Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mr Secular visits the Holy Mountain

Excerpted from this very long article about Greece's financial woes in the online Vanity Fair magazine…

The mere fact that I don’t have a beard will expose me as a not terribly holy man, [a young Romanian Orthodox priest, Fr Cesar] explains, if my mauve Brooks Brothers shirt doesn’t do it first. “But they are used to having visitors,” he said, “so it shouldn’t be a problem.” Then he pauses and asks, “But what is your religion?”

“I don’t have one.”

“But you believe in God?”


He thinks this over. “Then I’m pretty sure they can’t let you in.” He lets the thought sink in, then says. “On the other hand, how much worse could it get for you?” he says, and chuckles.

An hour later I’m walking off the ferry holding nothing but the Eagles Palace hotel laundry bag and Cesar’s little map, and he’s still repeating his own punch line—“How much worse could it get for you?”—and laughing more loudly each time.

The monk who meets me at Vatopaidi’s front gate glances at the laundry bag and hands me a form to fill in. An hour later, having pretended to settle into my surprisingly comfortable cell, I’m carried by a river of bearded monks through the church door. Fearing that I might be tossed out of the monastery before I got a sense of the place, I do what I can to fit in. I follow the monks into their church; I light candles and jam them into a tiny sandpit; I cross myself incessantly; I air-kiss the icons. No one seems to care one way or the other about the obviously not Greek guy in the mauve Brooks Brothers shirt, though right through the service a fat young monk who looks a bit like Jack Black glares at me, as if I was neglecting some critical piece of instruction.

Otherwise the experience was sensational, to be recommended to anyone looking for a taste of 10th-century life. Beneath titanic polished golden chandeliers, and surrounded by freshly cleaned icons, the monks sang; the monks chanted; the monks vanished behind screens to utter strange incantations; the monks shook what sounded like sleigh bells; the monks floated by waving thuribles, leaving in their wake smoke and the ancient odor of incense. Every word that was said and sung and chanted was Biblical Greek (it seemed to have something to do with Jesus Christ), but I nodded right along anyway. I stood when they stood, and sat when they sat: up and down we went like pogos, for hours. The effect of the whole thing was heightened by the monks’ magnificently wild beards. Even when left to nature, beards do not all grow in the same way. There are types: the hopelessly porous mass of fuzz; the Osama bin Laden/Assyrian-king trowel; the Karl Marx bird’s nest. A surprising number of the monks resembled the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercial. “His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.”

The Vatopaidi monks have a reputation for knowing a lot more about you than you imagine they do, and for sensing what they do not know. A woman who runs one of the big Greek shipping firms told me over dinner in Athens that she had found herself seated on a flight not long ago beside Father Ephraim, the abbot of Vatopaidi (business class). “It was a very strange experience,” she said. “He knew nothing about me, but he guessed everything. My marriage. How I felt about my work. I felt that he completely knew me.” Inside their church I doubted their powers—in the middle of a great national scandal they have allowed a writer from Vanity Fair, albeit one who has not formally announced himself, to show up, bunk down, and poke around their monastery without asking the first question.

I have never read a description of what goes on in a monastery on Mount Athos written by an unbeliever, especially one totally unfamiliar with Orthodox Christianity, and so I found this part of the article interesting. Perhaps some of you will too. The rest of the article, about what has caused the current crisis in Greece, is far more sobering than one would have guessed. Yet if the symptoms can give us a clue to the disease, what has happened to Greece provides a valuable example of what human nature does, when it does what it wants.

Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
John 3:19

Ahavat Achim

Psalms for the 28th Day
132 133 134 135 136 137 138

Psalm 133
Brotherly Love

How good, how delightful it is,
for all to live together like brothers:

fine as oil on the head,
running down Aaron's beard,
running down Aaron's beard
to the collar of his robes;

copious as a Hermon dew
falling on the heights of Zion,
where Yahweh confers His blessing,
everlasting life.

שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לְדָוִד
הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים
שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד
כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב, עַל-הָרֹאשׁ
יֹרֵד, עַל-הַזָּקָן זְקַן-אַהֲרֹן
שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו
שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן
כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה
חַיִּים, עַד-הָעוֹלָם

Monday, September 27, 2010

Christianity as religious artifact

The Portland Greek Festival will be happening this weekend. This is an annual event at Aghía Triás (Holy Trinity) Church in Portland, Oregon, that began the year I was born. It's been going on for fifty-nine years! I've heard that it was the first of its kind in America, and that all other Greek Festivals stem from ours. Who knows if that's true, or just part of tradition. I've been "working" at the festival every year since I was thirty-eight years old. I put "working" in quotes, because what I do is not considered work by some of the Greeks around here. Why is that? Because I am an usher or guide in the sanctuary—I stay in the church and assist visitors in understanding what they are seeing there, and I also witness for Christ, without Whom there would be no sanctuary, and no festival.

The Greek Festival is successful for many reasons and in many ways. To some, it's the money that matters. For others, it's the whole community pulling together, each according to his or her ability, to roll out a huge welcome mat for others to see what the Greek culture is about, to practice "philoxenía" (hospitality, literally "love of strangers"), the most highly valued of virtues to the Greek mind. These people really do live up to this ideal, they are willing to help and to accept others, even incorporating them into the Greek kinonía if they want to be. But sometimes I wonder if they are too welcoming, too accepting.

I wonder if they are susceptible to a kind of Trojan Horse in reverse. They know that the world is patronizing them as a cultural and religious relic, a beautiful anomaly in today's world, a kind of harmless entertainment. It doesn't seem to bother them.

The sanctuary being open to the public has been a part of the Festival as long as I've been in this community. It symbolizes what is at the heart of any of the goodness we are perceived by others to have. The church tours we have are informative, and delivered in a spirit of modesty, tailored to the audience's background whenever possible, and kept from becoming confrontational. But to witness to our guests about Jesus Christ is left to the laypeople who man the sanctuary. The clergy will tell you everything about the Church, its history, its culture, its tradition, even its understanding of scripture and theology, but that's the extent of it. People can listen and even ask questions and carry away just a little bit more knowledge about something beautiful and arcane, but what of Jesus Christ? Did anything they heard produce faith in them? Was the seed of the Word planted in them? Let's hope that it was and is, and may God give the increase. But are we just playing into the world's matrix, letting it turn our faith into a commodity, Christianity as religious artifact?

Take Jesus Christ out of the equation, and that's what you have, whether we're talking about Orthodox Christianity, or any other. Our form of church just has more tools than some of the others, but without Christ, those tools become mere toys, something for the world, or for us, to play with. For us, the "game of church." For the others, just more interesting artifacts to decorate their drawing room.

May it shock my readers to view the image below, from Phoenix Home & Garden magazine (July 2001 issue). Here is a room decorated with a collection of authentic icons, on the wall arranged in a cross-like pattern.

Notice the icon of the Resurrection is at the very bottom, near the floor. On the coffee table lie five icons just as artifacts to be handled (one of them in a glass frame). Let's hope they're not being used as coasters! (Of course not, that'd ruin the finish!) To the right of the arranged wall icons is an art piece of what looks like a male nude, and there are other objets d'art all over the room.

Brothers, this is where we are headed, if we don't reveal to the world the One in whom we live and move and have our being (cf. Acts 17:28), not just at the festival, but every day, wherever we are sent. The world will love us if we make it feel better, on its terms, but like the icons in an Arizona businessman's great room we may find ourselves hung, arranged in a cross, and ignored.

Without Jesus, welcome to the world "as it is."

The truth about us

All of mankind and each individual is in a fallen and deeply corrupt state. Alone, man is incapable of purifying himself. He is unable to achieve salvation, or to become worthy of the Heavenly Kingdom. The purification is done by Jesus Christ, Who came into the world for that very purpose. But only those are purified who believe in Christ and recognize their own corruption or, as we are accustomed to say, their sinfulness. Thus the Lord says, For I am not come to call the righteous (i.e., those who consider themselves to be righteous and good), but sinners to repentance (Matt 9:13). He comes to those who have seen their own corruption, sinfulness, and inability to change themselves for the better. He comes to those who not only turn to the Lord Jesus Christ for help, but beg the Lord for mercy; to those who cry for healing of their festering wounds, their soul's malady—and for entry into the Heavenly Kingdom. They ask this not in return for any good deeds they may have done, but trusting entirely in God's mercy.

He who follows properly the spiritual pathway begins to see in himself more and more sins, until finally he sees himself completely immersed in sin. Through his spiritual eyes he perceives his leprous soul. He feels with his whole heart that he is dirt and filth, that he is unworthy even to call out the name of God. Like the publican, unable to raise his eyes, he cries out with pain of heart, God, have mercy on me, a sinner. When a person maintains his soul in such a spiritual state for a long time, he finally emerges from it absolved, like the publican.

If a person considers himself to be good, however, and his sins, even serious ones, an accident—which occurred not so much through his own fault but due to external circumstances, other people or demons—he is deceiving himself. Such a state is one of manifest or hidden prelest (spiritual deception), and may the Lord protect us all from this.

In order to follow the correct path, a person must pay heed to himself; he must compare his deeds, words, thoughts, attachments, etc., to the commandments of Christ. On no account is he to justify himself, rather he must strive to improve himself as much as possible, without blaming or accusing others. He must repent before the Lord, humbling himself before God and his fellow man. Then the Lord will gradually reveal to such a man his fallen state, his un-repayable debt. One owed five hundred pence, the other fifty, but regardless of the amount, neither had means to repay it (Luke 7:41). It was necessary for the Lord in His mercy to forgive them both. Therefore, no one is so righteous that he has no need of the mercy of our Savior.

How great is the wisdom of God! An outright sinner can more readily humble himself, come to God and achieve salvation, than one who is superficially righteous. This is why the Lord Jesus Christ said that publicans and sinners will enter the Kingdom of God before many of those who are only outwardly righteous (Matt 12:31).

Through God's great wisdom, sins and demons can contribute to man's humility, and through that—to his salvation. This is why the Lord commanded not to pluck the tares from the wheat (Matt 13:25); without the tares it would have been easy for pride to spring up, and God opposes pride. Pride and high-mindedness only lead to perdition.

What can we conclude from all that has been said?
Come to know yourself, your weakness and sinfulness; do not judge anyone, do not justify yourself, but humble yourself, and in due time the Lord will then uplift you.

Abbot Nikon (Vorobyev) 1894-1963
This post and the three earlier ones are excerpts from
Letters to Spiritual Children, published by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society

Sunday, September 26, 2010

This warfare is fierce

Who shall roll away the stone from the door of the sepulchre...for it is very great? (Mark 16:3). Who rolled it away? An angel, at God's command. He will likewise roll away the stone of insensibility from our hearts, when the time is right for this. We must show faithfulness to the Lord during times of callousness, faintheartedness, doubts, coldness, times of sorrow, illness and various misfortunes. We must exert our will power to strengthen faith in ourselves when, by God's allowance, it seems to be all but extinguished. He permits this in order that we may show again and again what it is we are striving for, where our choice lies.

There is a saying among the elders: a good deed is either preceded or followed by a temptation. A good deed, such as heartfelt prayer, or especially Holy Communion, will not pass without the devil taking revenge. He uses all his might to prevent fruitful prayer and/or communion. If unable to achieve this, he then tries to spoil everything after the fact, so that not a trace of the benefit acquired remains. This is very familiar to all those who have some experience in spiritual endeavor. For this reason it is necessary to ask the Lord, with humility and contrition of heart, that He preserve us from the snares of the devil, who acts either directly upon the soul, or indirectly, through people subject to his power.

Do not be surprised at this. This warfare is fierce. Except the Lord build the house, in vain do they labour that build it. Except the Lord guard the city, in vain doth he watch that guardeth her (Psalm 126:1-2). We must surrender ourselves into the compassionate hands of God, acknowledging before Him our weakness and inability to guard ourselves from visible and invisible foes. Do not be afraid. The devil does not do what he would like, but only that which God allows him to do. Take a look at the book of Job.

May God's blessing always be with you. Never despair. May Christ's Cross always serve to remind you of God's boundless love toward fallen man. Is this thought not enough to inspire one to wholly give oneself over into God's hands? One must make at least a small effort to seek the Kingdom of God, and then the Lord will not leave such a person without His help and comfort. The Lord loves you! Have patience with the Lord.

Abbot Nikon (Vorobyev) 1894-1963
This post and the two earlier ones are excerpts from
Letters to Spiritual Children, published by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Repentance and salvation

…the Lord pities each individual and desires his salvation. What love toward sinners the Creator Himself must have had in order to become incarnate, to endure abuse, beatings, mockeries and death on the Cross for their salvation!

If we choose to respond to God's love for us with indifference, disbelief, unwillingness to fight with our sins, conscious transgression of the commandments, self-justification instead of tearful repentance, what awaits us? God's face will turn away from us. ‘With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you,’ (Mark 4:24), says the Lord.

If through our actions we reject God's love, the Lord will reject us. ‘I know ye not, depart from me into everlasting fire,’ (Matt 25:41). This is God's judgment, proclaimed already here on stubborn sinners who regard God's Word with contempt, who distort the Gospel in order to justify their sinfulness. Woe to them! Eternal torment, tears and gnashing of teeth await those who disdain God's love, who sell their Christian dignity for the filthy pleasures of this life, who prefer to do the devil's will.

A man will forever remain with the one whose will he fulfilled here on earth. One who was the devil's slave will remain so after death and will share in the dreadful fate of the demons.

...You have every opportunity, both internal and external, for repentance and salvation, which is so rare in this day and age. If you do not take advantage of this now, but keep putting off the work of salvation, you may easily fool yourself. We cannot be certain that tomorrow belongs to us. The Lord warns us all: be ready each minute, for you know not what day or what hour they will come for your soul (cf., Matt 24:44; Luke 12:40).

I strongly advise you: do not make excuses for yourself in any sin, no matter how small it seems. Every sin is a transgression of God's will, an indication of disloyalty to God. On the other hand: ‘One who loves Me,’ says the Lord, ‘keeps My commandments’ (John 14:15). For this reason, each sin committed should be cleansed with repentance.

Work upon your salvation. Try to free yourself of this world, which always was and will be an enemy of all things spiritual—even of God Himself.

‘The world will hate you,’ says the Lord (John 15:18). Who is this 'you'? Everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and tries to live by His holy commandments.

Abbot Nikon (Vorobyev) 1894-1963

Friday, September 24, 2010

Resisting doubt

No one has entered the Kingdom of God
through his own efforts alone.

Each one of us must:
1) understand his dilapidated state, his rottenness, his fall, that he is filled with all manner of lies, that his soul is completely disfigured, and so forth;
2) be convinced by bitter experience that he cannot correct himself by means of his own strength, even though he must continually war against his corrupt nature and weep over the wretched state of his soul; and…
3) turn to the Lord like the Publican, 'God have mercy on me a sinner. I am perishing, drowning in my own sins; save me, Lord Jesus Christ, as You save all who turn to You, thieves, publicans, harlots and others.'

God is Love. Through love for fallen humanity, the Lord did not resist making the greatest sacrifice. God the Father sent His Son to suffer crucifixion; God the Son was obedient even unto death on the Cross; God the Holy Spirit does not disdain to enter man's sinful soul to cleanse and save it. What more could the Lord do for our salvation?

'I do not desire,' said the Lord, 'the death of a sinner, but that he should turn to Me and live.' ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,’ John 3:16.

This means that salvation is given freely to all those who believe in Christ and who ask Him to save them from sin and from eternal torments. In return for repentance from sin, the Lord promises forgiveness and mercy, and if we should ask for something, we will surely receive it, for this is the word of the Lord Himself.

The whole world is created by the word of God; by His word the world is preserved in order and does not revert to a state of chaos. This same word promises the forgiveness of sin and eternal life in return for faith and repentance. This word is confirmed by the Incarnation of the Son of God (the Word of the Gospels) and His sufferings on the Cross.

You believe all this. How is it that you are in despair over your salvation? How can you allow the thought to enter your head that the Lord will send you trials, here or at death, beyond your strength to endure?

No, absolutely not! Your disposition, sickness, despondency, accidie and all the rest are from the Evil One. Don't let him take you in hand. Chase away all these thoughts by calling upon the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ in the manner of the Publican; give thanks to the Lord for everything. Give yourself over to His will and to His mercy, and you will find peace. You are suffering because of your lack of faith. You are so concerned with yourself, with your own sins; you don't think enough about God's love.

You must, on the contrary, first remember God's merciful kindness, His suffering on the Cross for the sake of our salvation, and afterward about your sins. Your sins should be the means of arousing you not to despair, but to the prayer of the Publican.

Take courage! Do not give yourself over to the cunning of the enemies. Despise them, do not converse with them, and remember the Lord, Who saves us.

May the Lord give you wisdom, here and in the life to come.

Abbot Nikon (Vorobyev) 1894-1963

Changing churches into mosques

Aha! You thought I was about to write a diatribe against the takeover by victorious Islam of historic Christian churches, like Aghia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul), but no, I'm not. Although I wish that Aghia Sophia were still a Christian Orthodox house of worship as it was built, for me the following of Christ is not an adventure in real estate management. The loss of a church building is a financial and maybe an historic loss, but this whole world will someday be lost—
"the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men," and "the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare" (2 Peter 3:7, 10).

What should be our response to the loss of property, whether real or intellectual?

The holy apostle both asks and answers this question.
"Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with Him" (2 Peter 3:11-14).

Everything that can happen to us, both good and bad, has been tenderly intimated and revealed in scripture, and we have no excuse if we, as Christians, follow our own ideas instead of obeying the Word of God and following Him in everything.

This morning I read a news story about something called Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which I gather is an organized effort by "Christian pastors" to publicly criticise from the pulpit those persons and policies in the government of the Republic that do not meet with their approval. After they make these speeches to their congregations, they will package up recordings or transcripts of their sermons and send them to the IRS, with a dare to the government agency to come after them for their comments.

Why are they provoking the very government which has guaranteed their freedom of conscience, practice of their religion, and even their right to propagate their teachings?
What can be the meaning of this kind of challenge?

The only challenge I know of to any earthly authority, indeed to society itself, is the faithful testimony of the witnesses of Christ to His Resurrection and His Kingdom.
If that challenge isn't being made, then why trifle over the symptoms of this sinful generation?

Place this provocation by "Christian pastors" next to what the holy apostle teaches.

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
1 Peter 2:11-17 NIV

Someone will ask, "But what if the government is so evil, we cannot put up with it anymore?"

Yes, there are times when we can't help it, and find ourselves opposing the earthly authorities, just as we daily counter the malice of the dominant cultures among which we live. This is where the Holy Spirit, where Wisdom, provides us with the proper response, making use of Holy Scripture and Tradition and God-given Reason. But if the holy apostle can speak this way of the government that judged, condemned and crucified the Lord, persecuted His followers, and even put all the apostles save one to death, what are we to make of this provocation today by "Christian pastors"?

Put their intentions and their actions side by side with what we see going on in Islam. We are all familiar with the use of the Friday pulpit as a soapbox for political propaganda and incitement to rebellion and violence. Maybe these "Christian pastors" are not inciting to rebellion and violence, but what is it they are trying to incite? And is this what the pulpit in a Christian church is for?

Or are we changing churches into mosques?

Here is a follow-up online article about this issue.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The very ground of our existence

Some passages from Fr Stephen's post Existence and Truth at the Glory to God for All Things blog (italics are mine)…

Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this correlation is made by others as well – I have to drink the water from my own cistern.

This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St. Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith. Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should someone so require.

But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously minded. This is the death of religion – or rather a religion of death. For as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no God.

There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind) who sought to make the correlation between existence and God – but frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher (Tillich’s “Ground of Being”) and relieved of all particular content. To speak of God as “Ultimate Concern” as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer serves as a component of my personal “spirituality,” but is instead communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us to pray as if our lives depended on it – because they do.

Amen, Fr Stephen! Amen and amen!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A young teacher shares the Word

Yudhie is a student teacher at the Immanuel Christian school in Pontianak, West Borneo, Indonesia. This is his reflection on Day 47 of his practicum with four weeks to go before he returns to his university in Tangerang, near Jakarta. In a majority Muslim nation, Christian schools are noticeably different from their counterparts in America and elsewhere. It's encouraging to see the freedom Yudhie and his students have in the classroom, and how the life in Christ and not mere religious instruction can be passed on to the next generation.

Day 47: September 21, 2010 Tuesday

The reading of Holy Scriptures in the school

It’s great when there is time for us to read and listen to the words of God whenever it’s possible, especially in the school. It’s very important for us and especially for me as a Christian teacher to listen and hear the words that the Lord has put into His people’s heart, His apostle’s heart… It will certainly make a difference in the students’ life to read and to hear the Scripture being read, and not only the interpretation of it.

That’s what I reflected on today. To sow the seed of the love toward God and the Holy Scriptures is not done only by talking about it with the students, but by actually doing the reading and hearing as it is. The words of God have the power to transform and correct us, and therefore I am very glad for today’s opportunity to share it with the students.

We explored the Epistle from holy apostle John today (1 John 4:7-21) and learned the teaching of the holy apostle about love. This time, we reflected together about the perfect love God showed us by sending His Only Begotten Son, Lord Jesus Christ, to the world to redeem us, and the world.

I pray to the Lord that at least by listening to the words of God and reflecting on what they say, the seeds of the love of God and the Holy Scriptures can grow in their hearts and they will have the remembrance of the God of Israel in them.

This week and some time next week my students and I will be discovering the nature of how we can nurture love by first understanding how God has first really loved us, and how we live in his love. Therefore it’s always good and important to remember the commandments of Love from the Lord: to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength; and love our neighbors as ourselves.

All glory belongs to God!

The world was turned upside down

As the disciples told the story of Jesus, the world was turned up side down, because these were people who were actually living as though it were true: loving and serving one another, giving up their goods to help the needy, and suffering and dying for the message. They were no longer living for the prestige, possessions, and pleasures of this world that so many of us who call ourselves Christians still pursue.

A life-changing reality, the resurrection of Christ gives hope to us all. It offers the Muslim assurance that there is forgiveness. It offers the poor and downtrodden the promise that the suffering of this world is not all there is. And it offers to each of us the foretaste of God's new reality, the future made present, where we can begin to experience freedom from fear, shame, rejection, and slavery to sin.

All of this is for us in Christ, if we will come to Him to receive it.
For we too can meet the risen Christ.

But the resurrection also declares that we can no longer live as though this world is all there is. And for those of us who do have the possessions, comforts, and power that this world offers, that is a challenge. For Jesus lays claim to our allegiance, and assures us that real life is not found in the abundance of stuff or adrenaline rushes we have, but in giving all for him. Shall we then live for Christ? Or shall we claim his name, but continue to pursue our own prosperity, pleasure, and preference?

He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
2 Corinthians 5:15

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Miracles and faith

Here's some more straight thinking on miracles and faith from the blog Again and Again

Serbian Orthodox Bishop Porfirije of Jegar said… Oftentimes we expect miracles to occur to support our faith, that is, to almost give proof of our faith in God, when in reality it’s our faith which produces miracles and not the other way around.

He mentioned how he had recently met a woman who visited his monastery in Kovilj who told the monastics there how she had traveled from one monastery to another, far from her parish church, with her problems and troubles looking for wonderworkers and healers. This was his response…

Healing is in the church and there is no need for Christians to search for wonderworkers and healers outside of their parish. There, in the local church, in one’s own parish is the fullness of salvation and all gifts of the Holy Spirit are present there. And every form of healing is present there. Of course, when a parishioner comes to their parish priest the priest can send that person to go to another priest for counseling. And this all with the blessing of the bishop. Together with the parish priest the person can be sent to someone the parish priest considers to be more spiritually developed. But, again, not to expect that other spiritual father to solve their problems in a hocus-pocus, magical method.

Everything that happens in our lives happens by God’s will, and this applies to our temptations and problems, and when we pray that we might defeat our temptations, for our spiritual well being, we always end our prayer with the words ‘may it be as the Lord wills for He knows better than we do what is good for us.’ And so… let us pray that God grant unto us a pure faith which, above all, means that we might place our trust in Him and His Church and those who have been appointed by the Church to concern themselves with our spiritual well being.

Running along behind you

Running along behind Your followers
I dare call myself Your disciple.

Hiding among the baggage
of Your Prophets and Holy Ones
I dare say I am a pilgrim.

Of all that is best in me, Lord,
I am ashamed, and I am hushed
In Your Presence.

My thoughts, words and deeds
Condemn me for my inaction,
For only Your thoughts, Your words,
Are worthy, and Your deeds.

Look for me, Mother of Christ,
Among the pilgrim host,
And finding me not there,
Seek me again in Jerusalem.

Even if only in the shadows
Of the Temple’s copper gates,
I want to be found hanging
On your Son’s fruitful words.

Found hanging, Saints of God,
With you who hear the call and run
To the place of your crowning
And your everlasting new birth.

To steal the word of your call
I have been brazen,
But once stolen, let me keep it.
Forgive me, commend me to your Lord.

Running along behind you,
I dare call myself His disciple.

Lord, I trust in Your mercy.
I am Yours, so save me.

— Romanós 9/21/2010

Feast of Tabernacles

Tell the people of Yisra’el, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the feast of Sukkot for seven days to Adonai. On the first day there is to be a holy convocation; do not do any kind of ordinary work. For seven days you are to bring an offering made by fire to Adonai; on the eighth day you are to have a holy convocation and bring an offering made by fire to Adonai ; it is a day of public assembly; do not do any kind of ordinary work. These are the designated times of Adonai that you are to proclaim as holy convocations and bring an offering made by fire to Adonai — a burnt offering, a grain offering, a sacrifice and drink offerings, each on its own day — besides the Shabbats of Adonai, your gifts, all your vows and all your voluntary offerings that you give to Adonai. But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered the produce of the land, you are to observe the festival of Adonai seven days; the first day is to be a complete rest and the eighth day is to be a complete rest. On the first day you are to take choice fruit, palm fronds, thick branches and river-willows, and celebrate in the presence of Adonai your God for seven days. You are to observe it as a feast to Adonai seven days in the year; it is a permanent regulation, generation after generation; keep it in the seventh month. You are to live in sukkot for seven days; every citizen of Yisra’el is to live in a sukkah, so that generation after generation of you will know that I made the people of Yisra’el live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am Adonai your God. Thus Moshe announced to the people of Yisra’el the designated times of Adonai.
Vayikra / Leviticus 23:34-44

…and on the first day you shall take the fruit of the hadar tree, palm fronds and branches of myrtle and willow trees.
Vayikra / Leviticus 24:40

The biblical feast of Tabernacles—Sukkot—begins at sundown on October 12 this year, and lasts for seven days. As with all the feasts and special days ordained in the Bible, they are commemorations, designed to keep the people of God awake to the Presence of the Living God, and alive in Him. Such also are the feast days of the Church. But all of these are, “a shadow of the things to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:17)

The Hebrews welcome the Seven Ushpizin, the Seven Shepherds of Yisra’el, from Abraham to David, one on each night of the feast. May they and we welcome the Eighth Shepherd, the One whom the honorable Prophet and Forerunner John called “the One who stands in your midst, whom you do not know,” into our sukkah, not only during the feast, but always.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A word on preaching

A deacon I know in a Baptist church wrote to me…

The Sunday evening service did not go that well, so it will be my first and last. It is definitely not my calling, so I will stick to putting my words in print where they might have a lasting effect. I'm afraid I upset a few by reminding them that when they accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior, they became His disciples and were obligated to use whatever talents they were endowed with by the Father to further His work until they were called home. I also made some critical remarks about the way things were done in the past and told them if the church was to thrive and grow, things had to change. Baptists in small churches seem to fear change, which I have seen before. My suddenly returning after a few years and just jumping in and doing things I see need to be done has made some suspicious of me. They know where I had served as a deacon and also know that the pastor had once been pastor there, and I have been asked if we were there at the same time. It will probably be best if I step back a bit for now, and wait to be asked to do things.

I wanted to encourage him not to give up, and so I responded…

First off, thanks for writing me about your experience with the service. Although you say that it did not go well, so it will be your first and your last, it seems to me that you're jumping the gun. If the Lord calls you to do another service, through the request of the Pastor, what are you going to say?

We as humans are not qualified to make such judgments as "it didn't go well, so I'm done with it" when we are doing what the Lord asks of us. Since His was the call, His is the judgment. The Word of God says, "Let there not be any premature judgment." What the Lord expects from us is not "success" according to externals, but only faithfulness. That's what makes serving Him so easy. He calls. We follow. It's not our business to judge others or even ourselves when we are following His call.

As humans, we tend to want to see results fast. God doesn't work that way. What you did on Sunday night was to plant the seed of the Word. Now, just let it go, and pray God to give the increase. That's what Brock and I did when we read the Word of God out loud downtown. The Lord called us to go and read the Word to the people. It's not our responsibility to make them listen. We plant the seed. God gives the increase.

Deacons were not appointed to the ministry of the Word (to preaching) although they often do, because the preaching ministry and the diaconate can be combined in the same person. It may not be yours to do both, but if you are called on again to preach, just remember that your job is to proclaim the Word of God and then stand aside, and let God give the increase.

When preaching, never scold or use the word "should", and never talk about Jesus in the past tense, as if He were just a historical personage. He is alive and with us right now in this room, and His call is for us today. Always start preaching from the Word by preaching as if to yourself. Let your preaching always include an aspect of personal testimony. You speak the Word to the hearers, to tell what the Lord is doing in your life, you remind the brethren that we're all sinners saved by grace, and that we don't work for the Lord, but the Lord works in us, if we let Him. You invite the people to share in the life that God has given to us. You never focus attention on what you or they are or are not doing. You focus on what Jesus Christ is doing, and you testify how He is calling you and them, and just encourage them to follow the call. I suppose it's a fine line between preaching down to people and preaching up, and it takes experience of trial and error. These are just some thoughts I have from my own life.

I think that if you understand what I just wrote, you could go even amongst the most argumentative congregation on earth, and preach the Word of God to them in such a way that it would disarm most of them. And those who weren't touched by your preaching, at least wouldn't stone you.

When Brock and I used to go out to read the Word of God aloud in public, we were completely defenseless. People could and sometimes did mock us, but rarely. Still, the streets of Portland can be a rough congregation. The more you depend on the Word of God to teach and the less you depend on your own ideas, the more defenseless you become, and the more invisible when you preach. The mockers and revilers and complainers then have a hard time throwing stones at an invisible man; instead, they find themselves throwing stones at the Word of God. That's a sobering thought.

Brother, I just wanted to give you some words of encouragement. Remember, it's not our job to convert the hearts of men. Our job is to faithfully follow the call of Jesus Christ. When you preach, keep praying like this in your heart, "I am only a sinner saved by grace, and I am of the eleventh hour. Help me, Father, to work faithfully and to rely on You for the increase in Your vineyard."

Warfare Notes

Right now, some of us followers of Jesus are going through the worst persecutions and attacks on our persons and our families (parents, spouses, and offspring) that we have ever endured, or that we thought we ever would have to endure. We mustn’t forget that we are in spiritual warfare, and it can be very intense. When in the thick of the battle (even when it's only inside ourselves), we sometimes want to take sides against other brethren that seem to be in the wrong, even against someone who appears to be attacking us.

But it's really like this. It is satan (notice we do not capitalise the name, it's just a thing, not a real person, it lost that privilege when it reviled the Lord), yes, it is satan that is hiding behind a parent or brother or sister or son or daughter or friend, or even one's own flesh, hiding behind someone or behind oneself, shooting arrows at us. We think it's the person that seems to be fighting us, but no, it's satan, using them as a shield to hide behind, hoping we'll shoot back—at them, of course.

If we are satisfied to get on the crooked and wide path, satan will not bother us, and our families can appear model Christians. If some of us get on the straight and narrow and some of us don't, it starts making trouble for us, pitting us against each other. But when we're all trying to follow the call, satan uses everything in its infernal arsenal to divide us from each other. (In Greek "diabolos", devil, means "splitter.")

The fatal thing is to withdraw into oneself and say, "There, there, I will just cling to the Lord, since He will always be with me. I don't care if the others hate me for no reason…" Whatever happens, don't do this! Remember, "Love endures all things…"

Whatever happens, just continue loving, that is, don't let up caring (even if the others do), don't try to understand what's happening if it's too hard, just love the people you're with, help them in simple ways, smile, say "good morning," don't take offense at anything, and try not to give offense.

Stay clear of getting pulled into battles that can do nothing but destroy everyone involved. If a fight is going on, love the combatants, speak to and touch them if you can, but if that isn't an option, retreat to the presence of the Father, and just pray, even without words if you have to, even if crying is all you can do. God the Father understands tears.

I hope your situation isn't as bad as that, but in case it is, that's what I have to offer. I speak out of my own life with the Lord. We must stick together, and help one another in the Lord, as soldiers in the front line, even when the battle is shamefully inglorious from man's point of view.

From the angels' point of view, there's more at stake in our daily struggles than we know. And thank God for that! Meanwhile, as they say, let's pray hard, for the time is close.

Catch them alive

Then Jesus said to Simon,
“Don't be afraid; from now on you will catch men.”

So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
Luke 5:10-11 NIV

…from now on you will catch men.

In the Greek original, this is:

απο του νυν ανθρωπους εση ζωγρων
Apó tou nín anthrópous ési zogrón.

We are all called by Jesus, just as the fishermen disciples were, all called by Jesus to be fishers of men. There aren't two churches, the church of the catchers of the fish, and the church of those who watch the catch from shore.

Even though the disciples had already accepted the call of Jesus, they still had lives to live, they had to support their families and continue their trade, fishing for a living. That represents the first stage of the call—they followed Jesus, but then they still had lives to live, responsibilities in the world. Jesus came to the lakeside and saw them, His disciples, washing their nets and putting them away for the day (since the best fishing was at night, near the shore, on the Sea of Galilee). They had toiled all night but caught nothing.

Jesus had come to find them there, and because there were already crowds following Him around to hear the Word of God, He stepped into Peter's boat, and had Peter put out a little from the shore, so He could teach without being mobbed. After teaching awhile, the Master (for that is what Peter calls Him, proving he already was following the call) told him to put the boat out to deeper water and pay out the nets for a catch.

What? Pay out the nets in deep water, in the daytime? Peter knew better. He was a ‘professional.’ He tells Jesus that this is not ‘conventional wisdom,’ but still he said, “but if You say so, I will pay out the nets.” (Luke 5:5 JB) And that is what Peter did.

What happened? Peter, the fisherman, got the ‘blessing’ of probably the biggest catch of fish he had ever had in his life! He even had to call his companions in the other boat to come help, pull the catch in… and it nearly sank both boats!

Peter's reaction? He fell at the knees of Jesus, saying “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) When faced with the wonder-working power of God, the abundance even in the material world that is the Lord's to give as He chooses, mere mortal man comes face to face with his utter sinfulness, and begs the Lord to depart from such a creature as himself.

Jesus Christ's response? “Do not be afraid…” (Luke 5:10) The Lord is now calling Peter, and us, to the next stage of discipleship.

He wants us. He has to tell us up front, “Don't be afraid!” And why is this? Because now it really is the unknown that we're heading for, Jesus really is going to take us ‘where no man has gone before.’ No man, except Him, and with Him, us.

“Catch them alive.”

‘to catch alive’ as in the sense of catching an animal for the zoo, or better yet, for the ark. What catches my attention is this irony—that when the disciples caught fish, they took an animal which was alive (in the water) and killed it (took it out of the water) so they could eat it. That's what a fisherman does. No judgment intended. We have to eat to live, and God has given us everything.

But what the Lord said in making His disciples ‘fishers of men’ gave them the job of ‘taking alive’ the men whom He would be sending them. As fishers of men, we take an animal which was spiritually dead (out of the water) and in catching it make it alive (in the water and Spirit) so it can feed on God. This is another example of the Great Reversal (as C. S. Lewis calls it), the rolling backwards of death itself, the resurrection unto Life eternal.

Have I lost you by my wordy explanation?
Sorry, if I have.
Just go back to the top and read the Bible passage again.
The Lord has commissioned us to “catch them alive.”
That's really all I want to say anyway.
And that's really all I want to do.
Glory to God!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Of course I want to

Faith is faith. Nobody can have faith for us, not even God. If we want Christ to do something for us, we must have faith.

What a powerful thing faith is, real faith, not hypothetical faith.

He replied, "Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."
Matthew 17:20

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done."
Matthew 21:21

"I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."
Mark 11:23-24

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man. "I am willing," He said. "Be clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
Mark 1:40-42

Every English translation of these verses about the healing of the leper that I have consulted uses the word ‘willing,’ both in the leper's request and in the response of Jesus, linking the idea of what is going on here with ‘the will of God.’ But this is how I memorized this passage:

A leper came to Him and pleaded on his knees, ‘If you want to’ he said ‘you can cure me’. Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. ‘Of course I want to!’ He said. ‘Be cured!’ And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured.

This translation is from the Jerusalem Bible (1966 version, as the Book has been ‘corrected’ since then by the ‘authorities’), and this may be why I have kept this bible with me constantly from the first day I found it. “Of course I want to” may not be literally what is meant by the Greek θέλω, but is there any sense in translating the Word of God if not to evoke faith in us, the kind of faith that “moves mountains”?

Faith is faith. Nobody can have faith for us, not even God. If we want Christ to do something for us, we must have faith.

The leper came to Jesus, with faith. His faith moved a mountain.
What was that mountain? Was it his leprosy?
Or was it ‘the will of God’?

God knows us. He knows everything about us.

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
Matthew 6:6-8

Though He knows everything about us, and His will is a mystery, His will is not fixed, it is not static. The might of the Almighty proves His power in that He is willing to undo His will for the sake of His creature who asks. He is the Living God, in Whose Image we are made and into Whose loving Heart we have been drawn, sitting at table with Him, given leave to speak to Him face to face, and yet live. His will for us is His will with us. The Holy Triad welcomes us into His company, invites us to approach boldly in the company of Jesus, through Whom we have become partakers of the Divine Nature.

“Of course I want to”
is the will of God to those who ask, coming with faith. But faith is faith. Nobody can have faith for us, not even God. If we want Christ to do something for us, we must have faith.

During his conversation with Abba Serapion, Abba Mark the Anchorite inquired how things stood in the world. He asked about the Church of Christ, and whether persecutions against Christians still continued. Hearing that idol worship had ceased long ago, the saint rejoiced and asked, "Are there now in the world saints working miracles, as the Lord spoke of in His Gospel, 'If ye have faith even as a grain of mustard seed, ye will say to this mountain, move from that place, and it will move, and nothing shall be impossible for you'?" As the saint spoke these words, the mountain moved from its place 5,000 cubits (about 2 miles) and went toward the sea. When he saw that the mountain had moved, Abba Mark said, "I did not order you to move from your place, but was just conversing with a brother. Go back to your place!" After this, the mountain actually returned to its place. Abba Serapion fell down in fright. Abba Mark took him by the hand and asked, "Have you never seen such miracles in your lifetime?" "No, Father," Abba Serapion replied. Then Abba Mark wept bitterly and said, "Alas, today there are Christians in name only, but not in deeds."

Faith is faith. Nobody can have faith for us, not even God. If we want Christ to do something for us, we must have faith.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Made with wings

Written to a young Nigerian who says,
“I can prove that Christianity is fake.”

Brother (I don't know your name, but this comment is for you),

You have done a lot of study, you have displayed your knowledge for us, you have even shown us that you can include Greek and Arabic text and names in your demonstrations, though I am not sure that you can read and understand those languages. Myself, I can read Arabic with some understanding, so the Qur'an is open to me in the original. But more importantly, I can read and understand Greek fluently, and so the New Testament as well as the Greek version of the Old Testament are open to me in the original. (I also can read Hebrew and understand it relatively well, so the Tanakh and Talmud is somewhat open to me.) These are not my boasts, but I want to be fair with you, to know with whom you are dealing, though I am not here to debate. This is what you apparently want to do, so my comment will be short and without requiring a response.

To help you along with your reasoning, I have this to say.

Do not make assumptions or build your arguments on the English text of the Bible or the Qur'an, especially the Bible, because no translation perfectly expresses the meaning of the original. What are we to do then? Can't we argue from the translated texts? To this I would answer, No, we cannot, but the reason may be not what you might expect. It's not because the translations are not exact or various between the many versions, but because meaning is dependent on living reality, on actual existence, and does not really reside in the words of the Bible (I limit myself to the Bible, as the Qur'an to me is not scripture at all), in no matter which language.

You have learning, intellectual ability, access to documentation. You have a reasoning mind, a perceptive mind, and you have found a field in which you have done a lot of digging with your mind, but you will never find what is living under all that weight of topsoil, clay and rocks. You may find a buried treasure there, if you are lucky, but only the dead are buried in that field, not the Living. I think you want to find the Living, because you want to justify your own life, you want to be convinced that you are alive, and for a reason, and you want others to be as fortunate as you are, in knowing the Truth.

But you haven't found the Truth yet, brother, because you are still digging where only the dead are buried. Thoughts have no life in them, ideas have no life. They take on reality only when Life is breathed into them. Until that time, they are merely thoughts, merely words to be blabbed into the air, creating sounds that could have meaning if someone heard them, but even then, only the Living can hear. All our study, all our enquiry, all our investigation, all our reasoning with the results, all of it, all of it is still-life, like a painting of fruits in a bowl, or flowers in vase, or a plate with bread, knife and a jug of milk. But you cannot taste those fruits, nor smell those blossoms, you cannot cut and eat that bread or drink that milk—it's only a painting, not the reality. This is where all our research, thinking and reasoning will get us: no further than creating a still-life, a mere image, not the Reality, not the Living, not the Truth.

What else can I say?

Brother, don't turn your life into death. Don't train your mind's eye on itself, but look outward, upward, receive your sight, and learn what or who the Truth is by living, by studying not words and ideas, but people, the world, life and death, faith and doubt, love and hate, man and woman, age and youth, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, and the list goes on in no particular order. But enter into this path as if there were no other, leave behind all opinions, even yours, abandon all defenses and the desire to win, let yourself be as fresh from the taint of death as a newborn baby, and then breathe in as for the first time the breath of Life, and in due time your eyes will really open, and not in books and words and ideas will you find the Truth, but in the face of the Living, the True and Faithful.

What was all this banter about religions true and false?
Did I dream about it long ago? Was I ever awake before, or only now?

This is where you want to go, brother.
Stop yourself in your tracks,
raise your eyes up, and fly, don't walk.
You were made with wings.
Use them.

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way He asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” He asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Mark 8:27-29 NIV

It doesn't take much

People think that it takes much to be a true follower of Jesus, to be a saint. They paint pictures of this in their imaginations so that they don't have to face the challenges they have set up for themselves. Not reading the Word of God, not hearing the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto Me and rest,” they fill their spiritual lives with a kind of fretful business, being Marthas instead of Marys, until they have no real spiritual lives at all, just this fretful treadmill of “I wish” and “I want,” and their souls wither for lack of the Living Water.

I read a short post about Elder Paisius of Sihăstria at Mystagogy blog this morning. The elder was a Romanian monastic who lived during the days of the Communist captivity of his country. He was a true follower of Jesus, a saint. Here are some of the details of his life…

Fr. Paisius was born on June 20, 1897 in the Romanian village of Stroesti and was baptized with the name Peter.

Writing about him in his book Tradition and Liberty, Bishop Antonie Plămădeală says, “One cannot say precisely what the specific gift of Fr. Paisius is. He does not work miracles. He does not preach; no one has heard him preach in church. Neither is he a good chanter; as a celebrant he is not gifted…. And yet, he has something which captivates. He has grace.”

During the day he carried out his obediences in the monastery— working in the church, the vineyard, and the garden—and at night he withdrew to his place of solitude.

According to Elder Cleopa (Ilie), “The monks loved him greatly because he took care of all the sick and the elderly with complete love—visiting their cells, taking them food, bringing the priest to commune them, and staying by their side at the hour of death. .…Next to silence, he greatly loved his spiritual children, whom he would receive for Confession at any hour of the day or night, and for whose salvation he took great care. He was not very harsh in applying the canons, for he kept account of the spiritual state of each one.… With his forgiveness, his patience, and his meekness, he won many thousands of souls, sacrificing himself for others.”

At dawn, on October 18, 1990 at the age of ninety-three, Fr. Paisius reposed in the Lord, and on October 20 he was buried in the cemetery at Sihăstria.

Not very much between the dates of his birth into this world and his repose, not very much by earthly standards. Some people might think, “What did he do? He was just a monk! That's nothing to speak of!” They can't believe he made it through this earthly life with such little effort, so little trouble, but they can't see those hidden things that only God sees but which He will reveal to all on the Last Day.

The point is not that Elder Paisius was a monk and took the ‘easy way out.’ No, the monastic life is not what people suppose. It's no easier than the life of the world, but it does afford one occasions for reflection that cannot be escaped. “Where could I go to escape Your Spirit? Where could I flee from Your Presence?” (Psalm 139:7 JB).

The point is rather that it doesn't take much to be a true follower of Jesus, to be a saint. It doesn't take much—it takes all.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” He replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
Luke 10:25-28 NIV

Old Testament Gospel

Psalms for the 18th Day
90 91 92 93 94
Psalm 91
God's protection

If you live in the shelter of Elyon
and make your home in the shadow of Shaddai,
you can say to Yahweh, ‘My refuge, my fortress,
my God in whom I trust!’

He rescues you from the snares
of fowlers hoping to destroy you;
he covers you with his feathers,
and you find shelter underneath his wings.

You need not fear the terrors of night,
the arrow that flies in the daytime,
the plague that stalks in the dark,
the scourge that wreaks havoc in broad daylight.

Though a thousand fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
you yourself will remain unscathed,
with his faithfulness for shield and buckler.

You have only to look around
to see how the wicked are repaid,
you who can say, ‘Yahweh my refuge’,
and make Elyon your fortress.

No disaster can overtake you,
no plague come near your tent:
he will put you in his angels’ charge
to guard you wherever you go.

They will support you on their hands
in case you hurt your foot against a stone;
you will tread on lion and adder,
trample on savage lions and dragons.

‘I rescue all who cling to me,
I protect whoever knows my name,
I answer everyone who invokes me,
I am with them when they are in trouble;
I bring them safety and honor,
I give them life, long and full,
and show them how I can save.’

This is the God, the Father whom Jesus our Lord trusted with such certainty that He was willing to take every promise with Him to the Cross, so that we too, believing in His name, can go boldly forward into whatever adventure Yahweh sends us.

Another Psalm of the 18th day is Psalm 90, which Ioanna Miller quoted at the beginning of her testimony, written not long before her earthly life ended at age 21. I want to share her words with you again, and in sequence with the psalm above, as a further reminder and encouragement to always be ready for “whatever adventure Yahweh sends us.”

These words come to us from Ioanna Miller, who died August 23, 2001 at the young age of 21. She wrote them just a few months before she ‘fell asleep’ in the Lord during the throes of her heroic battle against leukemia. Let us remember our life’s single and only purpose is to enter into the mystery of the Cross, to accept the simplicity of God’s plan for us, Who “so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” (John 3:16)

“For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past
and like a watch in the night
You carry them away like a flood.”
Psalm 90: 4-5

It is much too easy to forget the reality of these words and how quickly this life can pass. The world can consume us in its material, its entertainment and obligations, making us forget that we walk on a tight rope with eternity beneath us. We worry about hours, days, years, but what are these? Are they not only tiny drops in the infinite ocean of eternity? Where is our peace? The answer, of course, lies in Christ.

Our poor souls can get squashed under the concern of the world, so what can we do but cry out to Christ: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” He will always hear. Our prayers never fall on deaf ears. It seems like if we make the smallest effort to love God, He showers us with mercy, but we do not always know the manifestations of His mercy. My prayers are often inconsistent and distracted, but even these little supplications God hears. Throughout the time I have been sick, prayer has been my only source of true peace and patience. God has so much mercy to give if we only ask for it.

Cancer, although I would never wish it upon anyone, is a great blessing in my life. Although it takes its toll on my body and may take my life, it nurtures my soul. This illness is teaching me how fleeting this life is. It also came at a time in my life when I was beginning to think that everything was in my control and that any good in my life was the result of my own efforts. At nineteen, I felt pretty invincible. When I was diagnosed, I had to look mortality in the eye and ask myself, “If I were taken now, what would I have to show that would be pleasing to Christ? Am I worthy of His mercy?” It made me consider my soul and how much more important it is than my body. Also, by seeing how quickly my health can change from wholesome and sound to lingering near death’s door, I am learning to try and “overlook the flesh, for it passes away, but to attend to the soul, since it is immortal.”

Another benefit of my illness is a forced pause in my busy routine, leaving me plenty of time to reflect. Until I was diagnosed, my life was very busy and stressful, not unlike many people’s lives. Going to college, working, thinking about career choices and making time for friends and family added up to a full plate. I sure was not thinking of Christ as much as these other things. Time away from unnecessary distractions has been a great blessing when I spend it with my spiritual eyes on Christ. I spend hours alone and do not have much energy. I have learned that unless I am watchful; I easily fall prey to temptations like despair and anxiety. Keeping myself relatively busy also helps. I have turned to activities like knitting, writing, reading, working a little with stained glass and trying to pray to fill each day.

I have also realized that it is much more beneficial to discuss my thought and concerns with another Christian than to ponder them silently within myself. I realize that I am not strong enough to fight off the voice of the enemy, who seems much louder to me when I am by myself. The company of others and spiritual conversation have been a great help to me. While this is true, I still do not want to discredit the benefits of solitude, because with watchfulness and prayerfulness I believe it can also bear much fruit.

When dark and depressing thoughts come and leave me feeling distraught, scared, sad and lonely, the remedy that brings peace to my heart is calling on the Name of Jesus. Appealing to the Mother of God and the Saints also help ward away dark feelings. Prayer gives such a great assurance of God’s mercy and love. How many times have I not turned to prayer and let gloominess settle into my soul? Why do I do that when I have such a powerful weapon at hand, the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? I only know the difference between the consolation that God gives us when we are humble and pray, and the anxiety that results from battling our weaknesses on our own.

The thought of death stings. But when I remember the loving promise Christ left us by His incarnation, death and resurrection, death is transfigured for me into a gate through which the humble and righteous enter into the Kingdom of heaven. In saying this, I cannot escape the image of the royal gates centered in the iconostasis. The Church is the whole, encompassing the living and the eternal Kingdom. The living Church passes through death, which is like a royal gate into heaven, joining the splendor of the Saints and Angels, and partaking of the sacred mysteries for life eternal. I know death is only a gate, because Christ unshackled that gate by His death and resurrection. On our part, however, faith and action are key. As Christ said, “Most assuredly I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him Who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” Christ says that first, we have to hear His word, which I think are His teachings and actions. We must take up our crosses and follow Him, living in Him and Him in us. We must be like sheep on His right side that were saved because they were humble and loved their brother as Christ would. Then He says that we must believe in Him Who sent Him. We have to believe and love God with all our strength, heart and soul. Faith is becoming more obviously important to me, especially now that life is looking much more transitory. When my faith scatters, I feel desperate and scared, but again, when I turn to God for help, He hears me, and I find peace.

Please do not think I write these things because I practice them and am in a state of uninterrupted peace. I struggle and fall a lot. It is just that being sick has taught me so much about the importance of getting up after the struggle, living my life according to Christ, and keeping my heart in the eternal Kingdom more than in the earthly.

When we sing the Cherubic Hymn, do we not repeat three times “let us set aside all the cares of life” before we sing “that we may receive the King of all?” I am beginning to realize now that this is not meant to be a suggestion for us only during the moments before receiving Holy Communion, but during every moment of our earthly time. I think it is possible to keep the eyes of one’s soul, or the nous, in heaven even while living amidst the cares and troubles of the world. That is what all Christians should strive for. How else will we be able to accept God’s mercy in the end unless we lived in Him and loved Him during our lives? Lately, I have been thinking of how terrible it would be to stand in front of Christ, who wants to give me His mercy and a place in His Kingdom, but these thoughts make me shudder, since I have not always lived properly. I cannot think of any worse agony than being shut out of God’s Kingdom. On the contrary, think of the humble and righteous that have passed before us, those who lived according to God’s Word. What inexpressible joy they must feel as they pass through those royal gates! After carrying their crosses during their lifetime with patience, selflessness, and God’s love, they are welcomed into heaven by a host of Angels. Their hearts are open to God’s love and mercy, since they have already lived with Him in their hearts during their temporal existence in this world.

God has given each of us time and a wondrous creation with which to shape our souls. We must not forget, though, how temporary this life is. Leukemia has made me more aware of this perspective. Thank God not everyone has a serious illness, but I thank God that I have been given this trial. I am afraid that I would never have experienced God’s infinite love and mercy had it not been for cancer. When I think of the whole of my twenty years of life and how quickly and vainly they have passed, what would have prevented me from living another fifty years in the same way? A whole lifetime is worthless, no matter how many years it consists of, if it is not lived as an investment in eternity. We spend so much time, energy and resources on our bodies, but we ignore the soul. Although the body is important, how much more precious is the soul! Only since my body has been sorely afflicted with leukemia have I been able to discover the importance of my soul. Thank God for His incredible mercy! The sadness that often comes from the constant reminders of my mortality is swallowed up in Christ’s victory and in my hope for His Kingdom. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to share any insights my illness has afforded me with anyone who reads this. Please remember me in your prayers.

— Ioanna Miller († 2001)

Aionía sou i mními, axiomakáristos kai aeímnistos Adelphí imón.
May your memory be eternal, dear Sister,
for you are worthy of blessedness and everlasting memory.