Archive for August, 2012

Cornerstone

August 30, 2012

I stood in amazement. It had been announced that I was leaving to become Orthodox. I expected a lot of theological questions, but instead my clergy peers had questions like how I would earn a living, what would become of my pension, and how I would handle the loss of medical benefits. Not a single theological question was asked that day. I replied that as a father and a husband I knew that these issues were important and I had dealt with them, but I wondered, of such is the kingdom of heaven?

I had no delusions that the  skills I had developed over the years in the church would have any value in the marketplace. When I went to an employment agency, I knew it would be like a Saturday Night Live skit I once viewed. A soldier returning from the Vietnam war was seeking employment. The interviewer assured him that they loved to employ veterans. So he asked the soldier about what he could do, what skills he possessed. “Well,” he said, “I can parachute out of a plane.”  The interviewer filed through his cards and said that they didn’t have anything in that area of expertise. The soldier went on to say that he could throw a grenade, shoot a rifle, etc. Each time the interviewer was sad to report no jobs were available for that kind of skill.

Of course, today’s veterans are more highly skilled, and we value their leadership abilities, but I had a similar experience after I became Orthodox. When the employment interviewer asked me what skills I had, I listed things like public speaking, training volunteers, forming budgets, planning, fund raising, counseling, etc. He replied that he would have no problem finding me a job. Then he asked me where I had employed all those skills, and when I replied that it was in the church, he put his cards away and asked if I had ever done any carpentry, plumbing, etc. Since that day I’ve been a telephone operator, a fork-lift driver, an installer for heating and air-conditioning, and an installer of security devices -all jobs that I never trained for or had any skills

Its amazing the things that we consider to be unimportant and of no value; but we waste a lot of the time and energy  pursuing things that in the end prove to be false.  It has been my experience that the things that seem small  often turn out to be the best things in life, and the so-called important things turn out to be like fool’s gold.

I’m sure that it comes as no surprise when I say that there are actions and events in my past of which I am ashamed. These things demonstrated my moral and emotional weakness and my lack of faith in God.  I rejected so many good things and embraced so many bad things that I wondered if I would ever get over the legacy of my actions and choices. Yet, God, in his mercy, redeemed so much of my past by perfecting His strength in my weakness. The areas of my failures became a platform from which I could help others who struggle.  In fact, some of these things, now redeemed,  have become the cornerstone of my life. This is truly the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in my eyes.

The Lord told the parable of the Vineyard to the Jews and he ended the story by saying that what is rejected becomes the cornerstone (Matt. 21). They did not understand the scope of what He was saying to them. They did not value or esteem Jesus at all. They would despise and reject him. They did not know that Jesus would become the cornerstone of the new Israel, and upon him the foundation of the Church would be built. He would build with living stones-the Apostles -who were themselves considered to be rejects and throw-a-ways by the world.

A movie that I use  with catechumens and inquirers is Babettes’ Feast.  One of the lines of dialogue  says that “Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed.” (Psalm 85). Reflecting on the verse, the actor says that because of the love and mercy of God, who brings mercy and truth together, even that which we rejected will be restored to us. So, it has been in my life. So much has been restored to me, but it is sad that in spite of this grace, I am a very ungrateful person.

If nothing else, this truth has given me the awareness that I need to keep my eyes open for the things that I consider to be of little value.  Also there are people that the world considers to be small and insignificant. This fact alone ought to cause me to take notice of these people. It could be a neighbor or friend,  or even someone in the Church family that goes unnoticed. It could be someone at work, or someone that I have excluded from my circle of friends.  As I said before, it can even be something in my own soul or personality to which I have paid little attention.

Think about it. Its the way God works with us. What we reject can become a cornerstone in life. If we have the mind and heart to see this, life will be filled with endless possibilities.

It is  the Lord’s doing and it is truly marvelous.

 

 

Living Large and Loving Life!

August 25, 2012

 

diTIhDi

Do you love your life? Oh, I know there are problems, but when all is said and done, don’t you love your life?

We sat in amazement as we listened to her story.  Around us was a shack pieced together with bits of tin roofing and cardboard and junk lumber. There was no running water, no bathroom, and only a makeshift electrical service. The floor was packed dirt and swept clean. In the room were two old beds and a makeshift kitchen. As a young girl,  she had lived on a farm with her family, but they almost starved to death. So,  they came  to the city to find a better life. She married and gave birth to ten children. So far, eight survived – two had died from diarrhea.  Each day, she got up at 3 a.m to prepare food for the children, but also to make food to sell. She would go in the early morning to sell food to other mothers as their children went to school.  I asked about her husband, and she smiled and said that she only saw him occasionally. Apparently, he had another wife and family elsewhere.

Being with such people changes you not just because they manage somehow  to make it work, but because despite the poverty and obstacles that she faced, her soul was unconquered. I knew that she wanted a better life for herself and for her children, but even in the present circumstance, she found joy in living.

At the bottom of it all, even if we don’t like the present situation, we love life. We want to live long and to live well.  In fact, we sometimes dream of what it would be like if we could live forever; that is, if we could live forever and stay young, strong, and vital. Think of the number of novels written and movies made about extending life beyond its normal limits. A movie on this topic is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. The story was written by F. Scott Fitzerald, and it tells of a man who was born old and gets younger each year until he becomes an infant and dies as an infant.The movie speaks to the meaning of  life, what is its quality in the face of its quantity.  Part of the sadness of this story is the fact that life does not go on forever, and what we love so much will end.

So, is it any wonder that the rich young man asked the Lord what should he do to inherit eternal life? He wanted life to go on and on without any end.  The Lord responded that he should keep the commandments. That was a curious thing to say to a Jewish man. After all, was that not what it meant to be a good Jew? The young man said that he had done that but he felt that there must be more to it. Despite his attempts to be good and to keep the rules, something in him was incomplete. He loved his life and he had all that anyone could ask for, yet it was not enough because one day all of it would end.

I want you to notice how Jesus first phrased this answer. He said, “if you would enter life.”  What an interesting turn of phrase. Let me quote Augustine on this matter. “The Lord said to a certain young man, ‘If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’  He did not say ‘If you would have life’ but ‘If you would enter life,’ defining life as eternal life. Let us first consider then the love of this life. For this life is loved, whatever its quality; and however troubled it is, however wretched, people are afraid to end it. Hence, we should see, we should consider, how much eternal life is to be loved, when this miserable life that must some time be ended is so loved.  Consider, brothers, how much that life is to be loved when it is a life you never end. You love this life, where you work so much, run, are busy, pant. In this busy life the obligations can scarcely be counted. And after all this hard work your life comes to an end. Look at what you suffer in this wretched life that you so love.”

To love eternal life as much as I love this life – what a concept! Yes, I may think that I’m living large and loving life, but in fact I haven’t entered into true life at all.  I want to enter into something that will never end. How can I inherit eternal life? The answer from Jesus is puzzling. “If you would be perfect…”  Perfect? I have to be perfect to enter into life? My being perfect has as much chance as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. Now, I know that you immediately think of an desert animal with humps, but the Fathers say that this is not what Jesus meant. Having so many fisherman in the group, he used sea terminology. A camel was a thick rope which tied the anchor to the boat. Imagine getting that rope through the eye of a needle. I’ve tried to thread needles and even with small threads and I find it very hard to do.

This is utterly impossible! What chance do I have to enter life? The rich man asked the same thing. “What do I still lack?” The Lord’s remark is telling: your heart is bound to what you treasure. This varies from person to person, and whatever binds you is your wealth. When we use the term “wealth”, we always think of money. I don’t have much money (well, compared to the woman in the shack, I am very rich), but I am “wealthy” in other things. So, I ask myself what is the treasure that binds me? I’m afraid that just like Marley said to Scrooge, I’ve been forging my chains for many years and it is ponderous indeed.

“It is difficult for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” It still seems so impossible to me (as it was for the Apostles). The scripture says that they were “greatly astonished.”  Seeing their consternation, Jesus replied, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  There is hope that I can cast away the chains that bind me. What is impossible for me is very possible for God.  If God is at work in me, it is possible for me to sell my treasure and follow Him. If this were not so, then the command of Jesus would just be another commandment. As it is with all of the other commandments, I know that they  are to be followed, but they don’t give me the heart to do it. The rules condemn me  and this condemnation takes the heart out of me.

John Wesley once said that we must all choose between hope and despair. What is stronger – human nature or the grace of God?  If I place my hope in the ability of God to change me, then all things are possible. I can believe that a leopard can change its spots, or that human nature can change.  With God, camels can thread needles.

I need the heart of Reepicheep. Even though he had many adventures, his lifelong goal was to enter into Alan’s kingdom. Reaching the end of the world, he was the only one to cross over. The others, though they loved Aslan, had things in life that bound them – love of family and duty. These are not bad things. Aslan did not condemn them for staying. In fact, He would be with them, but they would have to learn His Name in the world to which they returned.

I may yet still have some adventures in the life, but may I have the heart of Reepicheep. May I love eternal life more than I love this life.  When I come to Aslan’s kingdom, may I will cross over with a full heart. The I will be living large and loving LIFE.

reepicheep

 

 

This Little Light of Mine

August 21, 2012

 

I had a discussion once with a Baptist minster friend who wondered if the Orthodox were saved, or  “born again.”  I affirmed that we were but what did that mean and how was it accomplished (in his understanding of things)? After he gave me the evangelical response,  I asked him to consider the Scriptural reference from the Gospel of St. John. Nicodemus came to Jesus and he asked what a man had to do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Making a bit of a serious joke, I said that Jesus replied, “Well, you must go to the Temple, and when the priest preaches a convicting sermon, you must be convinced that you are a sinner (the “a-ha” moment), go down to the front of the Temple and pray ‘the sinner’s prayer.’  Then, you would be born again.”  No, of course that isn’t what Jesus said at all. He said that conversion was a matter of the Spirit that comes and goes like the wind. We have no idea where it comes from or where it goes.  Certainly, all of us must be “born from above”, but the model of the evangelicals is not a requirement to the process of salvation. It is a behavioral model that came from the so-called “Great Revivals” of the protestant church in the previous two centuries.

The minister asked me if I was born again. I replied that I was in fact born again, so he asked me when this had occurred. I replied that I was born again in AD 33 or thereabout. (Y’all know how I am!)

We Orthodox believe that salvation is a process that begins with the unmerited Grace of God that first draws us and then enters us in ways that we hardly know or understand (like the wind, its a mystery). Just like the natural process of birth, this beginning in my life means that I am an infant, and the rest of my spiritual life is a process of growing up into “the fullness of the stature of Christ.”  There is another way to see this.

We just celebrated the Transfiguration and there on the mountaintop, the Lord is radiant with the Uncreated Light, the glory that he shared with the Father before the foundation of the world. As believers, we don’t find this to be surprising, but does it have any meaning for us personally?

St. Peter writes, “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts…” When we are baptized, we are called “the newly-illumined.”  This is just the beginning and we are infants newly born.  In St. Peter’s model, this light that is in us is like the light of the early morning. This light will grow brighter and brighter until the full light of the sun rises and shines in all its strength in our hearts.”  To me, this sheds some light on theosis, the process of salvation.

How long does it take until the full light of day? Well, it varies from person to person. You read of some who come from the waters of baptism and the growth of light or grace within them is quick and powerful. But it seems that for most of us, the time from first light until the rising of the sun takes much longer, if not a lifetime. Along the way, the Lord sends us the grace and presence of the Holy Spirit, a grace that fills our lamps with oil. But it is up to us to trim the wicks and clean the glass of the lamp and to see that whatever light we have is not placed “under a bushel.”

How bright can the light become? It can be as bright as the light of Tabor. Throughout the ages, prophets and saints have seen this Light. Was it just an internal intuition or some intellectual realization? No, like the Apostles on Tabor, they saw it with both their hearts and their eyes. Moses saw it in the burning bush. Elisha saw it in the chariot of fire. Motovilov  saw in St. Seraphim of Sarov. For those unfamiliar with the story, let me give a part of it that applies to this topic:

“Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”

I replied: “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”

Father Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”

Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: “Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou grantest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy magnificent glory.’ And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both? Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show His mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid! The Lord is with us!”

After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!” (quote from the New Savov Press.)

Now that is what I would call bright indeed.

We are enlightened, dear ones. The Holy Spirit is with us and in us. At the moment it may seem like a small light, but do not despair because it can become as bright as the light of Transfiguration.

So to quote an old Sunday School song, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”

Pray for us, St. Seraphim of Sarov!

 

Tofurky Christian

August 11, 2012

tofurky_feast

The way things go today, sometimes it hard to tell the imitation from the real thing.

Before I found a healthier way of eating, I use to eat a lot of imitation food thinking that is was good for me. Its amazing what they can do with things like soy. They can make imitation milk, imitation chicken, imitation hot dogs and hamburgers, and even a whole imitation turkey.  Oh, I was never swayed by the word “imitation” to believe that any of these foods resembled the real thing, but it always amused me that they tried to convince me otherwise. Yet, even if you get away from altered soy products, so many foods are imitation or use a lot of ingredients that are not natural ( I could go into the joys of pink slime, but I’ll avoid the temptation).

But how do you know when you’re in the presence of the real deal? This is especially important when you are dealing with things like love and friendship. I am sure that like me, there have been sorrowful times when those you love proved to be false, and sadly there have been times when I have been a false friend.  Likewise, I have encountered imitation Christians and have at times been an imitation myself.  There is very little about me that is original.  Every since I was a young man, I found people whose life or spirituality I tried to imitate.  Usually, I failed to imitate them and ended up as an imitation, a tofurky Christian, far from being the real deal.

The thing is that we will never learn much if we don’t imitated someone.  They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, so I guess the question is who I imitate.  Today, in 1st Corinthians 4, St. Paul said, “Be imitators of me because I imitate Christ.”  So even St. Paul was an imitation Christian, yet he was not tofurky. He was the real deal. So how do I, a person living almost 2,000 years later in a much different context,  imitate St. Paul.

Fr. Basil Aden of Christ the Savior Orthodox Church, Rockford, Il., shared  in a sermon on his blog page that Holy Tradition is imitation. Just like the way a baby learns by imitation, so we also learn to be Christians by imitation. Fr. Basil says, “The Church is “apostolic” when it imitates the way of life of the apostles.  That way of life is the true “Holy Tradition,” far more than a set of customs, teachings, or proceedings of an organization.” ( http://ctsorthodoxchurchil.blogspot.com/)

This is an interesting take on Tradition, and it makes sense, but you may not like the implications. In this part of the Scripture, St. Paul tells us that the apostolic way is to be considered a fool, weak,  without honor, hungry, thirsty, hassled, reviled, persecuted, evil spoken of as the rubbish of the world.  That’s pretty tough, but there’s even more. The apostolic response to such things is when reviled, to bless; when persecuted, to patiently bear up; when evil spoken of, to beseech, and so on, and to do it all for the well-being and salvation of others.

If that’s the real deal, then I’m not too sure I can imitate that. Such things go against the grain of modern folks. As the old Christian folk song goes, we must “guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride (especially my own because I am so easily offended).” Its easier being tofurky. That way, you will think well of me because by my packaging I look very appealing, even healthy (that is until you take a bite).

So, friends, don’t imitate me. Imitate Christ, or St. Paul, or one of the Saints.  That way, you might avoid being a tofurky Christian.