Friday, August 30, 2013

The Dangers of E-Mail

I had an intense e-mail exchange yesterday with someone at Power to Change, which used to be called Campus Crusade for Christ (the Canadian national headquarters are located here in Langley, BC).  Somehow I got on their mailing list.  Every other week or so I get a little advertisement from them which I usually glance at and delete.  But yesterday I got something that riled me up.

Power to Change was advertising a book that is supposed to help Christians create “meaningful” relationships with non-Christians, which “are the foundation for all effective evangelism.”

I should have just deleted it.

But, no, snarkiness got the better of me, and I hit the reply button and asked, “Has it occurred to anyone that to have a hidden agenda while building a "meaningful" relationship is hypocritical?” To my surprise, someone from Power to Change got right back to me with a sincere but sophistic argument trying to demonstrate how developing a “meaningful” relationship with someone for the purpose of evangelism is not necessarily hypocritical because it is for their own good. This only steamed me more--a sure sign that I should have said “Thank you very much. Have a nice day” and unsubscribed from the Power to Change mailing list.

But did I do this? No. I shot back another terse response followed by another syllogism from Power to Change based on assumptions I do not hold, followed by yet another terse response and finally an olive branch from Power to Change suggesting that perhaps we agree on essentials but disagree on tactics.  

By this time I was so upset I was shaking--which is not unusual for me when I am upset (I’m an emotional guy).  Finally I realized that I had to let this go. E-mail with a stranger is not a good forum to discuss religion, especially when there are fundamental differences in your presuppositions. 

I let Power to Change have the last word.

Having thought about this experience for a day and having become peaceful again, I realize (yet again) that spiritual things must be shared by the spiritual. What I mean is that I am guilty of the sin I judged another for. My comments did not come out of love. I was not sincerely asking a question, I was taking a jab.  

Evangelism, or any Christian communication, and probably anything a Christian does or says to anyone must come from a place of peace and love. Snarkiness has no place in the Heavenly Kingdom.  

Neither do hidden agendas.  

May God help us to love everyone. May it be said of us again, “Behold how they love one another.”

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Upcoming Prayer Retreat - October 25, 26, 27

Please consider joining us for our 2nd Annual Prayer Retreat on Oct. 25, 26, and 27.   Fr. Michael will focusing his talks on "The Sermon on the Mount".

Location: Same as last year - Vernon, BC.  The address and directions will be forwarded to registered participants. 
Cost: $75 per person, including accommodation and meals.
Arrival:  Friday evening - Dinner at 6 pm
Departure:  Sunday afternoon
Register through Fr. Michael.  Send your cheque to him by Oct. 13.  
Space is limited so please let Fr. Michael know if you are planning to attend as soon as possible. 

Image: Jesus Christ Preaching the Sermon on the Mount, Greek icon صورة السيد يسوع المسيح في العظة على الجبل، أيقونة يونانيةالعظة

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Confession In The Orthodox Church

Confession takes various forms depending on the circumstances and your relationship with your confessor.  At a minimum, it involves standing before the icon of Christ, saying a short prayer, confessing your sin to God in the priest's presence, getting whatever counsel the priest may have, and kneeling to receive absolution.

However, sometimes confession takes the form of sitting and talking--or at least begins that way, especially if your confessor is more of a spiritual father to you.  Sometimes the two roles of confessor and spiritual father are conflated, but a confessor is any priest (with the episcopal authority to do so) who hears confession and absolves sin.  A spiritual father may or may not be a priest, but is someone who guides you spiritually.  In North America, there are so few monks and priests, that usually your parish priest fulfills both rolls.  God is faithful, and usually a parish priest is sufficient for both roles.  Occasionally, someone just doesn't mesh well with his or her parish priest, and he or she has to seek a spiritual father elsewhere—although they can still confess and receive absolution from their parish priest, even though it may be awkward (confessions are often awkward, regardless of your relationship with your confessor--it's just something you have to work through).

Some people have the misconception that a monk is a better confessor than a parish priest.  Monks and nuns are people struggling for salvation just like you and me.  Only a few monks become spiritual fathers (or mothers).  One needs to be very careful when seeking and receiving spiritual advice.  On the one hand, we all need to be guided; but on the other hand, inappropriate advice can be very destructive (both in your own life and in the lives of those around you).  The best course is to begin with your parish priest and stay with him as a spiritual father and confessor for at least a few years.  If you are unable to get along with your parish priest, then that too must be a matter of confession.  As you meet others whom you suspect may have wisdom for you, you may also talk to them (but not to compare advice or to complain about your parish priest).  If you find someone's advice helpful, and this person is not a priest who has authority to hear confession and absolve sins, then you may continue to get advice and counsel from this person, but you should tell your parish priest, who will still be confessing you that you are getting spiritual advice from someone else (tell your priest who this person is--honesty is essential).  If your spiritual father is a priest who hears confession, then you must tell your parish priest that you want to go to this other priest for confession.  It is essential that your parish priest know that you are confessing regularly because your parish priest is responsible for giving you Holy Communion.

There is a kind of subtle pride that I have experienced myself and that I suspect may be common.  It is the a pride that thinks that only an Elder or Starets, someone who is clairvoyant and very advanced spiritually, can help me overcome my sins and passions.  This prideful attitude assumes that if I could only hear the correct advice I would certainly follow it and so be saved from my sins and passions.  This is a delusion.  In my experience I have found that if I cannot accept and follow the advice that I receive from my parish priest, then I certainly will not be able to follow the advice of a God-bearing Elder.  We must humble ourselves and believe that God has given us the confessor/spiritual father we need, and that God will bring along someone else at the proper time if that is truly needed.

This is not to say that every counsel of our confessor/spiritual father is always right for us.  Priests are not magicians.  Your relationship with your priest is just that: a relationship.  You have to communicate.  You must say what is working well for you and what isn't.  You have to try to follow his counsel, but you also must be honest about your weaknesses.  Humility is key.

Confession and spiritual fatherhood are gifts from God to help us along the path of Salvation.  This is a path that involves struggle.  There are no shortcuts or secret passages.  There is only repentance, confession and forgiveness producing meekness, humility and self control.  These are the tools God has given us for our salvation: to make us like Him.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

David and Solomon: An Allegorical Reading

King David is the warrior, which is likened to the ascetic practice of silencing the enemies of God warring in our minds and bodies.  The son of David is peace: Solomon*, born by God's providence of Bathsheba--a wife obtained by sin.  David, the man of ascetic struggle, knows his sin, his weakness; but it is weakness and knowledge of weakness that, by God's providence, produces Solomon: "the peace born of humility" (St. Isaac the Syrian, homily 36).  It is, in the end, this Solomon, this peace born of humility, that builds the Temple of God (the Image of God in a human being) and furnishes it with the adornment of all the sacred vessels (the virtues, the fruit of the Holy Spirit).

*The name Solomon means "peaceful."

Monday, August 19, 2013

Often Talking Past Each Other: Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian Dialog

In Ron Dart’s essay, John Chrysostom and Western Christianity, he points out correctly that back when the East and West formed one Church, Rome often came to the aid of misunderstood and prophetic saints in the East--just as the East became a place of both refuge and inspiration for saints in the West.  I also agree that it is a serious mistake for Orthodox Christians, or any Christian, to idealize just about anything in the Church: The Holy Spirit’s work in the Church is often very messy from a human perspective.  Many, many saints are virtually unrecognized in their generation.

However, I don’t think Ron has got it quite right when he suggests that the Eastern Church does not generally tell the full story of Rome’s positive involvement in Church disputes (personal and theological) during the first thousand years of (mostly) official unity between the East and West.  I can’t recall ever reading or hearing any Orthodox authority disparage or leave out contributions of the West. Our Synaxarion (daily readings of the lives and events of the saints) includes many western saints and does not hesitate to speak well of Rome when Rome has done well.

That said, I do agree with Ron that it is a huge mistake for Orthodox Christians to “write off” all of western Christianity after 1053 (or whenever you chose to draw the line of separation). There have indeed been many inspiring saints and insightful authors in the western tradition since communion between the Churches was lost. Nonetheless, there are also many sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant differences between Orthodox Christian understandings of faith, spirituality, doctrine, ecclesiology and morality when compared to the official and most common western Christian understandings in these same areas. Many of these differences have more to do with the way Orthodox Christians think about these matters when compared to the way western Christians about them.  

While some of the blatant differences such as yeast in the Holy Bread, Married clergy and differences in rite are truly not serious matters and could easily be resolved. Other blatant matters, such as the meaning of Papal Primacy, the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Son and the Father, the nature of divine Grace, and the understanding of the fall, sin and salvation are very serious matters.  Discussion of these serious matters is often made difficult because of the more subtle (yet substantial) differences in the way Eastern Orthodox Christians tend to approach and think about these matters when compared to typical western approaches and ways of thinking. It seems to me that it is sometimes difficult for many western Christians to appreciate or even acknowledge these subtle differences and the effects they have on dialog about more blatant differences. Further, I think it is this inability or unwillingness to appreciate or even acknowledge these differences in way that sometimes lead to misunderstandings about the general Eastern Orthodox reluctance to look to the contemporary West for spiritual guidance.

I am not without hope. What is good and true wherever it is found should be honored by all who love the Truth.  Friendship and dialog between Eastern Orthodox and western Christians are important--especially dialog that includes careful listening. Learning and listening are good for everybody. It is more important to love than to be right; or to put it another way, there is no one right but God, therefore we all must learn, and love is the context in which real learning can take place.  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Les Miserables: Monseigneur Bienvenu

I have wanted to read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (in translation) for a long time.  Now I have finally got it on Kindle (on my phone and desktop) and will go down to Boarders to pick up a hard copy.  (Kindle on the phone is great for traveling, but I still prefer a hard copy at home.)  

I’m only a few chapters into Les Miserables, but I had to take a few moments to write about Monseigneur Bienvenu, the bishop of “a hard bishopric for a good bishop.”   I love this guy!  He is a man of simple humility born out of a life of suffering who suddenly finds himself in a place of great wealth and influence.  I am amazed at Hugo’s ability to describe so intimately such a good man in the Church.  The bishop is a man who, on his daily walks, “visits the poor when he has money, and the rich when he has none.”  He is a man who has so arranged his lifestyle so as to live on a very small percentage and give away the rest.  A cynic may think that such a thing is truly fiction, but I can vouchsafe that such humility exists not only in fiction--but it is good to read about it in fiction because it helps stir the imagination of those who long for humility, but are just beginning to learn what it looks like.  

Of course, Monseigneur Bienvenu (a nickname, because he welcomes everyone) is an exception: humility is a rare flower.  The church, just like any group of people--a medical association, for example--is made up of people who experience varying degrees of sickness.  Spiritual health among clergy is probably no rarer than physical health among doctors.  We all struggle with the effects of sin.  Nonetheless, the fact that healthy people exist inspires those who want to be well.  And I find the account of Monseigneur Bienvenu inspiring; fictional though it be, still it has the vibration of something true, something that could be true, that should be true.

One of the important steps in becoming like Christ, is to begin to recognize and honor Christlikeness in others.  Even though I cannot attain to much virtue, recognizing and appreciating virtue in others inspires my heart and makes a kind of path for me.  One of the reasons why I have enjoyed much of 19th century literature is that examples of virtue  are often evident.  So far, Les Miserables has not disappointed me.

“Let us never fear robbers or murderers.  Those are dangers from without, petty dangers.  Let us fear ourselves.  Prejudices are the real robbers; vices are the real murderers.  the great dangers lie within ourselves.  What matters is what threatens our head or our purse!  Let us think only of that which threatens our soul.”

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Mary: Our Example in Work

It occurs to me that after my last post on the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God and how this is an example to us, some of my readers may think that death to this world means that we do nothing in this world, that we don’t care, that we don’t act. This is perhaps due to the skewing that takes place by focussing on one aspect of anything, it gives the impression that it is the only thing.  

If you look at most Orthodox icons of the Annunciation, you will notice in Mary’s left hand a spindle and small distaff of red wool. In the Temple of God, with Her heart and mind completely submitted to God, Mary is working with Her hands. She is spinning the thread that will be woven into the Veil of the Temple, the very Veil that tears in two at Christ’s Crucifixion.  

Dying to this world and returning, or attending, to Christ in our hearts does not mean that we no longer seek, ask and knock. Dying to this world does not take us out of this world, not at least until we fall asleep. Until then, we are in the world, but not of the world. We labour, work and love; we suffer, sweat and bleed; we heal the sick, raise the dead and cleanse the leper, each to his or her capacity and according to his or her calling and circumstances of life. We work, but it is no longer just our work: we are co-labourers with Christ. 

The problem lies not with the labour, but with the heart.  St. Paul says that we are neither better nor worse off by eating/not eating meat sacrificed to idols because the essential matter is not this or that food. The essential matter is in our hearts and getting the idols out of our hearts, and getting the claws of worldly habits and addictions out of our hearts, and attending to Christ in our hearts. And we do this inner work while we must eat this or that food. The food becomes important only as it is a stumbling block to peace for me or someone else. And as it is with food, so it is with work.

In this world we all have work to do, we all have responsibilities. We must be faithful to these. But as we are faithful in the world, we do not forget that we are merely co-labourers in God’s work. I cannot cleanse a leper, I cannot open someone’s mind, I cannot save anyone. God heals, God illumines, God saves. I merely do my best to speak faithfully, act responsibly, and live myself the way I believe God has called all mankind to live. I fail miserably, of course. I’m just a beginner at this. But this, too, is in God’s hands. God is saving me even as He is letting me participate in His saving of others. What a Mystery! What Grace! God’s hands are so big that I cannot fall out, and my blunders and stupidities and sinful selfishness can’t push others out. God’s hands are that big.

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; Indeed, the darkness shall not hide [anyone] from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You.

And so, like our Great Example, the Mother of God, we sit in the temple of our hearts at peace. And to the Angel(s) God sends our way, all that we don’t understand, all that doesn’t fit into our scenario, our image of what and how we would do things, we say to these Angels, “let it be.”  (Or at least we try to say, “let it be”; we learn to say “let it be.”) And as we do this work in our hearts, we also spin thread with our hands. We spin the thread God has given us to spin, the work and responsibility that we find at our hands to do. And Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles, sometimes something good happens. Sometimes a little Light shines in the darkness. Sometimes a little kindness, or goodness, or faith or love is evident. Sometimes we get to see with our earthly eyes what we are learning to know by faith in our hearts: that God is at work even in the darkness of this world.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

The Falling Asleep of The Mother of God: Our Example

I often say that the Theotokos is a type of the Church and that who She is, is what we are all called to become: Virgin, Mother of God, Bride of God, Handmaiden of God.  As we are in the season in which we commemorate the Falling Asleep (death) of Mary the Theotokos, someone has asked me how Her death is to be understood as our death. At first, I did not know how to answer. But with a few days of reflection, I think I have thought of a few things I can say about this.

First we must distinguish between three types of death, or three ways Christians use the word death. First there is the death that we are all born into, the death of this world, the death to which Jesus referred when He said, “let the dead bury their own dead.” Everyone born into this world through a mother and a father--that is, everyone except Jesus Christ Himself--is born dead in this sense. Roman Catholics also exempt Mary from experiencing this first kind of death through a kind of special grace. However, one of the problems with this theory of immaculate conception is that Mary becomes the Great Exception among Christians instead of the Great Example. The Orthodox consensus, for there is no specific dogma on this, seems to be that Mary experienced no special grace freeing her from the effects and influence of sin and death, but that as She grew and learned to choose good, She always did. 

The second death is the death to this world. This is the death that frees us from the first death. This is the death that brings us Life. When we are born (conceived, actually) we come into existence. We are born with a capacity for Life, but this life has to be chosen. In the beginning, when God created everything, He created everything by divine fiat: “Let it be." He created everything this way except the human being. Instead of saying, “exist! and the human being was,” God said, “Let us make.” Everything else was brought into being as it is and as it is to be. Humans were brought into being as something to be made, as a project (you might say), as something to become. And the first real, fully human being is Christ. He is the Man, the new Adam.  This new Human Being, was the fruit of a Woman’s womb, a Woman who said “Let it be.”

God created everything else by saying “let it be,” and then He created a creature that would develop and only become fully what it is as it learned to trust and love God and freely submit and cooperate with God, and itself say the “let it be.”  It is this learning to say, “let it be,” that is the second kind of death I am speaking of. It is a death to our own death, a death to the world that we have reached out and grabbed and brought into ourselves and we have confused with our life. We are born into the first kind of death, a death that looks to created things rather than the Creator for life. The second kind of death is the death to the first kind of death. It is the laying aside of the fear of death, it is accomplished by cooperation with Grace so that we learn ourselves to say, “let it be,” “not my will but Yours be done.”

Mary the Theotokos learned to embrace this second kind of death, this death of submission to God’s will, this death of trust and obedience, this death of silent prayer, inner stillness, and faith. Mary learned to say “let it be,” and so God could create in and through her a true Human being.  Our calling as Christians is also to learn to say “let it be,”  to learn to trust and pray and be still and know that God is God. It is a kind of death. All of the disordered passions and thoughts inside us scream for a different way. We desperately want to fix it ourselves, we pine for a way to reach out and grab the people, events and situations around us, to grab them and “make an impact,” to make it better, to fix it. Like Eve in the Garden, we want to grab the fruit and make things better ourselves.  

But the only real impact we can make is on ourselves. We must become peaceful, then we can participate in God’s peacemaking. We must learn to say “let it be.” Like Elijah in the desert, we must learn that God is not in the earthquakes and fires and storms we feel raging within us.  God is in the gentle breeze, (or as the more famous Masoretic texts puts it) in the “still, small voice.”  Or as Isaiah puts it, “In returning [to yourself and God within you] and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” This is not easy, it is a kind of voluntary death. It is a cross to trust in God and to say, “let it be.”  Yet it is a cross that Mary our Mother and example took up, it is a death that she embraced. And She has shown for us that it is through this second death that Life comes, that Christ is born in our heart (in our womb) and after an appropriate period of gestation, Christ in us becomes the Light to those around us, those we love. Through our death to the world, the world experiences Life. This is a mystery, as St. Paul puts it:

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?

Finally there is the third kind of death. For those who have entered the second kind of death, the third kind is a mere “falling asleep.” This is why the Church does not remember the “death” of Mary. We remember her falling asleep. For those who have crucified themselves with Christ, those who have learned to say, “let it be,” “not my will but Yours be done,” for these there remains only a falling asleep in the Lord. And here again, we follow Mary as our example. We die daily to this world and its ways; we learn to “return” to ourselves and to God within ourselves, to trust in Him and to entrust all that concerns us to Him; and we learn to say, “let it be to me, to them, to us all according to Your word.”  

These, I think, are some of the ways that the death, the falling asleep, of the Mother of God applies to us and becomes our example.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Born As A Babe, Again

After Jesus rebukes certain cities for not repenting, "cities in which most of His mighty works had been done," Jesus breaks out in an expression of rapturous thanksgiving to God (Matt. 11:25-30). He thanks God that He has hidden "these things" (perhaps the mighty works, or more exactly, the significance of the mighty works) from the wise and prudent and "have revealed them to babes." Only the babes see the significance of what everyone else sees. Everyone sees the sun rise, but only the babes see that God has shown mercy, granting us another day to turn to Him, enduring with great long-suffering our stupidity, selfishness and hatred of Him expressed by our hatred for one another.

It seems good in God's sight to reveal these things only to babes.  

Jesus goes on to say that no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son, "and those to whom the Son wills to reveal Him." And to whom does the Son will to reveal the Father? I suggest that the Son reveals the Father to the babes, the ones to whom it seems good in God's sight to reveal these things.  

Our hearts are broken by the hurt and hurting of those around us. "If only they could see!" we lament. But perhaps it is more appropriate to lament, "If only we could see."  Maybe we just want the pain to stop, the suffering to end. And like the wise and prudent of Chorazin and Bethsaida, we think we know how to stop it. We want to tell others, tell God, what to do. We labour and are heavy laden. We labour in trying to fix others, trying to figure out a better way, a way that does not hurt so much, a way to make others see what I see, what my wisdom and prudence tell me. And we are heavy laden. We carry the suffering of those we love. We carry the sense of responsibility piled upon us by our own wisdom and prudence. We are heavy laden with the secret guilt of our only semi-acknowledged complicity in the suffering of others, of everyone, of ourselves. We are burdened with the thought that salvation is just around the corner if only I work hard enough, think clearly enough, pray hard enough, say the right things, do the right things, give more, do more, eat less, strive harder. If only I....

And Jesus says, "Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

We are the ones who must become babes. We the wise and prudent ones must come to Christ taking off the load of our own wisdom and prudence and all of the responsibilities and guilt that they have piled on us. We have to learn from Christ to be gentle and lowly, for in gentleness and lowliness is rest. This is Christ's yoke: to be gentle and lowly, to be babes. Christ reveals the Father to babes.  

We cannot change others. We cannot reveal the Father to others. We can only come to Christ ourselves, come to Christ and learn of Him gentleness and lowliness.  This is our rest, our salvation, and it is the salvation of others too. I must acquire peace to be a peacemaker. I must be born again (and again and again) as a babe. Then the Light will shine, not the light of my wisdom and prudence, but the Light of Christ that reveals these things to babes.