Archive for November, 2012

Johnny B. Merciful

November 24, 2012

Why did this guy show up right after “Black Friday?”

Sometimes, reading Orthodox literature can be dangerous. For example, I came across this quote from Monk Moses the Athonite: “You see, holiness has many aspects. Those in the world will not be judged because they do not do a lot of prayer, though there are some who do more than monks. St. John  Chrysostom said: ‘the laity will be saved by almsgiving.”

St. John, are you for real?  I know you have a golden tongue and Monk Moses agrees with you, but I thought…well, never mind what I thought. Alms giving and mercy-these concepts have traveled around in my mind for many years. As a young man, I wondered at the stories and teaching of the Lord on mercy and giving alms.  From the Widow’s mite to the Good Samaritan, it seemed to me that the Lord turned the world and all it valued upside down. After all, I live in a society that is proud of its commercial and financial activities. Capitalism had created the largest and most well-to-do middle class that the world had ever known. We reaped, and would continue to reap, the benefits in health, in science and technology, and in an ever improving standard of living. All young people were to be trained to find their place in this brave new world and strive to be a successful as possible in both personal wealth and professional achievement.  Greed is good, they say, and my personal success would help to improve the lot of others.

Some people seemed to be outside of this dynamic, so we created programs such as Welfare, Medicare, and Social Security. By paying our taxes, we give our alms to the poor. We provide not only financial support for housing and food and medicine, but also programs for training so that the poor would not have to remain poor. Churches and non-profits fill in gaps that might occur.  It seems to have worked pretty well, because unlike some poorer countries, we don’t have the poor standing at our church door every Sunday asking for bread or the sick and lame laying around Walmart crying for mercy.

My problem has been that while I am a beneficiary of this capitalist society, it all seems so far from the Gospel whose messages seems so uncompromising and radical. “Sell all that you have, give to the poor, and come follow me.” “And who is the real neighbor?” the Lord asked. The answer was “the one who showed mercy.”  These words can really haunt you.

Over the years, I’ve traveled with  some historical people who answered this call to mercy. Let me name just a few.  My first historical companion of Francis of Assisi. I read everything that was written about him. I found his “evangelical poverty” to be quite compelling as well as a judgment on my own greediness. Yet, try as I might, I just couldn’t seem to follow his program. Still, he was a constant companion that reminded me that mercy and charity was what was needed.  Francis was saying to me, “Johnny, be merciful.”

Then, I traveled with Mahatma Gandhi, not because I had a desire to be Hindu, but his lifestyle and its impact on India intrigued me. So, I read everything I could about him, and he is still a bit of a companion these days. Where would Martin Luther King have been without him? I walked a while with people like Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, but I will let these suffice. All of them, in their own way, said to me, “Johnny, be merciful.”

When I came to the Orthodox Faith, I met a whole new group of people who answered the call to mercy and alms giving. I find them to be even more of challenge than my previous companions. Some of these disciples are living and I’ve had a chance to spend some time with them at Holy Cross Monastery. Its a remarkable thing to spend time with those who have given up everything for the Lord – poverty, chastity, obedience.  Some of my new Orthodox companions are historical. I first became aware of St. John Chrysostom and how “the Golden Mouth” got into trouble not because he did so much for the poor, but because he offended the wealthy in sermons about mercy and alms giving.  He said to me “Johnny, be merciful.” In fact, he seemed to say that without mercy, real and tangible, I wouldn’t make it into heaven.

The latest companion in this journey is John the Merciful. I invite you to read about his life and wonder at the man. Here is an example: “At the beginning of his reign , John summoned the stewards of the patriarchate and gave them this command: ‘Go through the entire city, and make a list of all who are my lords.’ The stewards asked him, ‘And who, O Master, are your lords?’ Answered the Patriarch, ‘Those whom you call the poor are my lords, for it is they who can prepare a dwelling-place for me in eternity and assist me greatly to attain salvation.'”  In a dream that he had as a youth, a fair maiden came to him and when he asked her who she was, she replied that she was the daughter of the Great King. She was mercy and compassion. Now what am I suppose to do with such a spiritual companion?

Like the rest, St. John the Merciful says to me “Johnny, be merciful.”  More than fasting, more than worship, even more than prayer, I am to show mercy. I know that this can be done in many ways. I can be merciful to someone who has offended me. I can be merciful in not passing judgment on a brother or sister. I can be merciful by giving of my time and attention to someone who is lonely and fearful. But St. John the Merciful did not leave it at that. Mercy must also be shown in a physical and practical way – it must be shown by giving alms.

So, I am back to my previous dilemma. When asked for financial help, I wonder if the poor are worthy of my assistance. Why don’t they get government help? After all, I pay my taxes.  Will they pay the money back or am I only making the matter worse by helping them? So many requests come in the mail or over the phone, how can I address them all? And besides, if I give too much away, what will happen to me? How will I be able to afford the next car, or the next gadget, or even pay the next light bill if I give away too much of my resources?

To all of these concerns, St. John joins with the others saints of the Orthodox Faith and cries out, “Johnny, be merciful.” So, I wonder why do I keep clothes in my closet that I haven’t worn for years and probably won’t wear in the coming year? Are there no poor people in need of such things? Johnny, be merciful. What do I do with the money I save when I fast-give to the poor, or go to the movies? Johnny, be merciful. What about all those canned goods that I haven’t opened and probably won’t-leave them for a rainy day or take them to the Food Bank? Johnny, be merciful. Do I really need that new car, that new phone, that new shirt, etc.? Johnny, be merciful.

Ok, I get it, but God please show me how to do it. I have a selfish streak, you understand, and I usually only give when it doesn’t hurt me to give.  I promise that when I have more abundance, I will be a paragon of mercy (sigh-that Widow’s mite thing again!)  As I look around at all my stuff, I kind of wish that it depended more on things like prayer and fasting and attending services.  The Lord has to spoil it all by saying the he desired mercy more than sacrifice.

Why did this St. John  guy have to show up right after Black Friday?

OK. From now on call me “Johnny B. Merciful.”  And may God help me to make it more than in name only.

I’ve Got a Secret

November 16, 2012



Can you keep a secret? I hope not, because I know a secret and its one of the biggest secrets ever. So, you have to promise to tell as many people as you can.

This secret comes from God Himself, and its been “kept secret since the world began.” (Romans 16.25) Of course, its been whispered from patriarch to prophet to poet to disciple.

People often wonder about the will of God. Sometimes God’s will seems very clear, and other times, its very uncertain. I often joke with people and tell them that I know the will of God perfectly (I enjoy the skeptical look on their faces). I tell them that all I have to do is open the Bible, and it tells me what I am to do – love my enemies, go the extra mile, love God and my neighbor, and so on. Its all very easy to understand. Yet, when I am trying to figure out the specific details what God wants me to do today, I have no idea of what God wants of me. Should I stay home or go out; should I take this class or the other; should I buy this car or that car;  I can’t figure out what I want, so how can I know what God wants?

So, what is this secret that comes from the heart of God and has been kept secret until now?

St. Paul shares the secret in Ephesians: “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself; That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him…”

At first, you might think “Is that the big secret?”  Yes it is, and it is a big one if you take a moment to think about it. Paul is saying that at the very heart of God is a desire and will that all things be brought into unity in Christ.  This means that all the broken pieces of existence will be brought together, all the division and separation will be overcome, and it will all be done in Christ. So now you know the secret.

We might ask when this will come to pass, and all that St. Paul can say is that  it will come “in the fullness of time.” Paul has no doubt that if this is the will of God that comes from his heart, God has the power to bring it to pass.  This great mystery, this great work of bringing all things together, is the fundamental work of the Church, the Body of Christ. The Lord spoke about the unity he had with God, and the unity he had with his disciples and their unity with him. Given the importance of this work, is it any wonder  that strife and division is such a scandal to the Church and causes us such pain? It goes against the will and intention of God in Christ.

We once believed that our sinfulness separated us from God. We thought that our condition made us repulsive to God. We thought that there was a wall between us. If you’ve  tuned to Orthodox theology, you know that if there was any wall between ourselves and God, it was not put there by God. It was built by our own stupidity and pride (see Tower of Babel for further details). Any sense of alienation or enmity or fear does not come from God, but from our own hearts. God so loved the world that he sent his Son, and God became one of us. His Son revealed the face of  God, and it was not the face of Zeus, but the face of the father of the Prodigal Son. He so completely loved us that He went to the depths of our suffering by the Cross.  Even more, he descended into Hell, to the deepest and darkest place of human experience. In Christ,  the physical and the spiritual is joined, God and the flesh become one and any supposed wall between ourselves and God has been torn down.

There are walls that divide the human family.  The story of the Tower of Babel reminds us that we are separated by language  and culture.  To tear down these walls, God gave us the Holy Spirit. Christ told his disciples to go and preach the Gospel to all the world. This would be a bit tough for fishermen who had never studied languages. Yet, on the Day of Pentecost, the birthday of of the Church, God poured out the Spirit on the Church and the ancient curse of Babel was overcome. Now the Spirit would gift the Church with “tongues” so that they could go and preach to all the world. In the Church, all of the families of the world would become the family of God, separated no more.  In the Church there would be no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or master.

Even the ancient curse of our expulsion from the Garden is to be overcome. At the moment, we continue to be at odds with nature. Among all of the animals of creation, we don’t seem to be able to create sustainable habitats without destroying ourselves and polluting the environment. Is there any evidence that this could change? The answer is found in many saints who, when they had gained holiness, lived in peace and harmony with nature. Most of us experience the fear that animals have of us and we feel fear around them also. The Prophet says that the day will come when in God’s kingdom, the lion will lay down the lamb and the baby will play with the snake. In attaining holiness, these saints would anticipate life in this Kingdom. They lived without this fear and many wild animals would come to them like pets.

Here is an another example: St. Paul, speaking of the division between Jew and Gentile, says: “For he is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of partition between us; having abolished in his flesh the hatred…to make in himself of two one new man, so making peace; and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross; having slain the enmity thereby.”  With such a truth is antisemitism ever justified? There are many reasons to judge Nazi Germany as an abomination, but clearly it stood against the will and heart of God.

So it is and so it will be with all divisions and walls, be it between husband and wife, parent and child, citizen and government, neighbor with neighbor, friend with enemy, etc.  Of course, this work of redemption begins in me. Christ works to overcome my brokenness and sense of alienation and self-hatred.  After all, holiness does not mean hyper-pious. Holiness means “to be whole,” and we all long to be complete and whole. We say in our Creed that Jesus was “fully human and fully divine.” This means that He was the only one who ever lived on this planet who was “fully human.” The rest of us are “not yet fully human.”  Christ in us in our hope that we too can become like him and grow into “the fullness of the stature of Christ.”

Christ is “our peace” and his work of redemption brings the broken and scattered parts to unity and wholeness.  St. Paul says, “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.”  I remember seeing a T-shirt that had a quote from St. Paul  “At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.” And then they added a conclusion: “COUNT ON IT.”

Unity, peace, wholeness in Christ brought to completion in the fullness of time by the Church, the Body of Christ – now you know the secret! Now you know the will of God. You have my permission. Be my guest and share the secret with everyone you meet.

You don’t have to whisper it.