely holy individual.  The clergy, and especially the monks, must seek to become these lights.  The value of the representative of the Church is measured by his holiness or at least by his continual struggle to become a pure vessel of God....For Bishop Meletios, any "program" is an imposition of a human-derived scheme on the work of God.  It is destined to fail, no matter how successful it may appear.  The "anti-program" of the Church is to actively seek to be passive; that is, to continually strive to allow Christ to work through the Church without self-will interfering.

Yes, just one moment with a genuinely holy person accomplishes more than a thousand programs.  Holiness, that's what people are hungry for.  Why are people hungry for holiness?  I think it is because the Spirit whom God has put in our hearts is the Holy Spirit.  All the flashy stuff is just that: noise, flash, and distraction.  Even as a young man, I began to wonder whether or not what, as a Pentecostal, I used to call the manifestations of the Spirit, whether or not they really were manifestations of the Holy Spirit.  How could they be?  Shouldn't the principle evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit be holiness--no matter what else the Holy Spirit might be doing?  I grew to be hungry for holiness.

My first real encounter with genuinely holy men and women was through reading the lives and writings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Egyptian and Palestinian wilderness (fourth through sixth centuries). Then, to my shock--really, I was completely surprised--I discovered that this same holiness could be found in a few holy people in ninetieth century Russia.  Slowly I began to realize that the eastern Christian way has always nurtured and produced these holy men and women--not many perhaps, but consistently, and in every generation.  And even today, we can read about and be inspired and instructed by the writings of twentieth century holy people such as St. Silouan, St. Nectarios, Mother Gavrila or Elder Paisios.  

I have even been blessed to meet a few holy people--or at least people who are continually struggling to become pure vessels of God.  The words they have spoken to me have been words that have changed me.  However, more than that, just knowing that there are holy people "out there," that there are people who are actually striving for and living a holy life, that Jesus' promises are true even if I don't live them out very well at all, just knowing that holiness is possible: this is what makes all of the difference for me.  I may be a beginner on the path to holiness--a reluctant beginner at that.  But I know that I am on the path.  I know I am on the right path because I have met a few people who are much further along the path than I.  

This, I think, is what can transform any Christian community.  This is what I think every Orthodox Christian--or Christian of any stripe and probably just about every person of good will regardless of religion--is looking for.  We are looking for an example.  We are looking for someone, anyone, who is actually living it, who is actually striving for and attaining some evident degree of holiness.   We want to know that it is possible.  We want to know that goodness and holiness are possible even if we ourselves can barely pull one arm and half a leg out of the pigsty of our confused thoughts and dark passions.  We want to know it is worth the effort, that our baby steps toward God, toward the life our hearts tell us is true and good and beautiful, that our effort, as pitiable as it is, is worth it.  I will probably never attain anything near holiness in this life, but I can start out on the road with hope--and I know it is the road because others have walked it and become holy.  This is the hope that will transform a community.

Holiness: the anti-program.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Churchless Christianity?

I read that a Protestant acquaintance of mine was writing some articles for a magazine called Plain Truth.  I looked them up.  Plain Truth Ministries is an organization that promotes the teachings of Greg Albrect who propagates an sort of churchless Christianity.  It's a kind of church-is-invisible-and-institution-is-harmful message.

There was a time, many years ago, when I imagined a structureless Christianity.  Certainly the abuses people experience in religious structures seem to suggest that Christ never intended such oppressing institutions to exist--at least not in His name.  And for me, as a young person full of zeal, the stodginess of the few religious institutions and churches I had brief exposure to did nothing to belay the suspicion I had that institutional church was never Jesus' plan.  

I knew nothing of history in those days.  I could easily read my romantic view of things back into the New Testament: The Apostle Paul traveling around preaching and exercising dynamic spiritual gifts, starting little home groups, and then blowing into the next town: just like the traveling evangelists I admired so much as a teenager.  

However, sooner or later, you start to read the Bible a little more carefully.  What were these bishops that Paul was establishing in every city?  Bishops that were to be honoured and [no it can't be!] obeyed?  And sooner or later, the "blow in, blow up, and blow out" style of revivalist Christianity get's wearing:  you can only recommit your life to Christ so many times before you start to notice a pattern.  How do you live an everyday Christian life?  Who teaches this?  Who helps you?

And then there are the abuses.  NEWS FLASH!  You don't need a religious institution to abuse or be abused.  Amazingly gifted people who heal the sick and seem to save thousands also embezzle funds, sexually assault vulnerable people, and punish those who oppose them in any way.  Heck, even trusted friends with whom you have shared your very soul can secretly betray you:

It is not an enemy who taunts me—
    then I could bear it;
it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—
    then I could hide from him.

But it is you, my equal,
    my companion, my familiar friend.

We used to hold sweet converse together;
    within God’s house we walked in fellowship.

(Psalm 55: 12-14)

All of the abuses that are popularly attributed to the Church are perpetrated and endured even without churches, even without religion.  People are sick and weak and easily mislead.  Jesus' crucifixion was not unique, it was typical.

I've come a long way since the days of my imagined churchless Christianity.  I became convinced of both the need and reality of the Church through reading and experience.  As bad as abuses can be in the Church--and they can be very bad--my experience has shown me that they can be as bad and worse without the Church.  However, the Church preserves something that churchless Christianity longs for and cannot find.  The Church preserves a tradition of holiness, a tradition of healing, a tradition of everyday growth through good times and bad.  

True, many in the Church do not live up to its teaching.  And yes, every now and then outright deceivers in the leadership of the Church are exposed.  But still, since I have been an Orthodox Christian, since I have been in the Church, I have found resources that have helped me live a daily life in Christ, I have found many examples of godliness who have inspired me, I have found holy men and women who have helped and guided me.  All of this, and a few crackpots as well.  

There are scandals everywhere you look--even in the Church.  Yet you don't see people pulling their children out of school or off of sports teams because every month or so another teacher or coach is exposed as a pedaphile.  No, sick people are everywhere.  We don't stop going to doctors because some are shysters or quacks.  Why? because most doctors heal, or try to heal--even though a hundred and fifty years ago it was thought that a good way to heal someone was to bleed them.  We don't judge today's doctors on based on yesterday's practices.

Similarly, it is foolish to judge the Church based on past mistakes and failures or the occasional bad apple today.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Closing The Door To Tormenting Demons

"Beware of idleness," St. Isaac the Syrian warns the hermits, for "without it a monk cannot fall into the hands of those who strive to enslave him." St. Isaac warns hermits not to neglect psalmody nor prayer because in abandoning them, the solitary opens a door to the demons. The judgement of God comes upon us not because we have neglected spiritual discipline, as though God punishes us for legal omissions, failing to accomplish our duty, or incorrect use of our resources; but rather the judgement of God comes upon us through the torment of demons because we ourselves have opened the door to them. The spiritual disciplines help us shut the door; without spiritual disciplines, our wandering mind, roaming lusts, hidden fears, and latent self-importance emerge, prying open the door for the tormenting demons to enter.

"It is written," St. Isaac says, "He who is not subject to the will of God, is subject to his adversary." Spiritual disciplines are the primary way we subject ourselves to the will of God. For those in the monastic life, and especially for solitaries, those disciplines are all-consuming activities of prayer, reading, and work. But for us in the world, the spiritual disciples relate to our neighbor: love your neighbor, don't kill, don't commit adultery, be kind, be content with what you have, be generous to others, don't judge, weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.  

I imagine some of my readers are wondering: "Are these spiritual disciplines?" Yes. These are par excellence spiritual disciplines. When we struggle to be kind or generous or content, we are struggling to be like Christ, and the door through which tormenting demons enter is pressed firmly shut. Of course what we find out right away when we seriously embark on the spiritual life in the world is that we fail miserably at keeping the spiritual disciplines that Christ and the Apostles commanded. We find out right away that we cannot easily be kind, even when we want to be kind--and then there are the many times we don't want to be kind! We find out right away that within ourselves, within the resources of our own will and desire, we do not have what it takes to practice the spiritual disciplines. And because we fail to practice the disciplines, the tormenting demons attack us--the door of our mind being left wide open for them.

Yet, it is the very suffering caused by the demons, the guilt, the confusion, the anger, the lustful passion, it is this very suffering that drives us to God in prayer. It is our awareness of our great need that turns us to God again and again for help. But how do we pray?  

Certainly, "Help, God!" is a good start. However, in the same way that one might use home remedies for a minor cold or to mend a scratched knee, yet will go to an expert in medicine for a serious condition; so also in our spiritual life we go to the doctors, the men and women who have spent a lifetime learning prayer. We go to the monastics, and particularly to those monastics (or monastic writings) that have proven over time to be reliable and helpful in producing the fruit of the Holy Spirit in those who have heeded their advice.  

Remember, the goal is not to pray like a monk while living in the world. The goal is to love our neighbor as Christ while we live in the world. Prayer rules and techniques are the means, the means to transformation so that we will be filled with the Holy Spirit and show forth the love and life of Christ.

We shut the door to the demons and avoid God's judgement by actively pursuing the spiritual life. This pursuit requires repentance and our own healing and manifests itself in love of God and neighbor. Prayer is a part of this, an essential part--I might even say an integral part of our pursuit of God and of our shutting the door to the demons that torment us. But he who says the most prayers is not necessarily (and not probably in my experience) the one who is experiencing the most success in the spiritual life in the world. The one who is succeeding in the spiritual life is the one who is learning love the unlovely, who is looking for opportunities to be generous to those who ask, who tries to shut down judgemental thoughts, and who is practicing kindness and mercy even when he or she doesn't feel like it.  

Such a one will be heeding the advice of St. Isaac, avoiding spiritual idleness and therefore not becoming the prey of his spiritual adversary.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fleeing From and To

Saint Paul warns Timothy twice (1 Tim. 6:11 and 2 Tim. 2:22) to flee temptation.  On an external level, this fleeing takes the form of exiting yourself from the situation, like Joseph fleeing the temptation of Potiphar's wife. This leaving the situation may have adverse consequences, as it did for for both Joseph and Potiphar's wife. Joseph suffered losing his position and ending up in prison, but Potiphar's wife also suffered adding false accusation to her other sins.

And yet Joseph fled. He didn't stay and reason with her. He didn't stay to try to save her. He fled. It should be noted that Joseph is considered, in the hymnography of Holy Week, the first type of Christ: Joseph's behaviour is our example.

Joseph teaches us to save ourselves so that others may be saved. This is counterintuitive, I know. But in the spiritual life, saving oneself is not a selfish act; rather, saving oneself is how one helps to save others.

If salvation is understood morally and individually, as if salvation were a kind of reward for being good, or having faith, or believing the right things, then saving oneself first would certainly be selfish. But salvation is not understood that way in the Orthodox Church.

In the Orthodox Church, salvation is understood as healing. And not merely healing, but irradiation with healing Light. So to heal myself and be filled with God's irradiating Light is to gain what will heal others. The very Light that irradiates and heals me also shines through me to irradiate and heal others. Saving myself does indeed save others. Or to paraphrase St. Saraphim of Sarov, to acquire the peace of the Holy Spirit is to bring salvation to thousands around me.

By remaining in the darkness of passions (anger, depression, lust, fear, manipulation of others, greed, envy, etc.) we help no one--even if we tell ourselves otherwise. This is Big Lie. It is the Lie from the beginning. Eve did not flee the evil one in the Garden because she came to believe that she could somehow get what she wanted--get something good (to "be like God")--by reaching out and taking it herself. And we do the same.  

We do the same when we think that we can change other people, when we think we can resist temptation or when we think we know what's best. We do what Eve did in the Garden when we continue to nurture thoughts in our minds, the very thoughts that tempt us, the thoughts that make us angry or lustful or envious. We are reaching out for the forbidden fruit every time we return (either physically and in our minds) to situations or relationships or conversations that produce in us despair or frustration or guilt. Instead of fleeing, we return, which heals neither us nor the ones we imagine we ought to or might be helping.

When we flee, we do not merely flee from something, but we flee to Someone. When we flee we recognize our weakness, we acknowledge our inability to assuage the guilt, we confess our helplessness. Externally, fleeing may mean simply shutting down your computer (and installing child-protection software, allowing someone else to set the password), or it may mean physically leaving a place or a person's presence, or it can mean just saying nothing. Internally, fleeing is more difficult.

Internally, fleeing means to let the thought go and to force yourself to think of something else--usually to force yourself to call out to God in prayer through the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!" Those who have not practiced the Jesus Prayer very much may think that asking for mercy on me is rather selfish, but it isn't. "Me" is connected to everyone. Mercy on me results in mercy on everyone connected to me. By crying out to God for help through the Jesus Prayer, I both relieve my mind of the unending tormenting thoughts by replacing them with the words of the prayer, but I also pray. I beg God for help. And God comes to my aid.

But the Jesus Prayer is not magic. It is not a charm. It is prayer. However, used this way, the Jesus Prayer is not the peaceful prayer of stillness bringing sweetness to the soul that you read about in books by and about contemporary Elders on Mount Athos. Used this way, the Jesus prayer is a weapon, a weapon in the violent battle of our minds--"bringing every thought captive to obedience to Christ." This is what the Fathers (contemporary and ancient) call spiritual warfare.

We flee to Christ in our minds by calling out to Him. The battle is sometimes fierce and can last days. And yet, when we call, Christ answers. Christ comes to us with his irradiating Presence that transforms us. As the fierceness of battle lessens and peace returns, the Light remains. It is not a Light that most of us can see with our eyes. It is a Light nonetheless, a Light that manifests itself in virtue, not the mere moralistic virtue of "being good." Rather, the Light changes us. It makes us more ourselves, more the selves we long to be, more like Christ. The Light is manifest in acts of a little more compassion, words of a little more kindness, and silence that is a little more patient. This is how we know the Light of God is shining in our hearts, the True Light that saves us and those around us.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Do Not Hate Any Of What God Has Created

For those who have not already seen it, His Beatitude John X, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East spoke at the Phanar (The Ecumenical Patriarch's see in Istanbul).  His address to the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Orthodox world at large is an appeal for openness with other Christians and to non-Christians:

Mention should be made here of the role that our predecessor, Patriarch Peter the Third, played at the beginning of the eleventh century when he reminded us of the necessity of forgiveness and laying aside unnecessary accusations and of accepting the other in love so as to win him to the Orthodox faith. He said to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Carolarius: "I throw myself at your feet … and beseech you not to ask for everything, lest we lose everything … Human beings must not hate any of what God has created; they should instead accept it with thankfulness".  We observe in this stance of Patriarch Peter a light that guides us and enlightens our way today, pushing forward towards accomplishing a similar role in the context of the disagreements between the Orthodox Churches as they open up to other Christians.
What it means exactly "not to hate any of what God has created" in the context of inter-Christian dialog, is, of course, the difficult part.  I certainly am not qualified to parse these things out.  However, I will go further and say (perhaps in foolish arrogance) that very, very few people are qualified to parse out what exactly is primary in our Orthodox Tradition and what can be adjusted for the sake of eoconomia.  
May God help us and guide our holy hierarchs as they seek to hear and lead according to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Tribulation: The Door of the Kingdom

In the Epistle reading for today, we read that Sts. Paul and Barnabas, after preaching the Gospel in Lystra, visited the churches they had founded on their way home to Antioch: "Strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith."  And what do you think they said to strengthen the disciples (the believers) and to exhort them to continue in the faith?  What would encourage us to continue in the faith?  What would we need to hear that would strengthen us?

Sts. Paul and Barnabas were saying, "We must through many tribulations enter the Kingdom of God."

Why is it that somehow this does not seem very encouraging or strengthening to me?

Perhaps it doesn't sound encouraging or strengthening to me because I don't suffer many tribulations.  Perhaps it is because the few tribulations I do suffer, I suffer poorly, with complaining, assuming that God should have something better for me.  

But if I were a peasant or slave or soldier in first century Lystra, Iconium or Antioch, life would be nothing but tribulation.  I would seldom get what I wanted.  I would generally have no choice.  And tribulation would not be mere metaphor--I would actually experience beatings for failing to live up to the expectations of my lord or commander.  So to the disciples that Sts. Paul and Barnabas were strengthening and encouraging, these words would have great meaning: "Through your relationship with Christ, the tribulations that you are already suffering in life can become the very means of your entering the Kingdom of God."

But what about us?  Is it possible for someone who suffers a little as I do to enter the Kingdom of God?

I don't know.  But I do have two strategies.

My first strategy is to make the most of the little inconveniences I do experience.  When I have a headache, when things aren't going my way, when what I have done or said is misunderstood, and when others are annoying me, when such things happen I try to look immediately to Christ.  I try not to complain, but rather to absorb the little tribulation into my heart, to accept it, not to defend myself, not to spread the misery, but rather to offer my little pain to God as an offering on behalf of the whole world.  

I say "I try."  I seldom succeed very well and I often forget completely.  But sometimes I can remember, and sometimes I do experience a little bit of closeness with God, a little bit of compassion for those around me, for those who unknowingly are the immediate source of my discomfort.

My second strategy is to open my heart to those who are in tribulation.  You have to be careful with this, however.  When we "bear one another's burdens," we bear them to Christ.  We offer them to Christ.  Sometimes, either through personal weakness or an overactive imagination or some other mechanism (guilt, pride, ignorance, not enough sleep, etc.), sometimes I can be overwhelmed with the pain of others.  Or sometimes it is not so much their pain that I am feeling, but my own (again, through guilt or pride or my expectations or even anger with myself or with others whom I think should know better).  You have to be careful.

Nonetheless, there is a way you can share in the tribulations of others.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tell us that enduring a great struggle with sufferings can be partly due to reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming companions of those so treated (Heb. 10: 32, 33).  We can become companions of those who suffer.  When we open our hearts, we can share the pain of others.  This sharing is indeed a kind of holding in common (koinos in Greek).  And in sharing and bearing and holding before the Lord the pain for and of the other whom we hold in our hearts, in some small way we help our "companions" and in some small way enter the Kingdom of God with them.

And, of course, one of the ways we know that the love and suffering in our hearts is real is that it manifests itself in small and generally secret acts of kindness, generousity, patience and service.  The evidence of genuine love, St. James tells us, is to do something, something that hurts a little, something that relieves another and actually costs me something.  Prayer, fasting and alms giving.  We offer suffering in our heart to God (prayer), we do something for another (alms giving), and it hurts a little (fasting).  This is the way into the Kingdom of God.  It is the way of love, the way of bearing one another's burdens.  It is the way of participating in the tribulations that help us enter the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Some Thoughts On Using The Word "Heretic"

Some of you may have noticed that I seldom use the word "heresy" or "heretic" when I speak of heterodox versions of Christianity and those who follow them. I have thought that, perhaps, some of you might have gathered the wrong idea that I do not think that heterodox opinions are heretical. This is not the case. However, I also think that the word "heresy" is not a very useful word when we are speaking to the heterodox.  

The word "heresy" has a technical meaning within the Church. Its meaning is particular to the context of those who leave the Church by embracing heterodox opinions. However, for those outside the Orthodox Church, for those who have never even heard of the Orthodox Church and know nothing of their theological ancestors who left the Orthodox Church more than a millennium ago, the word "heresy" has no particular denotation beyond "You disagree with us," but it carries the very strong connotation that "we think you are miserable, stupid and damned because you don't agree with us."

This is why I avoid using the word. I am not afraid of the word, I often use it when I am speaking to those who understand what it means--and more importantly, what it does not mean. But admittedly, that is a pretty small group. Even among Orthodox Christians, I am wary to use the word because one often encounters among the Orthodox faithful a latent triumphalism that seems to relish the cultural connotation of the word "heretic" as much as or more than its technical meaning.