Archive for August, 2014

Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?

August 6, 2014

 

I’ve often heard converts who are preparing for Orthodox baptism say that as they get closer to the ceremony, life seems to get really difficult. Friends and family begin to express serious doubts and some become hostile. Work or school becomes more difficult. Physical ailments become more acute. Doubts about Orthodoxy abound. The list can go on and on.

I remember having the same experience before my baptism. It was like walking into a strong wind. You lean forward and your legs work hard. Most of the time you move forward, but sometimes the wind is so strong, you stumble back a little. Why is it such a struggle and where does this wind of opposition come from?

The Orthodox believe that there is an invisible world, and that part of that world is evil. This belief is mocked in our culture and it’s not kosher today to speak of Satan as a personal force of evil. You may be too young  to remember the comedian, Flip Wilson. Among other things, he was famous for looking at the camera and saying “The devil made me do it.” It always got a lot of laughs.  Today it would bring hoots of derision. St. Paul called Satan a roaring lion going about seeking to devour us. It’s a mark of our times that people joke about something that will devour them.  I want to portray him as the wolf that tried to devour the three little pigs.  I’m sure that you know the story.

Let me ask you – have you ever had a direct and personal experience of the devil? I’m not talking about the experience of temptation that we all have, but a face to face encounter. We read about it in the lives of the Saints, but we rarely hear of it now except in Hollywood movies about so called exorcisms. I think that the wolf remains hidden because there are few saints these days. In fact, the wolf is not very involved in the daily lives of most people. Has he lost interest in the damnation of the human race? No, that is still his goal, but he has powerful allies that do the work for him. St. Paul said that most of the evil and temptation that we experience comes from within our selves. Our fleshly nature is a great ally of the wolf. There is another ally – the world. You might remember the list of the unholy trinity – the world, the flesh, and the devil. With the world and the flesh as his helpers, he is free to work on bigger things.

So, there is no reason to fear the big, bad wolf, right?  It depends on what you are doing and if it draws his attention. For example, when he notices that you trying to build a spiritual life, he becomes interested. If you do well in building your spiritual house, the wolf starts to worry and he begins to take a more personal interest in you. Clearly, if you are building well, his allies, the flesh and the world,  must be falling down on the job. You are becoming a threat to him, so it is time to come and test what you have built.

St. Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17. Now matter how you build, the time of testing comes to us all. The wolf comes to blow and to test if we have built well and with good materials. If like two of the pig brothers, we build with hay or sticks, then our houses will surely fall. We will suffer loss and it will be sorrowful. How strong is this wind of opposition? It can be gentle in the beginning and then grow to hurricane force. Let’s remember how this wind blew against the early Church and how the Saints stood fast, often at the cost of their lives. It seems to me that the wind is approaching gale force again.

The material that we build with is faith, hope, love, patience, forgiveness, etc. The tools we us to build with is knowledge, Liturgy, prayer, fasting, etc. We have all we need to build well. It is amazing that so many of us live in spiritual shacks made  hay and sticks. It is inevitable that these will fall around us. When our houses fall under the wind is everything lost? In anger and despair, we look up to God and say “Why me? Do your really love me? What did I ever do to deserve this?” Having given us all we need, I can almost see God shrugging at the sentiment.

There is hope. Paul says that while we do suffer loss, we ourselves are not lost. The reason is that there is a foundation that is laid, and that foundation cannot be moved by any wind of opposition. The Apostles are the foundation and Christ is the cornerstone. No matter how disastrous my loss,  I can begin to build again. We must rebuild! What good does it do us to just the materials and the tools and not use them. The only question is  will I build with strong materials and will I build well. I won’t know the answer until the wolf returns.

Finally, this is not just a personal issue. St.Peter said that we are living stones and we are built into a spiritual house with other stones. If we are to successfully survive the wind that is coming, we need each other. Each of us must find our place in the wall of this spiritual house and be cemented together with other living stones.  We are charged to build each other up in love. To think of what is coming against the Church, it is a tragedy when we tear each other down.

So, who’s afraid the big, bad wolf?  We are on a good foundation, but we must continue to build our spiritual house, the Church, the Ark of Salvation. If we do well, when the wind of opposition blows again, we will not be moved. If we suffer loss, we will still stand on the rock foundation that cannot be moved. The gates of hell shall not prevail. In fact, the Saints tell us that the approach of the wolf is even a blessing from God. We often believe that we have done well in our spiritual life. God allows for us to be tested, and so we discover the reality of our situation.

We are the Temple of God, and the Spirit dwells in us.

Blow on, wolf, blow on.

 

The End of Comfortable Christianity?

August 2, 2014

 

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Come gather ’round people Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters Around you have grown
And accept it that soon You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’  -Bob Dylan

If you were born in America, or if you have been here for a while, you will eventually hear about what is called “the American idea.”  I recently heard Bono, the lead singer of the group U2, speak about this. The American idea holds that we are all equal, and each person is unique. Each person has the freedom to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  Bono said that it is a gift not just for Americans, but for the world.

Well, the times they are a changin’. This American idea has evolved into the idea that the right of self-expression is now the highest American virtue, and it trumps all other rights. The right to assembly no longer means that I can meet with people who share a common interest. All must be allowed to join whatever they wish to join, irregardless of what the group or organization stands for. This is now impacting Christian colleges and universities who must include those whose lifestyle or belief is counter to traditional Christianity.

Curiously, in times of change, the power of conformity is great. We call it “political correctness.”  To feel accepted, respected, and to avoid any kind of persecution, we will live no differently from others and speak no differently. Let me make a blanket statement (always dangerous): most of us live somewhere between the hope of being true to ourselves and conforming to the world. The time is near when we can no longer find a safe spot and compromise will mean leaving the Kingdom of God. The time of comfortable Christianity is passing.

For the Orthodox Christian, neither self-expression nor conformity to the world is the highest value. As St. Paul said, we are not to be conformed to the world, but transformed by Christ. To take on the image of Christ is to be hated by the world. So we might judge that because the world has not hated us, we have succumbed to the conforming power of the world.

There was a time when it seemed that Christianity and society had a more comfortable relationship. The culture seemed to reflect the values of the Church, and members of the Church felt that being a good citizen was their highest and best calling. Some wish we could go back to those times (even if such a state never really existed).

Let us hear from one voice:

“We live in a time of exile. At least those of us do who hold to traditional Christian beliefs. The strident rhetoric of scientism has made belief in the supernatural look ridiculous. The Pill, no-fault divorce, and now gay marriage have made traditional sexual ethics look outmoded at best and hateful at worst. The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.

It is also being driven by issues that few predicted would have such cultural force. It is surely an irony as unexpected as it is unwelcome that sex—that most private and intimate act—has become the most pressing public policy issue today. (Who could have imagined that policies concerning contraception and laws allowing same-sex marriage would present the most serious challenges to religious freedom?) We are indeed set for exile, though not an exile which pushes us to the geographical margins. It’s an exile to cultural irrelevance.”                                                                    By ROD DREHER for the American Conservative

I maintain that cultural irrelevance is not the end of things, but the beginning.

The Church has been in this situation before. Exile meant being moved from home and family. It meant persecution and death. We lived in a fantasy that such persecution would never come again. This time persecution will come under the banner of equality, uniqueness, and freedom.  How do we survive this? Let me draw a few ideas from the history of the Church which not only survived, but converted the world around her.  These strategies have always been true, but in exile they are more urgent.

1. Community

In exile, it is vital that we draw closer together in community. This doesn’t mean that we close our doors to the world or move to Montana. It means that it is the Church, and not our circle of friends, family or work, from which we will draw our strength and protection.  We will need our Orthodox brothers and sisters, priests and hierarchs to draw closer together in love and mutual support.  The Sunday Liturgy is an expression of our community, but once a week is not enough for those in exile. The fellowship that we will share in these meetings will be vital.  We must abandon the American myth that we are all self-sufficient individuals and can do just fine on our own. This is the way the early church survived dark times of exile.

2. Liturgy

In exile, infrequent communion  and poor attendance will not be enough to face what is coming. More than ever, our spiritual life must be our number one priority, above work and family and all else. We will need strength to be able to witness to our family, to train our children so that they can understand why they face ridicule for being a traditional Christian.  We may want to rethink our abandonment of worship on Saturday night.  The Church has a liturgical schedule that can counterbalance the rhythm of the world.

3. Study

Since this exile is in part ideological, we must know how to respond.  We must be sure that we know the teachings of the Church and how they are to be applied.  The truth will set us free, but if we are ignorant of the truth, the world will easily ensnare us. We must study or die.

4. Prayer

The Saints in exile displayed incredible courage and commitment to the Lord. They were men and women of prayer. In work and in all of life, they had communion with God. When community, Liturgy, and study were taken away, it was prayer that sustained them.  If the voice of the prophet is being heard again, and our exile is near or already here, then it is time that we commune with God  until life becomes prayer and prayer is life. We must be ready, and we will be ready if we are people of prayer. After all, it is spiritual warfare and must be fought spiritually.

We are entering a time that we thought would never return. I know it may be hard to believe. We have always believed that the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution would protect us. Now those freedoms are being used against us. Whether you compromise with this society or not will depend on your allegiance to Christ and the Holy Orthodox Faith. As the Apostle said, if you love the world, the love of the Father isn’t in you.

The line it is drawn The curse it is cast
The slow one now Will later be fast
As the present now Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’ And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

-Dylan