Chains

January 27, 2017

jacobmarley

“the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains” Acts 12

I have wondered at this verse all my life. Peter, as far as he knows, is about to die for the Faith, and he is asleep. Asleep? He is chained and guarded. There is no way out and no hope of reprieve because Herod wants him dead. In the face of all of this, Peter is asleep. What kind of man is this who is so at peace before his death that he sleeps? I  used to be able to sleep anywhere and anytime so that  people would say that I could sleep standing up. However, if it was the night before my death, would I be sleeping? Probably not.

The Church was praying for Peter and an angel would deliver him, but Peter didn’t know that at the time. He was so trusting in his Lord that he feared nothing, even death (and this from the man that denied the Lord three times).  I wish that I had such faith and courage, but I am no where near the holiness of St Peter.  I don’t wear his chains. The chains on Peter are those that came from being a martyr  (remember that the word martyr means “witness”). I have been a rather poor witness so I do not wear Peter’s chains.

Oh, I do wear chains but they are the chains of Jacob Marley and Ebeneezer Scrooge. I have forged them all my life and they have been quite heavy and ponderous. My pride, selfishness, passionate nature, sinfulness, anger are a few of the things that make up the links of my chain.  The Lord has removed these from me many times through my baptism, confession, and repentance, but like a dog returning to its vomit, I have picked up the chains and put them on again. Foolish, so very very foolish.

I do not lose hope. Perhaps the first step is realize that I am bound by chains. My habitual sins chain me and guard me for death. If I know this to the deepest level of my soul, then when the Lord removes them again, I will remember the word – “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” ( John 8.36) Knowing this freedom from my own chains, I can pick of up the chains of St. Peter. I can be a free man, a witness who sleeps even in the face of death. I hope that my Church prays for me like they did for St. Peter.

How can I help you? Well, at least, if I rattle my chains, you may come to know your own. If you do,  then may the angel of the Lord deliver you, so that someday you may sleep in peace bound by the chains of St Peter.

I will rattle my chains, but you may think that I am just “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.” Even so, it is the best I can do.

Fight, Run, Finish

January 14, 2017

boxerrunRunner Crossing the Red Tape at the Finish Line

It always surprises me when someone comes to the Orthodox faith. Given the present age, there are so many versions of Christianity on offer. Many of them are in step with the values and hopes of the culture. Some offer a path of prosperity and comfort (whether they ever deliver is another issue).  Some offer helpful hints for hurtful habits and demand little more while others teach the path of positive thinking. In some, the music is rousing and contemporary, but often the theology is not intellectually demanding.

Why then would someone want to join a Faith that asks you to be regular in your attendance instead of coming when it suits you; that you fast as a lifestyle; adopt a prayer rule instead of just praying what you want and when you want; tithe instead of dropping in the box whatever you have in your pocket; study to challenge your thinking instead of believing that all you have to do is “read and heed”; attend classes to learn from others, etc.

The reason is the Holy Spirit, of course, who draws rare souls and shows them that the Church is not a cruise ship, but a battleship. While the Church is called to be in the world and witness to the world, it is not called to be contemporary or relevant to any culture in which it finds itself.  To be Orthodox is to struggle, not only with the problems that come with living, but with the world, the flesh, and the devil.

St. Paul understood this. In 2 Timothy 4, he said that he had fought the good fight and had run the race. Hear the verbs he uses – fight and run. These are not the words that describe an easy life in the Faith.  I’ve only been in a few physical fights and I’ve been in some intellectual battles.  I learned that if you want to be victorious, you should learn to fight well. This requires that you gain some fighting skills and it also requires that you know something about your opponent. A good runner has to train, and eat well, but above all he or she must have a good heart.  To run well and to fight well involves body, mind, and soul.

In Orthodoxy, it is the same. The Faith requires body, mind, and soul.  If you do not train the body, it will shipwreck your faith with its constant demands for pleasure and comfort. If you do not train the mind, the father of lies will deceive you and draw you away from the Faith. If you do not feed the soul, then when adversity comes, you will not have the strength to stand.

What about the finish? In my time as a minster and priest, I have seen many people come and go.  They started with a lot of zeal but ended in failure. Paul said that the end of his fight and struggle was that he had finished the course and had kept the faith. Sadly, the end of the struggle for some is leaving the faith. Some Orthodox object to the idea that struggle is unavoidable or that the Faith should make any demands. They want what is called a “chapel of ease,” where they can come, light a candle, enjoy a nice service, have a nice cup of coffee, and then leave.  Orthodoxy will not be much of a part of their daily life. If there is any sign of struggle in the Church family, they are gone, often for good.

Bishop Fulton Sheen said the following: Christianity is not passing away because it is too hard. It is passing away because it is too soft.  Many will not fight and they cannot run and they find it impossible to keep the Faith.  As St. Paul once said, they have the form of Christianity, but they do not have the power. I think of what the Spirit often said to the Churches in the book of Revelation: “to he who overcomes (who keeps the Faith), I will give him a crown- the 2nd death will not touch him- and so on.  Those who wear the crowns are those who have won the battle.

Let me offer a final word of encouragement. I often feel weak and many times I have failed the Lord. What keeps me fighting and struggling is the limitless mercy and forgiveness of God. It is this mercy that makes the perseverance of the saints possible.  I know that in any war, you may lose a few battles. Yet, if you remain obedient to the Commander, in the end you will win the war.

Fight, run, finish. To be Orthodox is to struggle not just to loose weight, or pay the bills, etc.  It is a struggle to keep the Faith. After all, the Lord promised a cross to those who followed him.  I think that on judgment day, the only thing the Lord will ask us is “did you struggle to keep the Faith?”  If we did, then we have fought the good fight, we have run  the course, and we have finished the race..

Gratitude is more that attitude

November 27, 2016

 

good-samaritan

I had a chance to hear Fr. Valery Lukianov speaking to his family and friends about the Thanksgiving season. Fr. Valery has always been a very engaging speaker and this was another example. Among other things, he spoke of how we should be glad that the entire nation, Christian or not, took a moment to be thankful, to say thanks to God or to a friend or family member.  This caused me to reflect that Thanksgiving is a moment, for those of us who are Orthodox, to understand what it must have been like to live in an Orthodox country where feast days and traditions were largely shared by the entire culture.  I do hope that you had a wonderful Thanksgiving season with those that you love.

It would be a sad life to live it without gratitude and thankfulness. Yet, it is interesting that while we often feel gratitude for those who love and serve us, we are slow to thank them. Though they may be grateful, I have known men who rarely thank their wives, and I have known wives who rarely thank their husbands. I know of children who rarely thanked their parents, and parents who rarely thanked their children. The list could go on and on. Family and friends serve us because they love us, and they don’t do it to be thanked. Yet, if gratitude is rarely shown, that service becomes ever more difficult to give.   So, please: thank your priest, thank your parishioners, thank your parents, thank your children, thank your wife, thank your husband, thank the police, thank the military, and so on.

Above all, thank God from whom all blessings flow.

We need to go a little deeper. For those who follow Christ, gratitude is more than an attitude. As important as it is to express our thanks to those who have served us, giving thanks is more than words, more than an internal attitude. Allow me a personal memory. My brother and sisters and I thought to make Mother’s Day a bit more special than usual. So we planned breakfast in bed for mom and made some things to show how we were thankful for all that she did. Mom was happy and thanked us for the effort. Later, as we were talking, she reminded us that while she appreciated the effort, the best way to show our gratitude was to clean our rooms, pick up our socks, bring our dishes to the sink, etc., and on a daily basis. That lesson stuck with me, but I can’t say that I always followed it.

It is vital to a good life to feel gratitude and speak words of thankfulness, especially to God. Yet, I think God wants me to pick up my socks and bring my dirty dishes to the sink. I show my gratitude when I say my prayers as the Church teaches me. I show my gratitude when I pick up my dirty socks in confession. I show gratitude when I challenge my lazy and ungrateful flesh with fasting.  Above all that I could do, I show my thankfulness most when I stoop down and bind the wounds of those who have fallen by the wayside; when I anoint them with wine and oil; when I carry them to the Inn, provide for their care, and promise to return. Such an act shows that I am thankful, not just in word, or in attitude, but from the depths of my soul.

The Greek word for Holy Communion is ευχαριστία (eucharistia). It means “thanksgiving.”  So, every Sunday, we come to celebrate the feast of Thanksgiving (so does this mean turkey and dressing every Sunday?)  We come to express from the depths of our souls the gratitude and joy that we feel for all that the Lord Jesus has done for us. May we also give thanks for all that He has done through us to others and know the joy that in our gratitude to Him, we have picked up our socks and washed the dishes.

Happy Eucharist to you all.

 

The Preacher and Jerry Springer

October 29, 2016

springer

I don’t know if you ever watched the Jerry Springer Show on television.  It’s been on for many years and is still quite popular.  Basically, people come on the show to tell the world about their problems and sins. Most often, people tell about some affair with the love interest of a friend or relative.  It’s something of a public confession. Most of the time, the offended spouse or partner comes out, and it ends in physical violence. The audience roars in laughter and approval. Americans seem to love this kind of thing.

Here is one story that Jerry Springer would love. A preacher, a supposed man of God, had the audacity to sleep with a prostitute. He wanted her to stay with him, so he gave her a lot of money. They had two children out of wedlock. The prostitute was torn emotionally. She wanted to continue to sleep with her clients, but the preacher was a jealous man who did not want any rivals.  Knowing the kindness and generosity of the preacher, she wanted to remain faithful to him but she thought often about her lovers. The preacher promised that if she would just stay with him and be faithful, he would marry her, make her respectable, and give her many gifts.  What would she do? Who would she choose- her clients or the preacher? Yes, Jerry Springer would love to have these folks on his show.

It might surprise you to discover that the preacher is the prophet Hosea.

Although this story can be found in the book of Hosea, it isn’t clear if it literally happened as some kind of prophetic sign, or is just an allegory told to make a theological point. Either way, what is the message of this story?  Hosea represents God and Israel is the prostitute; that is Israel constantly goes after the gods of other nations. Despite this sad situation, God tells Israel that if she will repent and return to Him, he will marry her, bless her and will proudly proclaim to the world that He is the God of Israel.  Would Israel remain with God, or go elsewhere? The history of Israel shows that this was not an easy choice for them. Sometimes they were faithful, many times they were not.

What does this story have to do with us?  Forgive me for saying this, but spiritually speaking, we are all prostitutes. We seek out other lovers for what we believe they can give us. We are torn in our hearts because we know how loving and kind and generous God is and can be.  We also know that He is a jealous God.  So sometimes we draw close to God, but most of the time, we pursue other gods. What are the gods that we chase after?  They are our ideals, passions, fantasies and desires.  Some of our gods are mental and some are physical.

Hosea shows us that despite this condition of being divided in our loyalty, God continues to loves us completely. He does not disdain us and would marry us if we would just repent and be faithful. To be married to God means that we will come to know real intimacy with Him. He will know us and we will know him in deep and abiding love. He will be our God and we will be his people.  How did Jesus put it? Eternal life is know the Father and the Son whom He has sent. We will know him, not just know about Him.

What will we do – continue to play the harlot and pursue our lovers or repent and be married? If we pursue other lovers, God will continue to love us, but eventually we will grow old. Our lovers will abandon us and we will be left alone. If we choose God, we will be blessed with a life of real intimacy and we will know that love forever.

It seems like a no-brainer, but we humans seem to love playing the harlot. Sadly, because of our divided loyalty, we may only know about the greatest love of all when we could live in that love and have it live in us.  You may feel ashamed because of your past unfaithfulness. Your past doesn’t matter.  God loves you and would marry you today. So, repent and come home. A marriage feast has been set for you and God will clothe you in a wedding gown of righteousness. He will make you beautiful beyond anything that you can imagine and he will be proud to claim you as His own.

So, what are you waiting for?

Enemies

October 16, 2016

public-enemy-1931

When you consider the things that Orthodoxy asks of you –fasting, prayer, church attendance, tithing, study, etc. – it’s a pretty demanding business. What else could anyone ask of you? Well, if you think these things are hard, listen to Jesus:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners    love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and selfish.”

Love your enemies? Jesus must be kidding. In fact, He is not, and he put his words into practice, even to the Cross. Often,  I don’t love the people I call my friends. I don’t know how in the world I’m supposed to love my enemies. The word “enemy” means someone that I don’t like or actually despise. How am I supposed to love them?  What living person has no enemies?

A mafia boss on the island of Sicily was on his death bed. He called for the local priest to come see him and hear his confession. He had decided he wanted to get right with God before he died. The priest came and, before he began to administer the sacraments, said, “Part of getting ready to die is that you need to forgive all your enemies.” The mafia boss said, “Father, I don’t have any enemies.” The priest was surprised and said, “That’s amazing! After all the years of your violent and criminal life, you must have enemies!” The mafia replied, “No, Father, I really don’t have any enemies. I killed them all.” (Fr. Andrew Harman)

This isn’t what Jesus meant, but is there a way that we can come to love our enemies? Father Andrew Harmon, Pastor of St. Matthew Antiochian Orthodox Church, North Royalton, Ohio suggests the following:

  1. Pray –I wonder how often we think to pray for our enemies. Why pray for them? Mainly because only God can heal the wounds of the heart. In praying for our enemies, it may be our hearts that are healed.
  2. Thank God for something good about your enemy– We tend to think of our enemies as being devoid of anything good. The fact is that they are no more evil than we are, and we believe that there is some good in ourselves. Dwelling on what is good rather than what is evil may result in realizing that like our enemy, we are a mix of good and evil. Maybe it was my evil that contributed to the conflict. Maybe, in the remembrance of wrongs, I have forgotten the part that I played and have made my enemy to be more of a villain than they deserve.
  3. Shift your anger – One of the great roadblocks to creating peace is anger. Because of anger, we will not listen to any suggestion that reconciliation is possible. What does it mean to shift anger? It means to turn the power of anger against the root of habitual sin in our own hearts instead of outward against people who offend us. If we did this, we would soon be saints. Ask St. Moses the Black.

4, Treat them kindly – Finally, Jesus tells us that it is not enough to good to people we                   like. We must do something good to our enemies like turn the other cheek or walk                the extra mile.  We are to be like our Father who is good to the evil and well as to the              just; who causes the rain to fall on the fields of the righteous and the unrighteous.                 So, Jesus said that we should be like Dad. In doing good things, we may find that we               will change a heart and gain a friend. We might discover the treasure of true                              humility.

In conclusion, listen again to St. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic:

“Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.

Enemies have driven me into Your embrace more than friends have. Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.

Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself. One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends. It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.”  (an excerpt)

Do good to your enemies. Be like your Father in heaven. Loving your enemy will change your life, and save your soul.

i no longer live

October 2, 2016

christ-in-me

 

i use to think that the Cross of Christ was something upon which we hung our sins so that we wouldn’t have to suffer for them later. That was a rather shallow view of it.  Jesus made it more -he said that we would have to deny ourselves, pick up a cross and follow him.  i realized that the Cross had to move from Calvary into my heart. Well, that has been a struggle because while my heart wants to live forever and is grateful for all that Jesus did for me, the heart also wants to pursue its own pleasures, dreams, and ambitions. To have the Cross in my heart and the self-denial that follows is directly opposed to the fantasies of my life.  For this reason, though sin is hard to bear, the Cross is very hard to bear.

In Galatians 2, St. Paul puts forward an astonishing idea. “i have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer i who live, but Christ who lives in me.” It’s one thing to believe that Christ died for me. Its another thing to say that i was crucified with Christ. St. John Chrysostom says that in these words he alludes to Baptism. In baptism, one dies to the old self and is freed from the tyranny of the past, the world, and one’s own ego. So many people struggle with themselves. They constantly complain about some failing, uncontrollable passion, a bad \attitude, being judgmental, etc. It disturbs them that these failings and passions never seem to change though they struggle mightily with them.

Imagine if there was no “i” in the equation. It is no longer “i” who lives. If there was no “i”, then there would be nothing for the devil to attack. There would be no uncontrollable passions, no bad attitudes. There would certainly be no despair and no fear. There would be no temptations. As the old saying goes, “a dead man cannot sin.”   Elder Porphyrios says the following:

“In the Church which possesses the saving sacraments there is no despair. We may be deeply sinful. But we make confessions, the priest reads the prayer, we are forgiven and we progress towards immortality, without any anxiety and without any fear. When we love Christ, we live the life of Christ. If, by the grace of God, we succeed in doing this, we find ourselves in a different state, we live in another, enviable state. For us there is no fear; neither of death, nor of the devil nor of hell. All these things exist for people who are far from Christ, for non-Christians. For us Christians who do His will, as the Gospel says, these things do not exist. That is, they exist, but when one kills the old self along with the passions and desires, one gives no importance to the devil or to evil. It doesn’t concern us. What concerns us is love, service to Christ and to our fellow man. If we reach the point of feeling joy, love, worship of God without any fear, we reach the point of saying, It is no longer I who live; Christ lives in me. No one can prevent us from entering into this mystery.”

How do we reach this state of joy, love, and worship of God without fear?

Foremost, it is with faith-faith that Christ died for me; faith that i no longer live; faith that it is Christ who lives in me; faith in all that he gives me so that He may live in me: Baptism, Holy Communion,  the Bible, the Church, confession, etc. Faith that he will never leave me, nor forsake me, no matter what i do or how many times i fall.

Then we reach this state by theosis, by the process of salvation. By the Holy Spirit and the grace given to us, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. We embrace the disciplines of faith, not to gain God’s favor nor do we do them to keep the rules. We do them so that we can reach that state of being where we know, and no longer doubt, that i no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in me.

Finally, it is by love that we come to the place where we are not only made in His image, which all people have. We attain his likeness as well. Since God is love, to look like Christ is to look like love itself. Love compels us to pick up his cross and follow him. It is by love that I am crucified to the world and the world to me. It is love that makes the “i” go away. Then on Judgment Day, when God looks at me, it is not “i” that he will see. It is Christ in me that He will see.

 

Learning the language of Faith

September 18, 2016

learning-a-language

A child developmental psychologist once stated that if you don’t believe that a baby is a genius, then try learning a language. Having worked on Spanish for many years, I know this to be true. One of the first things you learn are commands – come, sit, sleep, eat – just to mention a few. Babies begin to learn language in much the same way. I think dogs learn from commands as well.

In I Corinthians 16, St. Paul gives us some simple commands. By these, we might begin to learn the language of Faith. The commands he gives are watch, stand, have courage, be strong, and love.

Watch

This might seem like an odd command to start with, but in fact it is very important. The Lord taught that the servant of the house should watch for the master’s return, and not fall asleep. He also said that if we know that someone is coming to rob us in our home, we would watch for them so that we could catch them. So, are we awake and watching, or are we asleep? What are we to watch? We are to watch and guard the mind so that thoughts do not steal our minds from us. We are to watch and guard our senses so that our passions do not use our bodies against us. We are to watch and guard the heart so that it doesn’t become hard and unfeeling. We are to watch and guard our soul so that the devil doesn’t steal it from us. We are to watch the world, so that we know what is coming. Finally, we are to watch for the coming of the Lord, so that we never lose hope. Yes, to watch is a very important command.

Stand in the Faith

Even if we are watchful, we know that the unexpected happens and we cannot escape it. It is surprising then that when it happens, we are shocked. Depending on what happens, we can lose faith. Let me give you an example. The Fathers teach us that we should keep before us the remembrance of death. This remembrance is not meant to depress us, but it helps us to be free from fear and from foolishness. Death should not surprise Orthodox people. Yet, I have seen Orthodox people lose faith when they lose a loved one. It is at the very moment of death that we should stand strong in the Faith. We certainly weep and mourn, but we do not mourn like those who have no faith. St. Paul knew what was coming for the Christians of his time, so he commanded them to stand in the Faith.

 Courage

Courage is a theme that you find in many movies old and new. What is taught in these movies is that courage does not mean a lack of fear. In fact, courage is at its best when something is done despite the presence of overwhelming fear. The courage of the martyrs of the past inspire us, but they make us wonder how they faced such hatred, pain, and terror. Did they feel fear? I think they did, but it did not make them deny Christ. We witness courage in the martyrs of the Islamic yoke and we marvel at it. Could you and I have such courage? I think we could, but we don’t have to wait for martyrdom to know it. We need courage to live as a Christian where we are. We need the courage to witness to our faith in a way that is loving, but does not compromise the truth. We need the courage to live this witness in a way that others can see a Faith that is genuine. If the world becomes more secular, it will take courage to do this.

Be Strong

St. Paul commands us to be strong and I don’t think he meant for the Corinthians to go to the nearest YMCA. Of course, physical strength and good health are a wonderful gift, but I think St. Paul is talking about spiritual strength. If we feel weak and lacking in spiritual strength, how do we get it? The answer is the same as it is for the body – we must exercise. Scientists tell us that if we don’t get off the couch and exercise, our physical future is grim. Spiritual laziness will also kill us. The Church has given us exercises to do, not to make God love us, but so that we might get spiritual muscles. Our exercises are fasting, prayer, studying the scriptures, attending services, doing good deeds, etc. Failure to exercise spiritually means that we will have no strength when the time of struggle comes to us.

Love

The last command is love without which all the rest is fruitless. It is love that compels me to watch. It is love that makes to stand. It is love that gives me courage. It is love that gives me strength. It is love that makes me study. It is love that moves me to pray. It is love that gets me to Church. It is love that moves me to fast. It is love shows me the needs of others and moves me to help them. Love teaches me the language of Faith because faith works through love.  Love is the beginning and the end of it all.

And with that, I will end.

 

In God we trust – all others pay cash.

July 24, 2016

TrumpBClinton

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

Working_man

 

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

Happy-4th-Of-July-Quotes-Images1

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!