Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Discipleship in Love

He truly bestows charity who gives from his heart, and with a loving heart. He is truly merciful who converses with everyone heartily, and not only with the intellect and lips, but who renders sincere, hearty respect to everyone; in a word, he who embraces all and carries all in his heart by love, despising everything material that may become a hindrance to love between himself and his neighbor; such a one is truly merciful and loving.

— Father John of Kronstadt

He's A Lover

He’s been walking in us all
He’s been seeing through our eyes
He’s been battered by our falls
He’s been gladdened by our rise
and there’s been no body here
that He hasn’t been inside
He’s no secret to our ears
and He’s got nothing to hide

And He’s a lover,
He’s a lover, Babe
Don’t run for cover
Don’t go hiding now, girl
He’s a lover
He’s a lover

Were you walking in the street?
Was it you I saw last night
looking like you couldn’t sleep
and your heart done up too tight
with your painted eyes and face
holding back the tide of fear?
Did you finally find a place
where someone paid to drink your tears?

But He’s a lover,
He’s a lover, Babe
Go, run for cover
Go, run to Him now, girl
He’s a lover
He’s a lover

Where you look it can’t be found
Man, the books just fill the sills
of your mind, you can’t get down
from your bed of selfish will
For the Spirit’s just a clown
who’s been dressed up for the kill
In His letters you may drown,
but He’s waiting for you still

‘Cause He’s a lover,
He’s a lover, Man
Don’t blow your cover
Don’t go crazy now, oh no
He’s a lover
He’s a lover

He’s been counting out our days
He’s been filling in our names
He’s not satisfied with praise
we offer up between our games
He’s so tired that we must sleep
but He offers us a light
as He walks the lonely street
He’s been walking every night

‘Cause He’s a lover,
He’s a lover, Babe
Throw off the cover
Get up and open the door, girl
He’s a lover
He’s a lover

— Romanós

Commentary on this song by the author

What is the meaning of that recurring description of God as mónos philánthropos, "only lover of mankind," that appears in so many prayers and hymns?
In this song I explored this idea of the ‘One Who Alone Loves Us’ in four metaphors:
The first stanza and refrain allude to Adam and Eve, particularly to Eve, on whom was heaped the blame for their common transgression. (Genesis 3:8-13)
The second stanza and refrain refer to the woman caught in the act of adultery. The crowd wanted to stone her. Jesus, however, released her without harming her. He was her protector. (John 8:1-11) The third stanza and refrain echo Christ’s indictment of the lawyers and pharisees, though He still loved them and held out the offer of His love. (Several passages in the synoptics and John) The fourth stanza and refrain recounts the all-knowing forebearance of God, the forgiveness Jesus had for the sleepers in Gethsemane, and closes with a paraphrase of a scene from the Song of Solomon. (Song of Solomon 5:2-8)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Ramblings on Annunciation, the Cross, and Freedom

This may in fact be my first real blog entry, all the others being quotes from foundational Christians (except for my last entry, which is just one of my testimonies in song format). This weekend two important Orthodox holy days coincided: Annunciation on March 25th, and Veneration of the Cross Sunday on the 26th, with a third important day of human interest, Greek Independence Day. Auspicious the conjunction, as the good news of salvation was first announced to Mary, and the salvation was accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ submitting to the death of the Cross. And what means this salvation? Isn't it freedom in its truest sense, freedom from sin, hell and death?

The Greek community of Portland is large, diverse and successful in human terms; it casts a long shadow, even to the steps of city hall, the houses of Congress, and the White House (especially in the days of the late Father Elias Stephanopoulos, uncle of George, who was a Clinton era insider).

On the 25th we observed the feast day of the Annunciation, in Greek, "Evangelismós" (the announcing of the Good News, the "Evangelion"). There were services, and afterwards, a gathering at City Hall, where the mayor read the proclamation of Greek Independence Day, some other speakers sounded off, and the public was treated to Greek folk dance performances. I was unable to attend any of these events. Instead, I attended the regular Sunday services of the 26th which have the theme of the Cross of Jesus Christ, after which I attended a luncheon in honor of Greek independence, a sort of repeat for the community at large, since many of us could not attend on the actual day. This is how it is with us. We call it "ikonomía" which loosely translated means "making do". If the rules seem to prevent what they're supposed to promote, we bend them a bit. "…so the Son of Man is master even of the Sabbath." (Mark 2:28)

I've found in my middle age that my heart lies very close to the surface. Is it because I've finally learned to really listen to what I'm hearing, reading, or saying? It doesn't take much to get my eyes watery anymore. I'm not ashamed of this, but sometimes a little embarrassed (for them) when I'm with someone who's not used to it. In his novel "Till We Have Faces," C. S. Lewis writes parenthetically, describing a barbarian king's Greek tutor, "Greek men cry as easily as women." But then, he wasn't talking about crying from being physically hurt, or from fear. When your heart has been emptied so completely by sorrow for your sins and the sins of others, doesn't the Lord fill it with the tenderness of His mercy, and so fully that it has nowhere to spill, except through your eyes' tears?

Flashback to the luncheon: The three dozen or so Greek dancers, led by two boys carrying side by side the Stars & Stripes and the Cross & Stripes, processed into the hall. People stayed sitting. I could do nothing myself but stand up, and soon everyone else did the same. I am not a patriot, but when I saw those two striped flags, my heart leapt up before the millions of heroic souls to do them honor, and my body just followed. I didn't know their names, but I knew I was able to stand because they sacrificed everything for me, just as Jesus Christ did. Am I getting emotional? I don't think so. The Truth is the Truth. After the flag bearers reached the podium, led by our young "proistámenos" (senior pastor) we began to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" à capella. Everyone was with it, and on key. Sorry, folks, but my voice died away a little past the half-way point. I simply cannot sing this anthem anymore without crying. I saw their faces passing before me, and their heroic lives, in an overload of living imagery that surged into my heart from somewhere outside, and then surged back out again. My usual annoyingly fervent singing voice just sank to a whisper. "Deep is calling to deep as your cataracts roar; all your waves, your breakers, have rolled over me." (Psalm 42:7)

The Greek national anthem was sung (unfortunately I don't have it memorized!) and I just stayed standing very still, soaking in the love of the people around me who were singing this song about the love of true freedom, "elefthería" as bestowed on us by Christ, who said "You will learn the Truth, and the Truth will make you free." (John 8:32)

Next, a couple of elders in the community spoke briefly about the occasion, and its meaning for people today. This can be quite dry and academic, but not in their case. The second speaker summarized the spiritual history of the Greek people from their ancient beginnings up to the revolution of 1821 which eventually secured their independence from the Turks. The negative experience of the Greeks was minimized and their positive contribution to Western democracy and civilization emphasized, which was a good thing. He closed his 6 minute long address with the exhortation that we must continue to live our lives as Hellenes and Philhellenes (Greeks by birth and by adoption) and as Orthodox Christians, especially in this time and place, when almost everything we hold true is under attack, or soon will be. Here is this island of people who still live and act (when we are together) as the early Christians, who consider themselves the same people, and who live out the truth that "Jesus Christ is the same today as he was yesterday and as he will be for ever." (Hebrews 13:8)

Then came the Greek dancing. For those who don't know, this is NOT belly-dancing, as you might see in some of the Greek restaurants who do this kind of thing (which is a left-over from the days of Turkish rule). Greek dancing can be done solo, as you can see in some films with Greek themes, but essentially it's a group experience. The kids doing the performances at the luncheon ranged in age from about 6 to 20, and they all danced very well. They are a kind of testimony to the staying power of Hellenism. The dance with us is a spiritual, but not a religious, experience. It's a way of expressing our "bodily" fellowship with Jesus Christ who is alive and dwelling in our midst. Though the dancers be beautiful, their dancing is chaste. Though they are unbreakably tight, arms overlapping and resting on each others' shoulders, their feet working out a sometimes complex pattern, their whole bodies being tugged rhythmically forward and then taking a half-step back like the retrograde orbits of the planets, they are dancing as angels before the Lord, conscious of nothing but each others' joy in the dance, instinctively recognizing that the "Lord of the Dance" is among them, and that in another sense, they have His world as their dance floor. HIS world, mind you, not THIS world. And this brings me to my last comment.

The second speaker exhorted us to persevere in our Hellenic and Christian civilization, even here in America. From outward appearances, at the services and at the luncheon it does appear that we are doing that, and successfully. As a member of this community for eighteen years, one can say I have "seen it all." Even now, there are unresolved conflicts among us that cry out for loving ministry, there are hearts yearning to serve, to give all for Christ, and yet "the Church" seems somehow stifled in manifesting the "Christ among us" that we experience (when we are together) not only to the world outside, but also to those Christians among us who are estranged from each other, in our homes, in our extended families. We have the anomaly in this community, as have all churches of Christ, of the co-existence of two churches, really, under the single "visible" body of believers. Sergei Fudel, in his book "Light in the Darkness" calls this other the "dark double of the Church." It is also described in the great English classic, John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress," in these (archaic) words: "Neither will it out of my mind, but that that man that takes up Religion for the world, will throw away Religion for the world; for so surely as Judas designed the world in becoming religious: so surely did he also sell Religion, and his Master for the same."

We must be quite clear to which kingdom we belong, to the Kingdom of Heaven, or to the kingdom of this world, which is no kingdom at all, but only a principality whose adherents are under a death warrant. Let's not take up "religion" for the world, because when that which is hidden will be revealed, we will throw away this pretended "religion" for the world. Do you see, my brothers, the enticements to apostatize to Islam (surrender to a false god) are not only "history." They are here and now. Despite our apparent "religion," whom do we serve? "No man can be the slave of two masters…" (Matthew 6:24)

"Soon I shall be with you: hold firmly to what you already have, and let nobody take your prize away from you." (Revelation 3:11)

Friday, March 24, 2006

‘Gotta Hear It From You

Why is it that I can somehow see through this world
why is it like I’m always looking through a window
why is it the people are so transparent, even their hearts
why do I feel my body and mind are just containers
why is it I still see when I stop my breathing
what is it in me still watches even when I’m sleeping
what is it I throw out of me when my eyes touch another’s
how can the empty behind the full be so abundant?

I’m not talking in symbols now.
No, I’m not trying to entertain you.
I’m not fooling with metaphysics.
No time left for me to play with you.
Just asking this simple question.
Just one word, one word only’ll do.
Just give me a permit for my profession,
but I’ve gotta hear it from you.

Where is the doorway to step out of this world machine
where is the gateway to get out of this walled city
where is the shallow where I can ford this stream, even now
where can I find the pass to lead me up out of this valley
where’s the court where I can go and get my hearing
why is it I still know that believing is just seeing
what is it in me still listens when my heart is hardened
how can the silence behind the song be so convincing?

I’m not walking in circles now.
No, I’ve got no place to go to meet you.
I’m not ruling out pilgrimages.
I only feel that maybe they’d unseat you.
Just asking this simple question.
Just one word, one word only’ll do.
Just give me a blessing at my confession,
but I’ve gotta hear it from you.

What is the meaning of this regular aberration
what is the purpose behind this persistent wrinkle
what is it, floating in my eyes, even when I shut them
what is it blocking my stubborn attempts at solution
what is the reason for my constant detention
why is it I still look in through the window
why have they left me alone here without a pass key
how can the darkness behind the light be so radiant?

I’m not talking in symbols now.
No, I’m not trying to entertain you.
I’m not dueling with mental itches.
No time for that unless I gain you.
Just asking this simple question.
Just one word, one word only’ll do.
Just give me the object of my obsession,
but I’ve gotta hear it from you.

— Romanós

By grace man is broken but not divided

Fortunate is the man who is broken in pieces and offered to others, who is poured out and given to others to drink. When his time of trial comes he will not be afraid. He will have nothing to fear. He will already have understood that, in the celebration of love, by grace man is broken but not divided, eaten and never consumed. By grace he has become Christ, and so his life gives food and drink to his brother. That is to say, he nourishes the other’s very existence and makes it grow.

—Archimandrite Vasileios

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The kind of love taught by Christ

So often when we say ‘I love you’ we say it with a huge ‘I’ and a small ‘you’.

We use love as a conjunction instead of it being a verb implying action. It’s no good just gazing out into open space hoping to see the Lord; instead, we have to look closely at our neighbor, someone whom God has willed into existence, someone whom God has died for. Everyone we meet has a right to exist, because he has value in himself, and we are not used to this. The acceptance of others is a danger to us, it threatens us. To recognise the other's right to be himself might mean recognising his right to kill me. But if we set a limit to his right to exist, it's no right at all. Love is difficult. Christ was crucified because he taught a kind of love which is a terror for men, a love which demands total surrender: it spells death.

If we turn to God and come face to face with him, we must be prepared to pay the cost. If we are not prepared to pay the cost, we must walk through life being a beggar, hoping someone else will pay. But if we turn to God we discover that life is deep, vast and immensely worth living.

— Anthony Bloom
Metropolitan of Sourozh

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Call of Jesus

“And as he passed by he saw Levi, the son of Alphæus, sitting at the place of toll, and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.” (Mark 2.14)

The call goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience. The response of the disciples is an act of obedience, not a confession of faith in Jesus.

The cause behind the immediate following of the call by response is Jesus Christ himself. It is Jesus who calls, and because it is Jesus, Levi follows at once. This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct, and unaccountable authority of Jesus. Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God. There is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road — only obedience to the call of Jesus.

What does the text inform us about the content of discipleship? Follow me, run along behind me! That is all. To follow in his steps is something which is void of all content. It gives us no intelligible program for a way of life, no goal or ideal to strive after.

At the call, Levi leaves all he has — but not because he thinks that he might be doing something worthwhile, but simply for the sake of the call. Otherwise he cannot follow in the steps of Jesus. The disciple simply burns his boats and goes ahead. He is called out, and has to forsake his old life in order that he may ‘exist’ in the strictest sense of the word. The old life is left behind, and completely surrendered. The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus), from a life which is observable and calculable (it is, in fact, quite incalculable) into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous (that is, into one which is necessary and calculable), out of the realm of the finite (which is in truth the infinite) into the realm of infinite possibilities (which is the one liberating reality). Again, it is no universal law. Rather is it the exact opposite of all legality. It is nothing else than bondage to Jesus Christ alone, completely breaking every program, every ideal, every set of laws. No other significance is possible, since Jesus is the only significance. Beside Jesus nothing has any significance. He alone matters.

When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. It transcends the difference between the law and the gospel. Christ calls, the disciple follows; that is grace and commandment in one. ‘I will walk at liberty, for I seek thy commandments.’ (Psalm 119.45)

Discipleship without Jesus Christ is a way of our own choosing. It may be the ideal way, it may even lead to martyrdom, but it is devoid of all promise. Jesus will certainly reject it.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Discipleship and the Cross

Jesus Christ must suffer and be rejected. (Mark 8:31-38)
This “must” is inherent in the promise of God—the Scripture must be fulfilled. Here there is a distinction between suffering and rejection. Had He only suffered, Jesus might still have been applauded as the Messiah.

Jesus is a rejected Messiah. His rejection robs the passion of its halo of glory. It must be a passion without honor. Suffering and rejection sum up the whole cross of Jesus. To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid upon Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes from his own disciples; for it is in fact an attempt to prevent Christ from being Christ. That shows how the very notion of a suffering Messiah was scandal to the Church. …Peter’s protest displays his own unwillingness to suffer and that means that Satan has gained entry into the Church, and is trying to tear it away from the cross of its Lord.

Jesus must therefore make it clear beyond all doubt that the “must” of suffering applies to his disciples no less than to himself. … Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross. (See John 15:20-21)

When Jesus begins to unfold this inescapable truth to His disciples, He once more sets them free to choose or reject Him. “If any man would come after me,” He says. For it is not a matter of course, not even among the disciples. Nobody can be forced, nobody can even be expected to come. He says rather, “If any man” is prepared to spurn all other offers which come his way in order to follow Him. Once again, everything is left for the individual to decide…. To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only Him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us. … All that self-denial can say is: “He leads the way, keep close to Him.” “…and take up his cross.” … Only when we have become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for His sake. If in the end we know only Him, if we have ceased to notice the pain of our own cross, we are indeed looking only unto Him. If Jesus had not so graciously prepared us for this word, we should have found it unbearable.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Sunday, March 19, 2006

This is the way we should see Christ

This is the way we should see Christ—
He is our friend, our brother.
He is whatever is good and beautiful.
He is everything.
Yet, He is still a friend and He shouts it out,
"You’re my friends, don’t you understand that? We’re brothers. I’m not threatening you. I don’t hold hell in my hands. I love you. I want you to enjoy life together with me."

Christ is Everything.
He is joy, He is life, He is light.
He is the true light who makes man joyful,
makes him soar with happiness;
makes him see everything, everybody;
makes him feel for everyone,
to want everyone with him, everyone with Christ.

Love Christ and put nothing before His Love.
Christ is Everything.
He is the source of life, the ultimate desire,
He is everything.
Everything beautiful is in Christ.

Somebody who is Christ’s must love Christ, and when he loves Christ he is delivered from the devil, from hell and from death.

—Elder Porphyrios

So, who was Elder Porphyrios?
Elder Porphyrios was a Greek spiritual father, born February 7, 1906 and named Evangelos Bairaktaris. At the age of 15 he emigrated to Mount Athos and was accepted as the ‘nephew’ of Elder Panteleimon, his mentor. He was ordained a presbyter on July 27, 1927 by Archbishop Porphyrios III of Mount Sinai, and received his name.
Elder Porphyrios lived and worked in Greece from that time until he returned in 1984 to Mount Athos. The elder’s life and teachings reflect his great love for Christ.
He reposed on December 2, 1991.
Elder Porphyrios would not want our attention to be focused on him, but rather on Jesus Christ, who was the Love of his life, as anyone can see from this brief portion of the Elder’s sayings.

"And eternal life is this: To know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." (John 17:3)