Archive for July, 2016

In God we trust – all others pay cash.

July 24, 2016


I find myself amused and a little irritated when it is suggested that clergy and/or churches and/or Christians should be “apolitical.” Usually this is not clearly defined, but you get the idea that (wink, wink) we all know what that term means. In fact to be alive is to be political. Now if I leave this without further explanation, then I am guilty of doing what has always irritated me. So, let me expound on the idea.

If by the term “apolitical” we mean to say that we should not align to one candidate or party, or demand that the Faith adhere to only one party, then I would agree that we should be apolitical. However, it seems to me that what is often meant when the term is used is that we should remove ourselves from the political realm and never be involved, but be ready to stand with any victims. If this is what is meant, then I disagree with the idea.

Some parts of the Book of Revelation are difficult to unpack, but one thing seems to be clear. Since, according to St. Paul the spirit of Antichrist is in the world, Revelation points out that this spirit seeks to incarnate itself in political systems. These systems then persecute the Church.The history of the Church is rife with examples of what happens when the political system becomes anti-Christ and oppresses the Faith. Revelation then serves as a textbook of how this evil incarnates itself and how God brings judgment upon it. Every time the spirit of Antichrist incarnates in political systems, we are again in “end times.”

The ancient Church recognized that it existed in “the fullness of time” and this meant among other things that while the Roman state was a persecutor, the Pax Romanum allowed the Church to grow and spread throughout the empire. In like manner, the civil religion of America, begun by our Founding Fathers, provided a type of Pax Americana, a political state that allowed Christianity to spread and grow (and not Christianity alone). This reality should not be taken to mean that America was free of error, stupidity, hubris, persecution, racism, and other moral evils. Far from it.

Though critics and scholars will argue about it,  it is the feeling of many that beginning in the 1950s,  the erosion of this American civil religion began. During the time of the Obama administration,  talk about the end of American Christianity has increased and it is maintained that we are in a post-Christian era. This may be true if the civil religion has become more antichrist. Today, fighting against this new civil religion seems ever more hopeless. One reason is that the power behind it uses terms that are  hard to argue with – inclusion, equality, fairness, equal protection, liberty, etc. Who can debate with such ideas especially since they were the foundation of the original civil religion? In the hands of the spirit of antichrist, these ideas now leverage God from the public sphere.  Laws have developed that muzzle free speech by upholding political correctness.

This trend bodes ill for the Church. The time has come where some already walk  a martyrs path  (recent Supreme Court decisions as an example). So far the martyrdom is financial lawsuits, and  we should remember Lyndon Johnson’s law that threatened the loss of tax exemption for churches if ministers spoke politically from the pulpit.  This law has been challenged unsuccessfully as a violation of the First Amendment and it seems unlikely that the law will be overturned. This process continues with law suits against individuals who refuse to serve those whose lifestyles are opposed to their Faith.

I am sure that the martyrs of the Communist yoke, the patriot saints of Greece, the victims of the Holocaust, etc. would advise us to be anything but apolitical.  I agree that concerning the upcoming election,  it is unbelievable that with millions of American citizens, these are the only two candidates that we could find.  However, I tend to ignore personality traits as a key to my choice of candidate. This can be difficult because in the political arena, character assassination is paramount over substantive issues. What I try to discern is who will further the spirit of antichrist (even unknowingly) and who will not.

Though it sounds pessimistic, I do concede that given what I have said, there may be little or no difference between the two candidates. Both may be equally compromised by the political machinery. A saying in the Liturgy makes this point: “Put not your trust in men in whom there is no salvation.”  Think of that before you pull the lever in the voting booth.

I am not telling you how to vote. I am telling you to drop the illusion that you or any of us can be “apolitical.”  As an old professor use to say, “You pays your money and makes your choice.”  Just realize that after the choice, there will be more to pay, and the payment may be great.

Like Solomon, pray for wisdom and vote wisely.

Working Man

July 17, 2016



Recently, Hank Hanegraaff, host of the Bible Answer Man radio show, entered the Holy Orthodox Church. His chrismation took place on Palm Sunday at St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC.  This has raised much consternation among his followers and the attacks have come quickly against him. It has also again raised the debate over salvation and the balance of faith and works. It’s sadly interesting that in 500 years this issue has not been settled but is renewed in every generation. I am not sure that I can settle it, but I will give it a try.

In a recent Power Ball lottery,  the cash prize was almost half a billion dollars. With that kind of money at stake, many people who never buy a ticket bought one. It’s easy to dream of how nice it would be to win such a sum. Even if we won the prize, it would not match the richness of God.  In Ephesians, Chapter 2, St Paul says that God is exceedingly rich, especially in His mercy. Being rich, he has given to us all the gift of salvation. Even with the largest Power Ball win, we couldn’t give gifts to everyone. No one earns a gift and in this we agree with the Protestant West.  But then, the West would caution us that we need not go any further because we will make the mistake of what they call “works righteousness” which is the opposite of salvation by Grace alone. Say nothing more than “saved by Grace” they tell us.  Just enjoy the fact that you have it.

Yet, is salvation just a gift that you display on the shelf of your life? To answer, let’s consider the nature of the gift that is freely given to us. In the same place in Ephesians  we read this important passage: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ unto good works which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Like all things, the Bible puts all things into balance but it is the theologians who often put things out of balance. We are created (saved?) for good works. You cannot separate grace and works. With this idea that we are saved for works, we can see that there is no debate between St. Paul and St. James.

Again, the fact is that you cannot separate faith from works. This does not mean that the Orthodox work to attain salvation which is a free gift,  but we work because we have salvation. Separate faith from works and you destroy the proper Biblical balance. Protestant folks will ask if we are saved. What do they mean by that? You must believe in Christ as your Lord and Savior – yes, we believe; you must repent and make a public confession of your faith – yes, we do that every week; you must be baptized -yes, we do that also. We Orthodox also know that when we enter the Orthodox Church of Jesus Christ, our journey which brought us to the baptismal font now goes on until the day comes when we will see Him “face to face.” Until that day, we can not be asleep in His House.

Well then what good works are we suppose to do? St. James says that pure religion is “to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction”; that is good works are what we do for others out of love. Hold on! It doesn’t end there. James goes on: “to keep [yourself] unspotted from the world.” So, good works are also ascetic in nature; that is we must work on ourselves. We do these things  because the gift is in us and we are foreordained to them.

Explanations vary in the West about how keeping yourself unspotted is accomplished, but the Orthodox know the the absolute importance or works lie a disciplined life of prayer, fasting, study and church attendance. All are essential for separation from the world, because this is how we attain true holiness. The Bible says, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord,” and the Orthodox will confess that attaining holiness takes a lot of work.

The Orthodox call this ascetic work “theosis.”  It is a pilgrimage of transformation and it is a journey that we must not stop. The journey is possible because of the free gift, but the gift is a way, a journey, a passage. The Master said, “I am the Way….”  and those who have received the gift walk in that way.  As we walk the journey, freedom from the world becomes ever more real. This continues until we reach the end.

Let’s review. We receive a free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus, but we have to work if we really have the gift.  Clear as mud?

The gift of salvation is not one to be placed on a shelf or even in a place of honor. If we really have it, this gift is meant to be actualized and put into operation. When we unpack this free gift, we find wonderful things. We find forgiveness and everlasting love. We find the power and the grace of the Holy Spirit. We find truth. All the things needed are there to free us from our bondage. Once the gift is given,  we must get to work and use the tools of faith to attain holiness and to feed the widows and orphans.

If the absolute bond of faith and works doesn’t square with you, then I ask you to answer the question asked by St. James (a book Luther would have liked to have seen dropped from the canon of Scripture): ” See how faith was done with his works (Abraham), and by his works faith was made perfect?”  (James 2.22)   If an answer is not easy, then this word will settle it: “faith without works is dead.”

This being the case, I think I’ll be a working man-for holiness.

For the peace from above: Liberty and freedom

July 3, 2016


Every July 4, we are reminded of the history of this country and its struggle for freedom. We hear the music, see the parades and fireworks, and watch our fellow citizens celebrate. The Orthodox appreciate the freedom that this nation offers for the practice of our Faith. Certainly, the saints of Russia, especially those who suffered under the communist yoke, would have felt blessed to have the religious freedom that we have. We appreciate that our freedom was obtained by the blood of many heroic martyrs whose sacrifice lifted the hand of tyrants and enemies from us. Every Orthodox, if they are able, should visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and spend a few moments in silent respect for their sacrifice. We should all celebrate the 4th of July (in our Orthodox fashion).

July 4 is also challenges the Orthodox to question the role of the Faith in American society. What is it that we have to offer?

Before I offer an answer, I want to say that nothing in Orthodoxy is opposed to the ideas of liberty and freedom. The American people are diverse and so equal treatment under the law is an important American virtue. As American Orthodox, we would never infringe upon the rights of others. However, we also ask that our right to live as we see fit should also be respected. It can be a complex legal issue on a national scale, but it is important that we stand by our principles and strive to prevent the law from being used against us.

In answer to the question of what Orthodoxy has to offer, I could talk about many things. However I think that there is one thing that is fundamental. It is an insight – the essence of true liberty and freedom is peace. If peace is absent, then freedom and liberty are fake. Peace is more than the absence of adversity and trouble. Jesus said, “My peace I give to you,” and St. Paul said that there is a peace that passes all understanding.  The people to whom these words were said would be people who would face torture and death, but they would face it with peace.

I did a word search of the Divine Liturgy of St. John. The word “peace” appears 41 times in the litanies and prayers. This shouldn’t be surprising since in the Bible (depending on the version you read) the word appears from 200 to over 400 times. What is this peace that passes all understanding and is the essence of liberty and freedom?

Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” A slave is never free unless he/she is able to break the chains of servitude. Many today think that they are free because the can do whatever pleases them. They do not understand until it is too late that they are really slaves to something that will ultimately kill them. How many stars, musicians, and trend setters have to die before we understand this? “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”  As Orthodox, we are challenged to show to slaves what real freedom is.

How is true freedom realized? The Master instructs us: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” It is His truth that frees us. Our personal license is not real freedom if we are still slaves. The teachings of the Lord free us from the power of sin, so that we might experience real freedom. It is not enough to hear the words, we must abide in them. The words must live in us and we must live in them.

When we hear the Beatitudes, I am afraid that the words fall upon our deaf ears. What the Lord says seems so foreign to us. It may be because we are still slaves. All of the virtues that the Lord invokes – meekness, poverty of spirit, hunger for what is right, purity, etc. – are the living reality of someone who has been set free from the slavery of sin. Slaves to sin will not be meek or merciful. Slaves will not seek what is right or strive for purity.

This is what we have to offer to America – real freedom and liberty. They are virtues that go down to the very core of our being and frees us from a slave master that would destroy the world through us and lead us all to death. We offer Jesus Christ, the real Jesus, to America. It is not the Jesus of TV preachers and prosperity hustlers. It is not an American Jesus, but One who died to free us all from sin, and calls us all to follow Him.

It is a high calling that we Orthodox must answer. Surely, it is a narrow road but the Orthodox must strive to walk this narrow road of the Faith. Maybe then, being free from the slavery of sin, we will be able heal the great multitudes as the Lord did.

May every 4th of July remind us of true liberty and freedom!

“He who the Son sets free is free indeed.”

Happy 4th of July!