Archive for July, 2016

In God we trust – all others pay cash.

July 24, 2016

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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

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We recently had another record Power Ball lottery. I believe the cash prize was almost half a billion dollars. With that kind of money at stake, many people who never buy a ticket are greatly tempted to do so. It’s easy to dream of how nice it would be to pay off all of our bills, help family and friends, and never ever worry about money again. On the negative side, you discover that winning the lottery often did not result in a fairy tale life of financial freedom. You read stories of divorce, murder, drug abuse, broken families and even poverty.  We are sure that such things would never happen to us, since we are kind, generous, and loving Orthodox people. This feeling flies in the face of the many warnings that our Lord gave about wealth –something about a camel.

Which is better – a paycheck or a lottery cash prize? I’m not talking about the amount of money I earn versus the money that the lottery offers. I could never earn that much in several lifetimes. What I mean is how you obtain the money. A paycheck is the result of your labor. A lottery cash prize is the result of other people’s labor.

The reason that I bring this up is that in Romans 6, St. Paul uses this idea of wage and free gifts to talk about salvation. He says that sin pays a wage and the payment is death, but that eternal life in Christ Jesus is a free gift. This turns things upside down. I thought that I had to work for eternal life, now I hear that it is a free gift. Quite the opposite, I am working for sin, and all that I will get for it is death. This is foolishness! Why in the world would anyone work and sweat and toil for death, when there is a free gift of eternal life? Well, look around and take notice. Most of the human race is working and toiling and fretting to receive a reward. Little do we know that we work for sin and will be paid the wage of death. Like all work, wages are paid often, and death comes to us, but only in part. Full payment will come later.

How is the gift of salvation free? Well, a true gift is given simply out of love for the one to whom it is given. If there is any sense of obligation, then it is not truly a gift. Jesus Christ was a pure and absolute gift, given because God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. You and I did nothing to deserve it. In fact there is nothing that we could have done to be worthy of such a gift. All we have to do is receive the gift and eternal life is ours.

I realize that for the Orthodox, this may sound a bit like Protestant theology which is sometimes characterized as “believe and receive.” How is salvation free, when we talk a about the importance of prayer, fasting, study and church attendance as essential for the attainment of holiness? The Bible says, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord,” and holiness seems to take a lot of work.

Let’s review.  We work for sin and receive death as payment. Fair enough because what else could sin give us really? On the other hand, we receive a free gift of salvation in Christ Jesus, but we have to work for it.  Clear as mud?

It’s simple really. If someone gives me a gift, no matter how wonderful it is or how thankful I am, it will not change who or what I am. I did nothing to earn the gift and other than gratitude, nothing more is expected. For the gift of salvation, I could not pray enough, fast enough or come to church often enough to deserve it. This is what is meant by the idea that we are not saved by our works. The Father loves us freely and gives good gifts to His children. Yet, with such a gift, is nothing expected of me? I am grateful for the gift of salvation, but is that all that is required?

The gift of salvation is not one to be placed on a shelf or even in a place of honor. 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 slavery to sin and death. To attain this freedom, we must place these spiritual tools in our souls and bodies, and use them to attain holiness.

The Orthodox call this “theosis.”  It is a pilgrimage of transformation and it is a journey that we must not stop. The journey begins with a free gift, but the giving is just the first step. The Master said, “I am the Way….”  and those who have received the gift walk in that way.  As we walk, freedom becomes ever more powerful until we reach the end. What is the end of it?  Paul puts it this way: ” the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.  Sanctification is another way to speak of the journey to holiness and the end of holiness is eternal life.

A wage or a gift.  When it comes to money, I think I prefer a wage over the lottery. When it comes to salvation, I think I’ll take the gift. Then I’ll be a working man for holiness.

For the peace from above: Liberty and freedom

July 3, 2016

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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!