Tuesday, March 29, 2016

When we deny a life

An unwed mother. An unwelcome, an unwanted condition in almost every culture, time and place. Well, at least until the present generation. Colombia leads the world in babies born out of wedlock at 74%, but something must happen after birth, because single parent households stands at 33%.

In Africa, Nigeria takes the lead with 59% born out of wedlock, and 58% in single parent household. It must be assumed that ‘single parent households’ means the mother with her children, even though it can be widows or widowers, or divorced parents of either sex.

In Asia, the Philippines wins hands down with 37% of babies born of unwed mothers. Not surprisingly, family-venerating countries with a conservative, if politically camouflaged, Confucian ethic score very, very low. Taiwan is highest with a measly 4%, with the same percentage of single parent families.

I guess once you make a mistake, no one will have you. China at less than 1% doesn’t surprise me. I was surprised at less than 1% for India. I think I underestimated the effect of Hinduism on its people. Their gods and goddesses procreate freely, just as our pre-Christian gods did, but their example has had the opposite effect, apparently.

Coming to Europe, Sweden, France, and the United Kingdom topped the charts, all above the 32% out of wedlock births that was a tie between Germany and Spain. The two most Catholic countries, Poland and Italy, were lowest on the chart (which only showed medium and high rates) at 20% and 18% respectively.

In the world of Islam, only two countries were represented, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both with under 1% births to unwed mothers. I suppose one reason their scores are so low is the dreadful punishment dealt out for committing such a sin.

Canada and the United States are both in the medium range, at 25% and 41% respectively. I dread to think what this really means when we remember that abortion is legal in both countries.

Abortion in Canada is not limited by criminal law but by the Canada Health Act. While some non-legal obstacles exist, Canada is one of only a few nations with no legal restrictions on abortion. It is simply a decision made by a woman with her doctor. In 2005, there were 97,254 abortions reported in Canada. I don’t know what it means when this number is footnoted by ‘It is estimated that this number represents approximately 90% of all abortions performed in Canada involving Canadian residents.’ Supposedly, this number has been decreasing since at least 1998.

In the United States, abortion is a living political issue, one that will probably come to a head after the next presidential election, as a populace frustrated with the perceivedly weak performance of the current president elects his possibly equal opposite—God grant he not be white supremacist!—and along with him a Republican dominated Congress. Though we may have homosexual ‘marriage,’ that will probably stay, because it kills no one. The short catechism in my old prayer book lists four sins ‘crying to heaven for vengeance’—murder (Genesis 4:10), sodomy (Genesis 17:20-21), oppression of the poor (Exodus 2:23), and defrauding workers of their just wages (James 5:4). In my book, abortion should be listed as well. Maybe it will be, if removing ‘sodomy’ makes room for it. Or perhaps people will soon wake up to the sober truth: abortion is murder. It does kill. It kills the most defenseless.

An unwed mother. An unwelcome, an unwanted condition in first century Palestine. Sure, marriage customs were different, as they are even today in traditional cultures. Maryam of Nazareth, a virgin daughter of Israel was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter. According to the story found in the gospels, she is visited by an angel, who announces that God has chosen her to become—it’s too much to even say it, but we do, and we must, because now we know for sure what it means—the mother of His son. Maryam is no learned theologian. Holding strictly to Jewish monotheism, she doesn’t object, ‘Seriously! How can God have a son?’ Instead, indicating that she has already accepted as true what the angels says, her concerns are very practical, ‘How is this possible, for I have known no man?’

We know the rest of the story. When and how the Holy Spirit—was Maryam the first Jew to meet the Eternal, HaShem, Adonay, as a Trinitarian Being? John the Baptist did, but not until many years later—conceived in her womb the New Adam, we do not exactly know. But after her snap decision, did she regret it? Did she experience ‘the morning after’ those misgivings that people feel when they have ‘gone too far’ with a relationship that should have been consummated in the marriage bed? It cannot have been easy to tell them, first her mother Anna, then her betrothed—how she must have feared it!—that she was ‘with child’ and have nothing, not the father’s name, not when and where it happened, only some unbelievable and wild tale of an angel pronouncing what to pious and orthodox ears was enough to make every Jew rip his garments to shreds.

Abortion existed then as it does now. It was a dangerous process, part magic, part sorcery (drug use), part mechanical, but completely secret. It had to be, because everyone knew it was wrong. They might let the child live, but by Jewish law the mother could be stoned. People may think me very impious to even mention abortion when speaking of the Theotokos, but I mean her no disrespect. I do not believe such a thought would have entered her mind, even though like the rest us she was born a sinner. But I want to point out that what to us is a charming story and a beautiful ikon did not just happen like magic. Maryam must have struggled with it. Like Jacob she must have struggled with God. Maybe this struggle began long before the angel came to her in her room. Maybe his appearance was the last match. Maybe she was at the point where a soul knows for sure that to lose is to win. Maybe she knew that what God had in store for her was a betrothal other than the one arranged by her mother with the carpenter Joseph. ‘God works in mysterious ways.’

Almighty God, Creator of all that exists, in heaven and on earth, seen and unseen, chose to become a human being by means of conception, growth as a fetus in a woman’s womb, birth as an infant, experiencing not only every human life before and after, but the life of every living creature He ever created in the unbroken, irresistible chain of evolution, recapping in nine months what His instantaneous command ‘let there be’ unfolded in uncountable ages.

And that birth of the New Adam consecrated the human womb as the gestation place of the Divine Nature, making every pilgrim who ever passes, passed, or will pass through that narrow way, a divinity, a brother or sister of the Most High, pre-eternal God, and every mother ‘more honorable than the cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim.’

And this is what we throw away and despise, when we deny a life.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Why the Lord came

The Lord came, not to do something easy, but to do something true. He came to bring truth and life. By His obedience unto death, He rent from top to bottom the veil of corruption and rebellion that separated us from God, and He opened to us the entrance to the Holy of Holies of freedom and unity. He did not come to unite men among themselves by making light of their differences. He did not come to exhort us to mere "peaceful coexistence." He came to unite us, through Himself, with His Father and our Father. "For through Him we have access in one Spirit to the Father" (Ephesians 2:18).

He did not aim to leave behind Him a group of individuals working well together, for even sinners do this: they cooperate with sinners (cf. Matthew 5:47). He came to give us rebirth and to bring a new unity, one which is trinitarian; to bring a peace which passes all understanding, His own: "My peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give to you" (John 14:27).

…He came to give Himself, to distribute His flesh: "Take, eat My Body which is broken." He came to give His Spirit: "Receive the Holy Spirit" (John 20:22). So He created the little flock of the twelve, the Church. He brought to the world the dynamic force and health of the Trinity, the leaven of the Kingdom which will leaven the three measures which represent the whole of creation (cf. Luke 13:21).

What the world needs is the trinitarian flock, regardless of whether it is small or large. Its greatness is to be found in its trinitarian nature. What man thirsts for is eternity, "even a little part of eternity"; and this is what we have here. To have the character of the Trinity is to be eternal. "This is eternal life, that they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent" (John 17:3).

— Archimandrite Vasileios


How good, how delightful it is
for all to live together like brothers:
fine as oil on the head,
running down the 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.
Psalm 133 Jerusalem Bible

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
John 21:20-23 NIV

How people strive for unity, how much they desire it, but they stop as soon as they think they have reached it, and it is still terribly far from the unity that Christ prayed for us to have.

The unity that comes from above is the gift of the Spirit of God, not in some magical fashion that does not ask anything of us, but as a gift that can be received only by those who give themselves to it.

Unity is a gift that draws us in, all that we are and have. Unity is a gift that we receive only when we become the gift.

When we possess this unity, it possesses us. We no longer seek ourselves, but always the other. We are all of one mind and of one will, while remaining distinct persons, and we begin to understand the Holy Triad, not by thinking, but by living.

We become the trinitarian flock.

This unity, once experienced, even between only two persons, proves every word of the Gospels and of the whole of sacred scripture to be entirely true.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Resurrectional ramble

I’m Greek Orthodox, so it’s not Easter Sunday for me today, not yet. I feel a bit cranky about this, that I have to wait another five weeks, while the rest of the Christian world is already there. The ‘Old Calendarists’ would say, they (the rest of the Christian world) aren’t Christians anyway, so it doesn’t matter. About the rest of us Orthodox that follow the ‘New Calendar’ for most of the Church year but give it up for the Easter cycle, some of them (the ‘Old Calendarists’) don’t think we’re really Christians either—no, they probably would say we’re not ‘genuine’ Orthodox, as they are. The idea of who is and who isn’t ‘Christian’ they might leave to God. That is, the humbler among them. Can you tell how cranky I’m feeling? Maybe it’s just the fast. Maybe it’s just the burden of my sins. I haven’t made my Lenten confession yet. But in my gut I just feel it’s wrong that Easter can’t be celebrated by all at the same time.

So, to those of you who celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, my Catholic and Protestant friends, and my Christ-loving non-Christian friends, I wish you again, ‘Happy Easter.’ As for me, it’s the Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamás, named in honor of the hero of the Hesychast movement in the Eastern Church, the champion of the prayer of silence, the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner’), and of théosis, deification. Since I missed church today (sick, but not too sick to complain) I have to read the service and the lessons at home. The Greek Orthodox on-line chapel is a quick source for the daily readings, and so I went there. To my consolation, this Lord’s day we chant, I chant (at home), my favorite of the resurrectional apolytikia, in the second tone,

Οτε κατήλθες προς τον θάνατον,
η ζωή η αθάνατος,
τότε τον Άδη ενέκρωσας,
τη αστραπή της θεότητος•
ότε δε και τους τεθνεώτας
εκ των καταχθονίων ανέστησας,
πάσαι αι Δυνάμεις
των επουρανίων εκραύγαζον•
Ζωοδότα Χριστέ,
ο Θεός ημών, δόξα σοι.

When Thou didst descend unto death, O Life Immortal, then didst Thou slay Hades with the lightning flash of Thy Divinity. And when Thou didst also raise the dead out of the nethermost depths, all the powers in the Heavens cried out: O Life-giver, Christ our God, glory be to Thee.

It is the phrase ‘τότε τον Άδη ενέκρωσας, τη αστραπή της θεότητος’—tote ton Hadhí enékrosas, ti astrapí tis theótitos—‘then didst Thou slay Hades with the lightning flash of Thy Divinity’ that throws me over the cliff of merely human hope that often I feverishly cling to, where in a free fall into the abyss I no longer struggle, because I know when I hit bottom, Christ is already there, He has already cleared the threshing floor of the chaff of death by ‘the lightning flash of His divinity,’ and His mercy awaits those who have themselves shown mercy, even scoundrels and complainers such as I.

For us Orthodox Christians, this Lenten time is lightened somewhat, at least for me, by the presence of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, yes, the Mother of Jesus. Like the lonely, old man I am, with crusty voice I chant the seasonal kondakion in the plagal of the fourth tone,

Τη Υπερμάχω Στρατηγώ τα νικητήρια,
Ως λυτρωθείσα των δεινών ευχαριστήρια,
Αναγράφω σοι η Πόλις σου, Θεοτόκε.
Αλλ’ ως έχουσα το κράτος απροσμάχητον,
Εκ παντοίων με κινδύνων ελευθέρωσον.
Ίνα κράζω σοι, Χαίρε, Νύμφη Ανύμφευτε.

To you, Theotokos, invincible Champion, having been delivered from peril, I, your city, dedicate the victory festival as a thank offering. In your irresistible might, keep me safe from all trials, that I may cry out to you: ‘Rejoice, unwedded bride!’

This is a strange one, I mean, this kondakion. It is a relic of ancient times when the whole population of the Queen City, Constantinople, would march around the city walls chanting this hymn to call upon the Theotokos to protect them from the barbarians besieging the City from outside. It must have worked, for the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire lasted almost a thousand years after the fall of ‘old’ Rome. For me, the deep sound of this kondakion (‘short hymn’) acts as an anchor to keep me from drifting away on the sea of my insecurities and fears. At our Greek church we used to be able to sing it congregationally during Lent, but now, especially during the Friday night Chairetismí, it has been taken from us as the prerogative of the chanters, whose Byzantine perfection is designed for an audience, not for participation. Can you tell I’m still cranky? A sore throat doesn’t help my chanting.

The gospel reading for this morning is one of my favorites, Mark 2:1-12,

At that time, Jesus entered Capernaum and it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’

This has always impressed me, perpetual paralytic that I am, that it isn’t my faith, but the faith of those who brought me to Christ, that placed me squarely before Him in a place where my personal faith became possible. I think this is the same for most of us, though we hardly ever give it a thought. We, I mean, I, almost never come to faith on our own. It feels like we did it, that we made the choice to believe, but actually it was others, ‘preparers of the way’ in our lives following the lead of their gracious Lord who says to them and to us, ‘You didn’t choose Me, I chose you…’ like the ikon I have hanging as a mezuzah at my front door is shown saying. Once you realize this humbling fact and know for sure that nothing you did brought you to the place where faith is possible, your defenses, my defenses, begin to melt. After all, who wants to prevent their own salvation by burning the bridges that will take them There, even though some of these bridges are tribulations?

Yes, I’m brought back to thinking how it’s Easter ‘out there.’ Well, on my street it’s hard to tell, because nature doesn’t look any different, and the neighbors are non-believers most of them. Several blocks away, there’s a house on the corner, a very large one that is somewhat walled in as are houses in the old world, that every year puts out a metal sign in the lawn at the street corner that reads ‘Jesus – He is Risen!’ I’ve never seen the people who live in that house. Perhaps they’re elderly and don’t get out much. The wording on the sign is not what I’m used to. We say ‘Christ is risen’ not ‘Jesus’ but it really comes down to the same thing. The Man ‘was crucified, died, and was buried; on the third day He rose from the dead according to the scriptures…’ and we all know who that Man was, whether or not we believe in Him, or think we do. What I always wonder is, do we really know what the resurrection of Christ means, and where He is at this very moment, now that we also know He ‘ascended’?

My heart is starting to ache, thinking about it. It’s that old, nagging pain that could let me turn into a permanent crank if not for the mercy of God. The chasm between what Christ has done for us, what He has made possible for us, and what we have done with it, especially what I have done with it. No priest would have the stamina to hear that confession from me, or from anyone else, yet we go to confess the trivia of our self-loathing, instead of what we have failed to do, when it comes to what Christ has made possible for us, and commanded us to do. Gregory of Nazianzus, like Gregory Palamás another great champion of Orthodoxy, states, ‘Man has been commanded to become God.’ And it is Christ Himself who has called us and given us this command, a command which at once seems both impossible and ludicrous. He never gives us a command that seems anything but impossible, yet along with it He alone gives us the power to fulfill it, to make what is impossible, possible, and the time in which to do it. Distinct days and seasons we have appointed fade away, and we realize that what we celebrate at Easter, or Pascha, is the reality that we face every day.

This is the day of Resurrection, let us be radiant for the feast, and let us embrace one another. Let us say, ‘Brother,’ even to them that hate us, let us forgive all things in the Resurrection, and thus let us cry out…
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.

Friday, March 25, 2016


I wrote this song on a very rainy Good Friday morning when I was 36 years old, April 17, 1987, sitting on the steps of Saint Mark's church (Anglican) in Portland, Oregon. I had kept vigil at the church overnight from the end of the evening mass of Maundy Thursday, as was the custom. The dawn of Good Friday saw me sitting there still. The lyrics got squeezed out of me after a very dark and lonely night.


I’ve been taken for a fool so many times before.
I’ve been taken for a ride by so many people.
I’ve fallen in love too much to tally the score.
I’ve been wearing out the scars of so many battles.
O God, where is all this leading to?
Will I ever come at the sight of you?
Will this cross I’m wearing so close, next to my skin
so close, so close, you know the state I’m in,
will this cross I’m standing under save me in the end?
Will your body finally be the door to let me in?
‘Cause I’m tired today, last night I watched with you,
‘cause I’ve got no fire today, it went out when you left me
sitting there for hours, alone, in the rain,
waiting, praying, to see your face again,
waiting for something, for someone, too good to be true,
waiting, waiting, waiting for you.

The season for glad songs has passed, has passed away.
I’ve been singing down a dark well and searching so hard.
At the bottom I might see my own face some sunny day,
but it’s you I wanted to see smiling back at me, O Lord.
Please tell me, where is all this leading to?
Why can’t I stop singing these songs to you?
Will I ever find a moment just to catch my breath?
This fool, this fool will sing himself to death.
Will the burden of this loneliness cancel all my debt
or will my body always be the victim of your wrath?
‘Cause I’m tired today, last night I watched with you,
‘cause I’ve got no fire today, it went out when you left me
sitting there for hours, alone, in the rain,
waiting, praying, to see your face again,
waiting for something, for someone, too good to be true,
waiting, waiting, waiting for you.


Yes, and no

This year a rare conjunction happens that you are never going to read about in the horoscope column. It’s not a rare conjunction of the planets in this or that house of the zodiac. No, this conjunction is the meeting in heaven and on earth of two annual events, the feast of the Annunciation, and the fast of Good Friday.

In the first, a young, betrothed but unwedded virgin of ancient Israel hears the first words of the Good News, and not from a human being but from the bloodless lips of a bodiless power, ‘God has chosen you to be the mother of His only-begotten Son.’ In the second, we hear the last, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

This rare conjunction is happening today for those Christians who divide time according to the ‘new’ Gregorian calendar. For me, this conjunction isn’t happening. I am a Christian who divides time according to the ‘old’ Julian calendar. Why? Because I am a Greek Orthodox, and that’s what we do, at least at this time of the year.

Still, there’s only one Church, no matter how we or anyone else divides it up, and so I can’t help wonder at this conjunction of important events in salvation history. Not being a Roman Catholic, I don’t know for sure what they do when an important holy day falls on any day of Holy Week. The movable fast, Good Friday, probably becomes immovable, and the fixed feast probably yields, to be observed on the next ‘open’ day. I can only hope that the significance of this conjunction isn’t lost on those who could notice it if they would.

God wants to enter the world He made as one of His creatures. He wants to enter through the door which is the womb of Mary. In this case, it is God who proposes, and woman who disposes. That she says ‘Yes’ has a greater impact on the universe than any other ‘yes’ in history. She inaugurates the Messianic Age.

God wants the creatures that He has made to enter heaven. He wants to open to them a door which is the tomb of Jesus. In this case, it is God who takes on our sinful flesh and lets it be nailed to the cross. That Christ says ‘No’ to death and hell has a greater impact on the universe than any other ‘no’ in history. He opens the gates of Paradise.

Yes, and no. We have, and have always had, only one choice to make. Do we say ‘Yes’ to the Lord when He calls, or do we say ‘No’? Unlike the ‘once saved, always saved,’ we like Mary have to say ‘Yes’ to God continually. Our ‘Yes’ reverberates through time and to eternity, but we must live in it, personally and daily, or it will escape us. With the bride in the Song of Songs, we must say, ‘Draw me in Your footsteps, let us run…’

The conjunction of this feast and fast also reminds us of this ‘Yes’ that transfigures the world, for Mary is witness to the life of Jesus her Son from beginning to end. She is there to receive the Good News from the angel, to say ‘Yes’ to what she cannot understand, but trusts. She is there to receive the Good News from her Son dying on the Cross, again to say ‘Yes’ to what she cannot understand, but trusts. There is darkness at both events. The night, the pillar of light speaking to the maiden, she agreeing. The day, the sun conquered by night, and she believing.

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt.
Amos 9:13 KJV

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The resurrection and the life

Although I believe it to be a fact, the resurrection of Christ sometimes seems, even to me, to be irrelevant. You see, I am a Christian living in the affluent West, where we enjoy every comfort and scoff at necessity. As for unpleasant things such as death, we’ve hidden its evidence so well that many of us, even adults, have never even been in the presence of a dead body. Faced with the indifference of most people to ‘the blessed hope,’ I little wonder, that if they think of it at all, it’s something like ‘the resurrection? Who needs it?’

Not so, however, for the world at the time of Christ, when people were familiar with death and with the dead. Everyone from small children to adults, not only the poor but the rich as well, had seen dead bodies, even mutilated ones. For them, the ‘joyful tidings of the Resurrection’ were exactly that. Without the visual aid of ikons of Christ harrowing Hades or the lengthy liturgies of Holy Week, they appreciated far more than we the significance and the relevance of Christ’s rising from the dead. Without having seen it, they believed.

The same has been true for the vast majority of human beings who have lived since the Event occurred. That is, until science debunked death by making it ‘almost’ avoidable. ‘Death is a sickness like any other, and we will find the cure.’ They who think thus are ‘almost’ right. Perhaps before long science will ‘catch up’ with theology in this area as it has in other areas of investigation. ‘The wages of sin is death’ is the poetic way that holy and divine scripture puts it, and as for the cure? Well, we know what sole Physician holds the keys. Which keys? Those of Hades and death.

Except where I live, as I said, most of the world is still familiar with death. This is no doubt why Christianity is growing in the Third World and shrinking in the West: dying out in much of Europe and being anesthetized in North America and the ‘white’ Commonwealth. In the lands of Islam, a religion that denies the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus but not His virgin birth or ascension to heaven, the resurrection must have a particular poignancy. For it is death to leave Islam for Christ, and anyone, even one’s relatives, can execute the sentence with impunity.

It is not the time of year to be talking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I know. The Church has orchestrated our worship in an annual cycle of themes designed to lead us ‘from glory to glory,’ and at least the Orthodox maintain that Sunday’s sanctity is bound up with nothing other than the resurrection. The Sabbath itself has never been abrogated, though the rest of the old law has been set aside in favor of a new law, love itself as revealed to humanity in the only true Man who ever lived. But a darkness settles itself on more than the sleepers of Ephesus, and the time is near.

Not in formalities, not in ceremonies, not in consumptive reading, nor in compelling lectures. Not in frenetic church activities nor narcissistic ‘evangelism,’ not in visible piety nor God-impressing charities. Not in singing up a storm, not in retelling and reliving history, not in anything we offer up to God in hope of pleasing Him, not even in sinning our best in the attempt to attract His grace. But in living with our eyes and ears open, in having hearts full of mercy and hands to deliver it, in knowing no fear of loss because we live in His victory. Therein we regain the resurrection and the life.

Mercy is

‘People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.’ This was quoted to me by a friend who told me the story I am about to relate, as a way of understanding what happened. When I first heard the story, it brought to mind, rather, this saying of Jesus,

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

Now, it isn’t as though we believe in Christ because of His teachings: He was in most cases only restating what was already known as far as the tradition is concerned, and He was ‘preaching to the choir’ when He taught the Jews of His day, just as He is preaching to us.

We already know what He says is right, we already agree with it, and if we read the teachings of other ‘great men’ we will in most cases see that their teachings are no different, at least on the moral front. As for doctrines, Jesus teaches very few. He is more concerned with actions.

What can He mean by ‘in the same way you judge others, you will be judged’? Well, I think we all know what He means. Religious and irreligious, everyone knows from experience this is true. As soon as you open your mouth to criticize another, not long after ‘it catches up with you.’

My friend in Hokkaido told me the following story. For their daughter’s birthday, he and his wife took her on a special trip that culminated at a ski resort. As one of her birthday gifts they also presented her with a wonderful new camera.

At the ski lift, their daughter somehow lost the new camera and this upset my friend’s wife, who took her to task for it. After all, it was an expensive camera: she should have been more careful. I’m sure that everyone involved felt quite badly about it. Loss is loss.

Later that day, as she was enjoying the onsen, the Japanese bath, my friend’s wife discovered that her wedding ring was missing—she had lost it in the bath. You can imagine how embarrassed she must have felt, and how sorry for scolding her daughter. Loss is loss.

What we find in our lives is that this seems to operate as a law, just as Jesus says, and as popular sayings tell it, all deriving from the same source: what actually happens. Modern westerners intent on sophistication would say, ‘it’s all karma.’

But it isn’t all ‘karma’ and the eyes of our minds play tricks on us and make us see patterns where there are none, especially whenever our status in our own eyes can be elevated. The laws of cause and effect are not the ‘end all’ of existence. Instead, mercy is.

What happened in the real story I just retold? By the end of that day, both the lost camera and the missing wedding ring had been turned in to the resort staff, and my friend’s wife and daughter recovered what they thought they had lost. Yes, mercy is.

Mercy is, all that is waiting for us when we show mercy. After all, Jesus is right when He says, ‘How blessed are the merciful, for they shall have mercy shown them’ (Matthew 5:7). And, oops, yes, even when we have not been very merciful, we are often shown mercy.

Looking over our shoulders at all the times we seem to have escaped by the skin of our teeth, let us remember and give praise to our good and loving God, who has such care for us that He shows us mercy even before we show it to others.

Glory to Your forbearance, O Lord, glory to You!

Going after

The cost of discipleship. Yes, well, if we’re talking about discipleship to the God-man Jesus Christ, there is a cost. How can there not be? But it’s not what most people think, and when many are faced with the cost, they go into denial.
Deny Jesus Christ?
Well, no, they wouldn’t do that. That might be dangerous.
It could damage their reputation.
Instead, they find or fabricate other costs, costs that they’re willing to pay, costs that’ll provide a good return on their investment. ‘For, after all,’ they reason, ‘isn’t it being a good steward to invest your deposit from the Lord with the bankers, so you can return it to Him with interest when He returns, just as He teaches in the gospels?’ Naturally, the bankers needn’t be real bankers—that would seem too materialistic—but, what harm if they were?

So, we follow Jesus. That’s what discipleship is all about, right? In the original Greek He says, Δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου (dhéfte OPÍSO mou), ‘Come AFTER me.’ The disciple’s response is immediate—or never. Jesus doesn’t wait once He calls, or at least, not for long. At least, it’s not really a matter of time (Greek: chrónos) but of acceptable time (Greek: kairós). What’s more, if we don’t keep our eyes on Him at all times, we will miss a lot, we can even miss Him. Like unto Moses on the mountain, the living God reveals Himself to us, pronounces His merciful Name, and lets us see only His back as He passes by, having hidden us in the cleft of the rock to protect us from His glory.

Protect us from His glory? Yes, just like the Ark of the Covenant is thickly wrapped in colorful swaddling clothes to protect the people from its glory when the Ethiopian Coptic priests carry it out of its resting place to show it on a festal day. We must be protected, yes, from the living God.

Why? Because we are created, He uncreated, and anything He indwells or overshadows takes on the aspect of His glory. Even a reflection is full of power. Even we shall also be, if we are faithful to follow Him, not only with our eyes and minds, but with our hands, our feet, yes, even with our hearts.

‘You’re going to be learning Hebrew and Greek for the rest of your life,’ I tell a precious young brother as he embarks on yet another unforeseen journey in his ‘going after’ Jesus. Yes, surely it is enough to do as Christ bids us in the gospels, ‘If you make My word your home, you will indeed be My disciples’ (John 8:31). But what that looks like in the life of each disciple is a unique vision, vouchsafed by the One who gives each one a white stone with a Divine Name written on it, that only he who receives it can read.

It is the stone that the world rejects and tries to induce us to reject too, fearful of what we shall become if we can read that Name, fearful that Heaven, which is already firmly but invisibly established in its midst, shall one day become visible, and that we its citizens, all of us first-borns, shall be its judges. The followers, yes, the disciples of the God-man Jesus Christ, shall judge the world, but not yet.

Why not yet? Because we have not yet paid the cost of discipleship, in full. We have not yet washed our robes white in the Blood of the Lamb, which is, in fact, our own blood, because we have followed the Lamb wherever He goes, even to the Cross.

‘The cost of discipleship? The cost of discipleship?’ many ask. ‘Doesn’t the Lord say, my yoke is easy and my burden light? Hasn’t He paid the price for our sin once and for all on Calvary? Hasn’t our confession of Him before men guaranteed His confession of us before His Father and the angels?’ Well, yes, and no.

Look at the saints. Chisel away carefully the legends of their lives and get at their flesh and blood. See them in their glory—His glory, which He was given once and for all when He reigns (not reigned only) as ‘King of Glory’ from the Tree. They, the saints, believed, they confessed, and becoming like their Master evangelical criminals, by doing what they saw Him doing, speaking what they heard Him say, they learned what is the cost of discipleship, and they paid the price, their blood mingled with His from before the world ever was.

‘You did not choose me, but I chose you…’
John 15:16

The poverty of God

The poverty of God. The poverty of God? What can this possibly mean? God is the richest, the wealthiest, the most abundant and powerful of all beings, creating all, owning all, sustaining all. He is the ground of being itself, ‘in Him we live and move and have our being.’ Yet I cannot escape this mystery, the poverty of God. We know from scripture and tradition that in Christ, God ‘came down from heaven,’ that He impoverished Himself to make us rich, He that is all righteousness ‘bent the heavens and came down’ to make us sinners righteous, to take away our shame, to remove our sin from us ‘as far as east is from the west.’ Yet, this is not the poverty of God that I meet in this moment of time I call ‘my life.’ This is still infinite wealth coming to the relief of finite poverty. Yes, infinity taking finity into itself, life taking death.

No, the poverty of God, who makes everything out of nothing, who does so much with so little, He wastes nothing, lets no opportunity slip by. ‘If you have seen me,’ says Jesus, ‘you have seen the Father.’ And we do see Him, whose life was passed in this world as unknown, inglorious, matter-of-fact, without fanfare, as the lives of the rest of us. He didn’t fraternize with the rich and famous and successful, not even with the ‘wise in their own eyes.’ The only time He came to the notice of the rich and powerful was when He was hauled in front of them to be condemned. Yet it isn’t as though He were a beggar. No, a beggar does nothing but beg, for whatever reason, unemployment, physical or mental handicap. No, He never begged His bread: He gave bread. In fact, He became bread. From five loaves He feeds the world.

Yes, He is very economical. He does so much with little. And where does He get it, that little with which He does so much? ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see,’ He says, and when we do as He asks, that which we cannot supply, He supplies. Yet He doesn’t have any more than we have. All He has is His word, as He tells us, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ That is the poverty of God, the same who says, ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.’ He keeps very close count of us, down to our very hairs, hoarding all and losing none, just as the poor man watches what little he has, to get the most for it. That is God’s economy too.

The imprint of the poverty of God is on all things, and especially on all flesh, our flesh, where we can see it. Science, the study of what He makes, can trace out the economy with which everything is made. We see the evolution of the natural world, the immensity of space and time, just short of infinity, and our own smallness, making us feel insignificant, yet we notice the same ‘waste not want not’ design everywhere we look. As soon as we think we have discovered what something is or does or is used for, we find yet another. Studying ourselves, our physical nature, this is especially true. How many functions each of our organs and attributes has! It’s as though whoever made us had to fit so many capabilities into so few structures. His architecture in us, in all things, is poverty not surplus, yet it results in wealth.

‘The devil is in the details’ we hear said, as we plough our mental fields to turn over the soil of ideas, as we do what we’re best at, following our Maker. Our sin, though, is to deviate from His poverty, as we waste our lives trying to move from glory to glory while we litter the world with the signs of our success. Always trying to be rich, we impoverish ourselves. Always seeking ease, we discover drudgery. Always pursuing excitement, we catch up with boredom. Our fields become infertile because we overuse them, seed falling on depleted soil. No, the devil is not in the details for Him as it is for us. Why? Because He never tries to be what He is not and thus does not make what cannot be. ‘The whole world was shining with brilliant light and, unhindered, went on with its work.’ Reality does not operate at a surplus.

Neither does God. As I look back over my life, I see how this ‘divine economy’ operates. He may be a poor God, but He is not a stingy one. He has never afflicted me with any insufficiency. He gives neither too little nor too much. He is never too late but also never too early. Where I would have preferred to have a safety net or a cushion against calamity, He has relegated me to relying on His mercy, which again is sufficient. He uses my weaknesses not only to benefit me, but even to benefit others. By giving me the freedom to choose, He makes best use even of my mistakes to save me, and others. Teaching me gently but persistently, He never abandons me even when I run away from Him. He is too poor to buy back my attention and my obedience, so He waits, ready to receive me, when my poverty twins His.

The poverty of God. Yes, this is a strange kind of poverty and a very strange God. He lives among the poor of the earth, demonstrating His teaching, ‘How happy are the poor in spirit; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy the gentle: they shall have the earth for their heritage.’ His poverty is not a state of having or not having, whether power or possessions, but of being. It is a nakedness that does not need to be covered by fig leaves. He may cover our nakedness with His own skin, but again, because He is so poor, that is all He has. He does this, so that we can learn how to be just as poor as He is. ‘You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ This poverty of God, far from what we fear as poverty, is the fertile womb of worlds. All true wealth arises from it. All true wealth flows into it.

Yes, the poverty of God.


‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes Me…’

Anyone who is part of a family or other closely related group knows this situation. You come home, or you wake up in the morning, or you walk into a room where the others are. It can be husband or wife, it can be children, it can be mother or father, brother or sister that are already there, and suddenly, there you are too. You expect to be greeted with a smile, with words of greeting, comforting words.

In Japan, we say when entering the house after being out, ‘Tadaima!’ And if anyone at all is home, we hear the response, ‘Okaeri nasai!’ and then see the smile of welcome following on the words. This is what we expect in our hearts, because God made us that way, to expect love, to expect welcome. He made us that way because He it is who is waiting for us to return to Him, so that He can drop everything and run to embrace us, to make us feel welcome, to love us face to face.

To continue, you expect to be greeted with a smile, with a welcoming word or gesture. Instead, you hear words of unwelcome, you hear words of criticism or judgment, you may not hear a greeting at all, and the face that you see is not what you expected. As in a dream, you pursue someone whom you know, and when you catch up to them, they turn around, and they are a stranger, and you back away, confused. Only this is happening now, in the ‘real’ world. You are awake. The words you hear cut into your heart, the face you see flashes unwelcome eyes. You know you are not wanted, and there is nothing you can do about that.

It is not with the one who comes, but with the one who receives, that the power of welcome lies. This is one of the most painful of experiences.

Jesus has much to say about this situation in the gospels.

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—your enemies will be the members of your own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes someone known to be a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and whoever welcomes someone known to be righteous will receive a righteous person's reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly be rewarded.
Matthew 10:34-42

Everyone, without qualification, that comes to us deserves our welcome, and if we follow Jesus, and if we do what we see Him doing, we will welcome them. If this is true of any human creature, how much more is it true for members of our own household, for our own family members, for those who ‘have a right’ to hope for a welcome from us. Yet often this is not what we give, or what we receive. Still, we need that sense of welcome more than anything else, even more than food, more than life itself.

Following Jesus separates us from people. A friend of mine asked me the other day, ‘I’ve heard people say that to follow Jesus is a very lonely road. Is this true?’

Yes, to follow Jesus is in a sense a lonely road, because you find that you are no longer welcome to many people, to your neighbors, to your erstwhile friends, and even to your own family members. Jesus Himself tells us this. Yet there, at that table, was the proof of the love of Christ, the incarnate gospel, that although we might be outcasts from the world, maybe unwelcome by those to whom we should be welcome, at that table, where He was present with us, we were more than welcome, to Him and to one another.

So there is a sweetness to the bitter edge of martyrdom. With Jesus, who draws us together around Himself like a belt, we are welcome, and of that welcome we can be the ambassadors, passing on to those around us the good news that God has reconciled all of us to Himself through the sacrifice of His Only-Begotten Son. We can offer to others the welcome that has been denied us. We can do this because we are now really free to choose.

And so we choose to follow Jesus.

‘… and anyone who welcomes Me welcomes the One who sent Me.’

By your love

Ours is a culture of criticism. So pervasive and universal is this culture that, even when we know that criticism is a bad thing, we seldom notice ourselves criticizing others. We only notice and feel their criticisms of us and so quickly retaliate, in a moment hoping to swallow theirs, or drown it out, purge the air of it, so that our illusions about ourselves can be preserved.

Not everyone, in fact probably very few, will agree with me when I wrote ‘criticism is a bad thing,’ that is, if they even noticed. Sometimes we forego the chance to criticize a lesser fault in others, so we can bring an even greater one to light. The former will include the latter anyway, we reason. But as I say, probably most people don’t think that criticism is all that bad.

Well, I do. I know there are ideas expressed this way with admiration, ‘he has a fine, critical mind,’ meaning that this person can be relied upon to make wise choices, to have solid opinions, and generally to be a better than average human being. Criticism as a profession even has a vaunted respectability, ‘biblical criticism’ and ‘higher criticism’ being examples.

But criticism, though it can be euphemistically termed ‘constructive criticism,’ only rarely lives up to the name. Most people who criticize others in the form of giving advice, making observations of other’s habits, customs, work performance, or general behavior, or just plain malicious lampooning, especially in the public and political arena, are not being constructive.

No, they want to fulfill the irresistible urge to tear down the man standing next to them, or his friends or relatives, so that without exerting any further effort of their own, they can stand taller. Yes, ‘bigger, stronger, faster’ has a divine right, even a responsibility, to criticize and thereby instruct and correct the less luckily endowed. The ‘white man’s burden’ is now everyone’s.

So what do you do if you find yourself engaged in a marriage or partnership, living in a family or neighborhood, working in a company, or fellowshipping in a church where criticism under its many disguises—humor, sage advice, even love—forms the basis of every personal encounter? Well, the best thing to do, I think, is to keep your mouth shut. Don’t dare defend.

Christ has something very interesting to say about this, ‘Offer the wicked man no resistance’ (Matthew 5:39). ‘But,’ you protest, ‘these aren’t wicked people. They’re just kidding around. It’s just friendly banter.’ Well, yes, perhaps they aren’t wicked people, but the words that come out of their mouths, whether in jest or seriously, are verbal volleys aimed to maim.

The world is not ‘Christian’ and so we can’t expect our neighbor to treat us, to speak to us, with the respect, even the awe, that is proper to ‘man created in the Image.’ True, but I am here addressing at least those who call themselves Christians, or at least think they are following Christ. I speak to myself as well as to you. What fires do we fan when we criticize others? What bridges burn?

The culture of criticism may be universal, but we can stand apart from it. How? Again, by not defending, not ourselves nor others. By not returning the jibe. By staying silent, or by changing the subject. By seeking peace, by promoting dignity—again, even if only by remaining silent. If we are Christians, how are we known as such?
‘By your love,’
says Jesus, in whose presence all criticisms pale.

It is a hard struggle to leave the culture of criticism behind. It can be a lonely struggle at first, but gradually others appear near you who likewise have laid down their arms. Paradise, yes, even the Tree of Life, still exists on this same earth that criticism has corrupted. It is invisible to most of us, but as we seek peace, pursue it, yield ourselves to mercy, giving it, receiving it, unseen becomes seen.

We do indeed find ourselves ‘surrounded by an immense cloud of witnesses,’ all heading with us to ‘the City not-made-with-hands,’ where He whom we did not recognize as He came among us we begin to discern. We see where our brother ends and where Christ begins, and we finally come Home. Home, yes, home at last, and even this earth is refreshed to be the dwelling place of the Most-High.

Yes, ‘trampling down death by death,
and to those in the tombs, bestowing life.’

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Where would we be without Judas?

I run the risk of alienating some with this title, though it is a 'matter of fact' question, and not intended to startle, shock or annoy. This question is not to be taken lightly either, because Judas Iscariot was, after all, one of Christ's disciples and, yes, even an apostle during His earthly ministry. Not only this, but Christ loved him as He loved His other followers, and He would lay down His life for him too, if he had only accepted it. "I have watched over them and not one is lost except the one who chose to be lost, and this was to fulfill the scriptures" (John 17:12 JB).

Yet, here's the mystery:
That someone whom Christ called, someone He loved, someone who loved (or thought he loved) Christ and even believed in Him, was capable of turning his back on the Light of the world, to go back to the darkness "spiritually called Sodom and Egypt" (Revelation 11:8), and sell the One he called his Master for a mere "30 shekels of silver" (Zechariah 11:12). How could anyone do such a thing, and why? The poetry of the Greek services blames it simply on avarice.
Could it be that simple, is it that simple, even today?

What I'm thinking about is this "spirit of Judas", if it can be named at all, and how it has followed us all through history since that Day like the proverbial Kartóphilos, the "wandering Jew," except that it's no Jew, but our Christian brother who sometimes worships with us one day and betrays us the other six.
Where would we be without him?

As a young man just born again in Christ, I was sent to work in a furniture factory where the conditions were extreme. (See Love without limits.) The man I worked under was a true Christian man and my first mentor, 32 years my senior. Working with him was an unlooked for blessing but, thank God, we worked together in an environment where co-worker abuse and even near homicidal violence often erupted. Thank God? Well, yes, thank God!

It was working there and living, sometimes, in fear of getting beaten up or ambushed on the way home (I rode the bus in those days), that began to draw my life into the Word of God, that filled the pages of the Book I carried with me everywhere every day with living words. It was living in "the world as a jungle" that opened the words of holy scripture to me, making me read about my own life in its pages so that, after so many years, I could honestly say, "my name is written on almost every page." Sometimes I still wonder, is that what is meant by saying our names are written in "the Lamb's Book of Life" (Revelation 13:8)?

Back to my question, where would we be without him?

I know a company where the good workers, the productive workers, are kept in subordinate positions and paid low wages. Periodically, they are called into closed door meetings by their supervisors, accused of misdemeanors (many of them unjustified or hearsay), and threatened with termination. Of course, these workers are never terminated, but they are bullied and humiliated so they don't dare to ask for raises or promotions, since they're conditioned by this treatment to consider themselves "lucky to have a job." This is, of course, criminal, but it's happening here in America and throughout the world every day.

What really pains me is when it is managers who are or claim to be Christians, or who are non-practicing offspring of Christian parents, that do this bullying. I remember how disappointed I was the first time a Christian employee I had hired and mentored made a conscious choice to subordinate the Truth in a situation and fall in line with the corporate cult. I knew this happened to unbelievers, but I really had a hard time accepting that Christians could act this way. That incident happened years ago, and it's been repeated since then. I've historianed my memory, and I notice the pattern has always been there, in my lifetime, and throughout history. The "spirit of Judas" is still with us. But what for?

It squeezes us out of the world system, those of us who are trying "to keep our robes from being dirtied" (Revelation 3:4). It makes us "still hold firmly to Christ's name and not disown our faith in Him"
(Revelation 2:13) even when we live or work "where Satan is enthroned". It gives us the opportunity to suffer with Christ, "to keep His commandment to endure trials" (Revelation 3:10), and thereby be kept
"safe in the time of trial which is going to come for the whole world, to test the people of the world."

Right up to the end, to the last second of the last minute of the last day, the lure of riches will continue to seduce men, even those whom Christ has called.

"It is not those who say to me, 'Lord, Lord,' who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven."
Matthew 7:21

Everything, except for true love, is an illusion…

Everything, except true love, is an illusion.

If a friend behaves coldly, rudely, spitefully, insolently to you, say: "This is an illusion from the enemy."

If a feeling of enmity, arising from your friend's coldness and insolence, disturbs you, say: "This is an illusion of mine, but the truth is, that I love my friend, in spite of everything, and I do not wish to see evil in him, which is an illusion of the demon, and which is in me also. I will be indulgent to his faults, for they are in me also. We have the same sinful nature."
Fr John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ

Monday, March 21, 2016

That which moves

God doesn’t change, but mankind does. That’s a truth that’s embedded inside us so deeply, we know it almost without being told, but the Bible tells it to us anyway, just to make sure. But there are different kinds of change, and changelessness.

The Bible, echoing and consolidating what we already have learned by ourselves, tells us that God is faithful, but mankind not so. God is good, but again, mankind can be good, but often isn’t. God is everything that mankind is not, so it seems.

That almost makes it look like we made God up, to compensate for our own built-in law of failure. The atheist loves to think so, but his assertion is only surfing, not diving, and until you take that flying leap and plunge to the depths, you can’t know.

Know what? That there is a God. That we are fallen. That He doesn’t change, He’s constant, and His constancy is what we can rely on, we can be confident that the world He placed us in is, like Him, going to be there for us, giving us room to find out.

Find out what? That the God that doesn’t change, moves. That mankind that changes, is static. That there are different kinds of changelessness, and different kinds of change, some good, some bad, all depending on point of origin and direction.

What God is, He is, without change. What we are, that is, what He made us, we are and will always be. That’s the image. We can’t change that. All we can do is discover it. God’s direction is always toward us. That makes Him good. That, too, is changeless.

Everything we think, or know, ourselves to be changes. Mankind in the bulk, and you and me in the fine, are nothing but change. If fate exists, then it’s our fate. We must change. Our change is good when it’s toward God, and it’s bad when it’s away from Him.

That’s the only criterion we have, the basis of our conscience as we experience it. Now apply all this to what we see in daily life, in our relationships, in our families, in our social mores, in our legal and financial systems, in everything from day one till today.

History is the story of how mankind has thrown up barriers and resisted to his uttermost breath the pull of God, substituting the push of man for it in everything. God doesn’t change. He keeps pulling us, tugging at us. We want to stay put, and we push back.

The worst place we can possibly be when we are pushing back against the pull of God—‘No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him’ (John 6:44)—is in the Church, because that’s the one place where we can be sure it’s Him pulling us.

Now, the Church is bold enough to assert that like God, she also doesn’t change. This is without doubt what God intends. But like Himself, ‘My Father goes on working, and so do I’ (John 5:17)—the God that doesn’t change, moves, and so must the Church.

Why? Because the Church is not God. The Church is man. In her point of origin, which cannot change, she is divine. In her direction, like the man that she is, she must change. In which direction spells either decay or growth. At every moment, one way or the other.

Who is drawing you? Who is pulling you? Only One does that, and it is always to Himself. Your response is always to say ‘Yes’ and ‘Let it be.’ Change, then, is the beginning of redemption. Who is pushing you? What is claiming necessity on your life, that has no right?

We must look at ourselves, and at the Church if we know we are members of her, and ask ourselves, who or what is trying to commandeer change in us, or in the Church? Who or what is playing ‘bait and switch’ with us, calling good evil, and evil good?

Want the changelessness that is God’s, that which moves, because that’s what He wants for us. Want the change that brings us to our point of origin, the Father, by not resisting His pull. Remember, He has turned over to us the keys of the Kingdom. Use them.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Lord’s Day of the Ikons, a ramble

Palm Sunday, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, and the first day of Spring (in the northern hemisphere), how often can all three significant days fall on the same calendar date? Being Greek Orthodox, I had actually forgotten that today is Palm Sunday for the majority of Christians in the world, Roman Catholics and liturgical Protestants, until I was out driving to a visit a friend yesterday afternoon. The weather was glorious. I had the sun roof open and the windows rolled down in my car, I had my sun glasses on, and was listening to my favorite Egyptian pop music on the CD player. The wind was blowing my white hair around, and I was just happy that we were enjoying—finally!—a warm, sunny day after many weeks of wind and rain. Then I thought to myself, ‘Hey! Tomorrow is Palm Sunday!’ even though I knew that for me it would be a different kind of service the next morning.

That morning is here. It’s back to a dull gray sky, but so far, no rain. Perhaps we will all be spared getting soaked in our processions—my Catholic and Protestant brethren in their Palm Sunday best, carrying their palms, and us Orthodox holding aloft our favorite ikons as we go round the temple chanting of ‘the mercies of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,’ and ending our walk in the plaza to hear the proclamation of Orthodoxy, ‘this is the faith that upholds the universe.’ Then, there are all the others, you know, the brethren who don’t go to church, who are indifferent, who don’t even know what is going on next door or right under their noses, because they don’t look. No processions for them, just another day. Perhaps they don’t even know it’s the Lord’s day. No, I’m sure the nature lovers among them will have noticed that it’s the first day of Spring, and take a stroll outside.

Last night we went to take in the evening service at a small ‘Old Calendarist’ Greek Orthodox temple in my neighborhood, less than a mile away. There were perhaps fifteen people in the service, reading prayers and chanting some hymns. We knew we were not going to be on time, and the service was already closer to the end than to the beginning, but we hadn’t been to this church before and wanted to go there and meet the people and priests, and that we did. Fr Constantine and Fr Photios. It’s good to know that there is an Orthodox temple so nearby. The temple of which I am a member is sixty blocks away, about four miles, but of course that’s not really very far when you have a car. The evening service at this little neighborhood temple felt like we were in a small country church, and indeed we were. For these people, the Orthodox Church is a tiny remnant of ‘genuine’ Christians.

Going to that service, I remembered my first-ever experience of Orthodox worship in a small country church in rural Alberta, Canada. That temple was a small, wooden building without electricity or modern heating. Other than the oil lamps and candles, the only source of light was a large, ancient chandelier with real candles that had to be lit by hand by lowering it on its pulley, and then hoisting it back up again. The ikonostasis looked like it was made of criss-cross garden trellis panels painted white and hung with locally painted, pastel colored ikons. A pot-bellied stove against one wall was the only source of heat. The service we attended back then, over forty years ago, was during the day time and in the middle of summer, so I never had the opportunity to experience the temple in the winter and at night. There were about as many worshipers in that country church as there were in the local one.

I thought about the difference, for there was one that I could sense. Though people and priests are very friendly in the neighborhood temple, there was a feeling of poverty and isolation. Their building is a converted Protestant structure, adapted to Orthodox worship. It’s surrounded by a chain-link fence and there’s a wrought-iron, closed, double-leaf gate at the end of the walk to the temple doors. We entered the compound by walking through the driveway entrance. Family homes surround the temple on all sides, but I doubt very much that any of the neighbors belong to it. To them, it’s probably just a strange church of a strange religion that they don’t understand or care about. To those inside the temple, the surrounding neighborhood, like the rest of the world, is just peopled by unbelievers.

The tiny church in rural Alberta, a golden yellow-painted building, sits among a cluster of farmers’ homes and outbuildings, surrounded by fields. Though everything felt rustic to me that first time I was ever in an Orthodox service, the people were gentle and the young priest served them in beautiful simplicity, and there was no sense of poverty or isolation, despite the remote location. This church and community is in the countryside a few hours northeast of Edmonton, in an area settled over a century ago by people from Bukovina. Rustic and humble, yes, poor and isolated, no. It was a place where I experienced for the first time the sunshine of true universal community, where everyone was friends with everyone else, and everyone in that small congregation knew that they were at one with all the believers in the whole world. It was definitely a ‘kairos’ moment, timeless.

Well, the world can’t have changed that much in forty years, or can it have? One cannot expect a small city temple to have the same feel or meaning as one in the countryside, where all the neighbors ‘go’ to the same church, or can we? I think back on my historical studies, specifically my study of the Slavic people, my literal ancestors. They had been worshiping nature gods for hundreds of years. Some worshiped nothing at all. Little groups of Greeks went in among them, in Moravia for example, and set themselves up in a strange ‘neighborhood.’ Little by little the newcomers came to know the locals. Little by little, invited by the Greeks, these ‘outsiders’ joined, became insiders, almost organically.

Why do you think this was? Could it be that those Greeks looked at the world around them, a world that was very dark, where lurked all manner of witchery, where obscenity was looked on as a way to ‘commune’ with the gods, and did not see an enemy, but a dark world that just needed to receive the light? Did they see themselves as a besieged outpost of maybe the last true Christians in the neighborhood, or as a vanguard of the King of kings, His ambassadors to ‘a people that walked in darkness’ but who were destined for light? It seems to me that those early Greeks living in Slavic lands saw their surroundings as already His, already belonging to Him. Their job was simply to let the natives know.

I started writing this ramble before I left for the Divine Liturgy, and I finished the last few paragraphs now that I’m back. I went to that temple of which I am a member. The weather turned rainy, and I could feel myself getting a bit of a chill and my breathing was labored. ‘It’s been a busy week,’ I thought to myself after partaking of the Holy Mysteries and offering thanks afterwards in the narthex, ‘I think I’ll go home and not wait for the procession.’ Even though it’s Lent, I know when I can cut myself some slack, exercise ‘ikonomía’ as it were, to preserve my health, or for any good reason. ‘The Son of Man is master, even of the Sabbath,’ says Christ, who grants to His followers the rights of natural born citizens in His Kingdom.

The Sunday of Orthodoxy, today, and other brothers celebrating the Lord’s entrance in Jerusalem riding on a donkey, on the foal of a donkey. The liturgy of Saint Basil, that perfect gem of ancient liturgical worship, ours to treasure on the road to Pascha, every Sunday till then. All over the world, and even in my neighborhood, ikon-bearers will be, or are, or have already been out in procession carrying their ikons in what must look like a very strange parade to the unsaved or the merely uninterested. ‘It’s those Greeks again!’ I overheard one year from the mouth of a stranger, walking with his friend through the ranks of us pious ikonodules as we circumambulated the temple, city police having blocked the streets to prevent car traffic, but not passers-by or passers-through on foot.

And I ponder, and ask myself, what are we here for, and what are we going to do with these ikons?

Saturday, March 19, 2016


When meeting a guest at the airport whom you have never seen before and who has never seen you, you stand outside the arrival gate and hold up a sign with their name written on it. If all goes well, they will see you holding up their name and come right to you.
There will be no mistaking.

I wish it were this easy
to meet the greatest of all unforeseen guests,

Could we stand, waiting patiently for Him, holding up a writing of His name for Him to recognize us? And if we could, how long could we stand? For most of us it would seem He is the Guest who never arrives. Like one who must stay up very late at night to view a lunar eclipse, we get tired and cranky, and then, disgusted with ourselves, we just go back to bed. I speak from experience.

Waiting is something few have patience for.
Waiting for God, even fewer.

The writer of the Wisdom of Solomon describes the natural man’s search for God, in which there is mistaking creatures for the Creator.

Yes, naturally stupid are all men who have not known God
and who, from the good things that are seen,
have not been able to discover Him-Who-Is,
or, by studying the works,
have failed to recognize the Artificer.
Fire, however, or wind, or the swift air,
the sphere of the stars,
impetuous water, heaven's lamps,
are what they have held to be the gods
who govern the world.

If, charmed by their beauty,
they have taken things for gods,
let them know how much the Lord of these excels them,
since the very Author of beauty has created them.
And if they have been impressed
by their power and energy,
let them deduce from these
how much mightier is He that has formed them,
since through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures
we may, by analogy, contemplate their Author.
Small blame, however, attaches to these men,
for perhaps they only go astray
in their search for God and their eagerness to find Him;
living among His works,
they strive to comprehend them
and fall victim to appearances, seeing so much beauty.
Wisdom 12:1-7 Jerusalem Bible

‘…fall victim to appearances, seeing so much beauty.’

Lord our God,
prevent us, we beg You, of falling victim to appearances,
of mistaking for You those things which our hands have made,
our hearts have loved, or our minds have thought.
Give us the eye of faith by which to see You,
and blind us to all other things
that resemble You.
Grant us, merciful and loving Lord,
Your forgiveness for our idolatry,
our idealism, ideology, ideas
that we forge to hold You
Who are uncontainable
except by suffering.
Save us, O Lord,
from ourselves
without You.
Be with us,
we cry.

How? What? Where?

Why we come up with so many excuses for not following Jesus and doing what He commands is, we are unable to see Him. Honestly, we just don’t know what He looks like. Besides that, we also don’t seem to be able to recognize His voice among so many that claim to be His, but aren’t. Who or what are we to believe? All that must be settled, so we think, before we can follow Him or, if that is too extreme for us, then at least do what He commands. This is true, of course, only for those Christians to whom faith is not just a religious experience, but the initiation into the mysteries of Christ. If you are satisfied just to be a believer, don’t read on, but please make sure you attend church this Sunday.

What does Jesus look like? That’s a question we dare not ask ourselves, either because it seems too bold, even irreverent, or because deep down we think it doesn’t really matter. Yet in either case, we use it as an excuse for staying put. We dream of the open road, but don’t really want to travel it.

          ‘You road I enter upon and look around!
          I believe you are not all that is here;
          I believe that much unseen is also here.
          I think heroic deeds were all conceiv’d in the open air,
          and all great poems also;
          I think I could stop here myself, and do miracles…’
— Walt Whitman, 
Leaves of Grass, ‘Song of the Open Road’

Leave it to unchurchable poets to sing about and to enjoy the freedom of the sons of God, while we who say we know Him transhumanize ourselves into icy statues, caricatures of the Divine Image on whom we are modeled, instead of accepting Life from Him who raised Lazarus after four days of death, and who robbed Hades of the rest of the dead universe, and for ever.

How do we want to see Jesus? returning to our excuses. Is it the historical Y’shua ben Maryam, the Aramaic-speaking artisan’s son turned baffling rabbi and then incomprehensibly rejected messiah? He hung on the scaffold while day turned to night and the earth shook, breathed His last, all the while we and the rest of the world, believers and unbelievers, not knowing what He was doing, or why, or how.

We see His humanity walking on a spit of history engulfed between empires, hear the words He spoke to others—never to ourselves—watch Him work wonders that we could never do, and the longer we watch and think about Him, we grow less and less able to follow Him or hear His voice. He retreats farther into dark history than He ever retreated into bright heaven at His ascension. He’s a little brown man who doesn’t speak our language, doesn’t know what we have to put up with, and so we’ve no choice but to just believe, and let Him slip through our midst as He did the crowd that wanted to stone Him.

Or we see His divinity re-imaged to fit the cultural sensibilities of ours and earlier ages, now a white, American Jesus—at least we don’t crown Him with a baseball cap!—or a black man curiously resembling a muscular antebellum slave, as He invites an adoring woman with arms raised to be loosed. When He reveals His deity to us in the Bible we downplay it and make Him out to be ‘just a man,’ and when He shows us His humanity in the only Book where it is depicted, we exalt Him to divine status and entrench ourselves in ‘I could never do that!’ ignoring the evangelist’s closing remarks, ‘all the world wouldn’t be big enough to contain all the books’ that would have to be written to describe the acts of Jesus Christ.

All the world wouldn’t be big enough? All the books? What books? Now I’m getting confused. What about our reasons for not being able to follow Jesus and do what He commands? We can’t see Him. He is not just the historical Jesus, yet the Jesus of theology belongs to the saints. We can’t hear His voice, or at least can’t distinguish it from everyone else’s. We can’t know His teaching because of all the interpretations. Our road isn’t open like that lying poet’s. It’s full of road blocks that we didn’t put there. Like the Greeks who came and said, ‘We want to see Jesus!’ what’s the answer given us? Did they get to see Him or not? Do we? Is it our fault that we can’t ‘stop here’ ourselves ‘and do miracles?’

Gentleness, meekness, a child’s trust, a Jew’s shrewdness, a gypsy’s innocence and sense of adventure. ‘If you want to see well, pluck out your eyes and be blind. If you want to hear well, be deaf. If you want to walk well, cut off your feet,’ says ludicrously wise brother Giles of Assisi, and he seems to know what he’s talking about. He’s not talking about the Lord, but about this world. If you want to see Jesus as He really is, stop imagining Him as you want Him to be. If you want to hear His voice, stop listening to other voices, even ones that claim to tell you about Him: just listen to what He says. And if you want to follow Christ in this world, cut off your programs and plans, and just walk in His footsteps. How? What? Where?

The books of the Holy Gospels. The lives of the Holy Prophets, Apostles and Saints. Yes, keep to what is written, whether on paper in ink, or on flesh in blood. The Book, yes, the holy and divine scripture, is not primarily written in human words on parchment, but in human works on skins—our own. Yet not to depart from the unchanging Message, make it your home, your clothing, your food, your wealth. What is this Message? It is the life of Christ written in your flesh. It is living the life of heaven on earth. But it all begins in the Bible, in the written Word of God, especially in the Holy Gospels. So, you and I can see Jesus and hear His voice, today.

In the beginning was the Word: 
the Word was with God, and the Word was God…
John 1:1