Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Frederica Mathewes-Green on "A Merciful Heart"

St. Isaac the Syrian

I've been insanely busy at work lately, so much so that I'm having to bring work home. This means I haven't had time to do much on my notes on St. James' epistle. So, I thought I'd share another article sent to me by my friend Fr. John Paprock. It is written by the talented and prolific author and speaker Frederica Mathewes-Green, whom I have had the privilege to meet in person and also to converse with via email. Enjoy!


Sometimes evil must be challenged, and sometimes love requires intervention. Any intervention, however, must not be motivated by vengeance or self-righteousness. Instead, we must see ourselves as equally sinful and in need of mercy. Our goal must be restoring the person to the
love of God.

"Love sinners but despise their deeds," said St. Isaac of
Syria. "Remember that you share the stench of Adam, and you also are clothed in his infirmity. To the one who has need of ardent prayer and soothing words do not give reproof instead, lest you destroy him and his soul be required from your hands. Imitate doctors who use cold things against fevers."

How can we evaluate another's deeds and respond to them, perhaps even bring about correction and justice, and yet not judge them? To answer the question, picture a courtroom. See where the judge sits? Don't sit there. That's God's seat, and he will judge on the last day.

Until that day we linger in the courtroom as the dear friend of the accused. This person may be doing evil and willful things, and be cocky and defiant and not want our friendship. Yet because we see what lies ahead, and we know that we are just as prone to sin, we do whatever we can to help him repent, turn, and escape the coming penalty.

At every Eucharist, Anna's congregation prays, "You came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief." This solidarity with all of fallen humankind removes our grounds for self-approval, while making us even more concerned that everyone find repentance and salvation. As we stand at the head of the army of sinners, we pray that God will have mercy on us all.

St. Isaac of Syria wrote, "And what is a merciful heart? It is burning for all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, and even for demons. At the remembrance and at the sight of them, the merciful man's eyes fill with tears that arise from the great compassion that urges his heart. It grows tender and cannot endure hearing or seeing any injury or slight sorrow to anything in creation. Because of this, such a man continually offers tearful prayer even for irrational animals and for the enemies of truth and for all who harm it, that they may be guarded and forgiven."

Frederica Mathewes-Green
The Illumined Heart, pp 92-93
2001, Paraclete Press
Brewster, Massachusetts

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Missionary Kid Returns Home, part 7 - by James Hargrave

James (center) and two friends discussing the finer points of Kierkegaardian metaphysics...or maybe it was just girls...

Part Seven: Postcolonial Africa

While college was certainly tough, it was also great. I had good friends and good professors, and thoroughly enjoyed my English major. One of my areas of focus was in postcolonial literature and postcolonial studies. It was interesting to read literature set in the geographical and cultural context that was home to me. And reading about Africa as experienced by Africans was enlightening.

Much of postcolonial theory and literature is profoundly anti-Christian. Christianity is seen—and sometimes rightly so!—as an agent of colonial domination. Western missionaries told Africans to suffer for the sake of Christ, and so when European Christian empires told African Christians to give up their families, cultures, homelands and lives in service to Western settlers, the Christian thing to do was submit.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, James' favorite African novelist...
now, say his name ten times fast!

Reality is more complicated than this, and even in the worst circumstances the truth of the Gospel can shine. But there are a great deal of profoundly negative things to be said about the role of European and American Christian missions in subjugating the peoples of Africa to terrible and brutal oppression by European empires. And today, although most African states have been nominally independent for more than a generation, the master-servant relationship between Western and indigenous cultures still exists and still bears bitter fruit.

In postcolonial studies I saw the worst of that bitter fruit, and was blinded to the good fruit that has been borne by the spread of the Gospel throughout Africa. I was no longer merely indifferent to Christianity, I was now outright opposed. Christianity, as I understood it, was still at work in Africa to destroy Africa and to turn healthy indigenous culture into a broken collection of third-class humans whose only choice was to make do with the trash left behind by indifferent superpowers

None of what I believed was strictly false, but it was far less than true. And I did recall that not all Christendom was guilty of the things I blamed it for. I remembered my childhood experiences with Orthodox Ethiopia and the Orthodox Church of Kenya, which was born of indigenous Christian resistance to the worst of colonial terror. The one crack in my hardened heart had been made by Orthodox Christianity...

And I did recall that not all Christendom was guilty of the things I blamed it for. I remembered my childhood experiences with Orthodox Ethiopia and the Orthodox Church of Kenya, which was born of indigenous Christian resistance to the worst of colonial terror. The one crack in my hardened heart had been made by Orthodox Christianity...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Spiritual Warfare in the Catholic Epistles

Icon of the Holy Archangels

The authors of the Catholic Epistles all agree with St. Paul that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). They teach us that there is a great spiritual battle going on constantly, a battle that takes place both in heaven and on earth. In heaven, there exists a hierarchy of forces both on the side of darkness and the side of light. In heaven, God commands the angelic powers, who are joined by the departed in Christ, who participate in the battle through their prayers. The forces of good are opposed by Satan and the demons. But God does not fight Satan or the demons directly, for this would not be an equal fight. Instead, the archangels and angels battle the demonic forces. Interestingly, as Bray points out, “At the level of belief…there is complete agreement in the spiritual world, where the demons know God and fear him just as the angels do. The struggle is therefore not one of faith but one of works, because in spite of what they know to be true about God, the demons are still in revolt against him” (xxiv).

In the spiritual realm, the division between good and evil is well-defined. Not so on earth. At first appearance, it would seem that humans can be divided into those who belong to God and those who do not (indeed, in some Christian traditions, people are indeed neatly classified in this way). But the situation is not so simple, for two reasons. First, many people’s final destiny still has not been determined. Some who will be saved have not yet joined the ranks of the people of God, while others who have will fall away. Second, as Bray writes, “the devil is a deceiver and has infiltrated the ranks of the [Church] with his own servants. These people look as if they have been saved, but in reality they are still in the devil’s power and are doing their best to fool the elect into turning away from the new light and life they have received in Christ” (xxiv). Of course, as Orthodox Christians we would understand the terms “saved” and “elect” differently than would Dr. Bray, but as long as we use our own understanding of the terms, we would totally agree with this statement. What is unmistakable is that we cannot determine anyone’s future salvation simply by observing them today.

Bray makes another astute comment: “To complicate matters still further, a number of people belong to the company of the elect [i.e. the Church], but have not yet fully understood the implications of this. These are people to who the authors of the Catholic Epistles are primarily writing. They have been born again into God’s family, but they still have a lot of growing up to do. Very often they have not seen the practical implications of their new faith and so do not live up to its demands. Sometimes they have not fully absorbed the right teaching, which makes them prone to fall back into idolatry and other pagan ways…believers who have allowed such things to happen must not imagine that they will escape God’s judgment on their behavior” (xxiv).

If we keep this framework in mind, then we can understand pretty much everything in the Catholic Epistles. For the entire content of these epistles is grounded in the cosmic struggle between darkness and light, good and evil, the servants of God and those of the Devil. As Bray states, “This struggle takes different forms at different times, and its modern representatives may be as superficially different from the heretics of the first-century church as they were from people like Korah and Balaam. But underneath it is only one battle, which will be fought by God’s people until the end of time, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Their end is never far away but grows nearer with every passing day. In this sense the message become even more urgent, because the battle is reaching its climax and ultimate victory is in sight. This is the hope for which we live and the faith which we practice in that love which is God’s unique blessing to those whom he has chosen, for it is nothing less than his own presence dwelling in every believer” (xxv).

Next time, we’ll begin looking at the background of the Epistle of St. James.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Parenthood Blessings -- by Clint

Debbie and our kids walking at the zoo in Tallinn, Estonia (from 2005)

The next several posts from me will be another narrative about a journey that our family has undertaken. My first narrative was about our journey to Orthodoxy. This current one will be about our journey into parenthood.

When Debbie and I were first married, we began to plan our life (as I suppose many other folks do). “This” is where we would live. “That” was what we would do for a living. And “Four” would be the number of our children.

I am not sure exactly where four came from, to be honest. I don’t remember if I suggested it or if she did. But somewhere, during those early years of our relationship, we decided to have four children.

We had been married for a year and a half or so when we determined to start “trying.” We quickly found out that we were fairly fertile. Debbie became pregnant and we found out that we could expect our little bundle of joy in late September of the following year. However, after about two months, Debbie had a miscarriage. Our sorrow was deep, but it wasn’t very long before Debbie was pregnant again and our daughter Becky was born.

After a couple of years, we decided to go for it again. Debbie quickly became pregnant, and our child was to be born the following November. Again, Debbie miscarried. Following the previous pattern, a few months later, she became pregnant and our son Joey was born.

In my mind, I was still shooting for four kids (I had the typical Protestant mentality and those two precious miscarried children didn’t count). But Debbie told me that she didn’t want to deal with the emotional turmoil of another miscarriage. So we stopped “trying.” I was at peace with that decision. However, I did tell her that if we ever had the opportunity to adopt a child that we should seriously consider it. She agreed.

Now, to give you a heads up, the remainder of these installments will deal with our adoption of our son Tommy. But as I close this introduction, I want to say a few words about our two miscarried children.

One of the greatest treasures that Orthodoxy has given to me are those two children. I had buried them in the back of my mind over the several years that had passed. It wasn ‘t until we had decided to become Orthodox that we were told by Fr. Christopher Foley (priest at Holy Cross Parish – OCA, in the Greensboro, NC area) that we shouldn’t consider those children to be “lost” from us. In fact, they were very much alive. We could pray for them, etc.

So now I am able to know that I don’t have four children, I have five. We have begun to refer to the two miscarried children by name, Bethany and Stephen (we figured we would go with one girl and one boy, since our two other children worked out that way). We commissioned an icon that we use to represent those two wonderful children. I kiss that icon every night.

As a parent, I have been blessed beyond measure. I hope you enjoy reading about our little odyssey.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Return of the Missionary Kid! An MK Returns Home, part 6 (by James Hargrave)

The road to James' family farm in rural North Florida-- this is what James thought all of America was like.

[Fr. James' note: He's baaaaaaaaaaaack!]

When I moved from Kenya to Florida as an eighteen-year-old in 1999, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. After all, we had come back to the States for three furloughs in the past fifteen years. I had even attended public school!

But the culture of Stetson University was yet another world away from the dirt roads of Grandaddy’s farm and the country schools of rural North Florida. Most of the Americans I now met found my background as a rural Floridian every bit as foreign as my background as a rural African. I was an outsider in almost every way.

When I told people that I was from Kenya, they would usually ask, “That’s in Ohio, isn’t it?” If they knew it was a country in East Africa, they would then express surprise that I wasn’t black. Other freshmen could say, “I’m from Orlando” and that would be that. I’d have to explain where Africa was and what missionaries were and why I didn’t carry a spear.

It could take a good ten minutes of explanation before people understood even at a very superficial level who I was. The one place where such a lengthy introduction wasn’t necessary was in the Evangelical Protestant subculture. Many of the folks in groups like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at least knew what a missionary was, and many even had friends who were MKs (missionary kids). In InterVarsity I could show up and be, if not normal, at least within my peers’ understanding of the world.

But groups like InterVarsity were apt to hero-worship missionaries. Their worldview had a place for me, which was nice, but that place was on a pedestal, which was not nice at all. I was a bitter teenager drowning in a foreign environment—not a mighty and faithful preacher of the Gospel to all nations. I wasn’t even sure I believed in the Gospel.

The Africa Inland Church has no presence in Florida, and so I had no local congregation to identify with. For the first six weeks of college I attended churches each Sunday—there were a variety within walking distance—but had little to no interaction with members of the congregations. Sometimes somebody would say hello, but usually not.

One Sunday I woke up late and instead of going to church I sat in a vacant lot, read Scripture and sang a few songs. The only difference between this, I felt, and ordinary church attendance is that in the vacant lot at least it wasn’t awkward for me to not interact with anyone, since there wasn’t anyone around anyhow. And I didn’t go to church again after that—I could do just as good on my own, so why bother?

Now that my egocentric understanding of God had been underscored by an egocentric understanding of Church and worship, there was very little connecting me to the faith of my childhood. I was relying on myself for any connection to God, and so it was a short step to take God out of the equation entirely. By the end of my first semester of college, this functional atheism had established itself as professed agnosticism. And it was soon to become not simply indifference but outright hostility towards missions and Christianity.

James (on the right) and a friend in front of their dorm at Stetson University. As you can see from James' hairstyle, he traded in his acting career for one as the lead singer in a heavy metal band.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Importance of the Catholic Epistles

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, volume XI: James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude - one of my major sources for this series

Why study the Catholic Epistles? The first reason is obvious: we should study the Catholic Epistles because they are part of the Holy Scriptures. The Holy Spirit guided the early Church to include each of them in what would become the New Testament, and this fact alone dictates that we should read them, study them, and apply them to our lives. Related to this is the fact that we do tend to neglect them. When we DO read and study the Epistles, we normally turn to the magisterial Pauline collection. Now I’m sure that most of you can quote or at least paraphrase a verse or passage from James, 1 John, or 1 or 2 Peter. But now, quick: tell me some of the main themes or teachings of these epistles. Can you do it? And how about Jude, 2 John, or 3 John? Can you quote a verse from one of these books? If so, then your biblical knowledge is way above average. Still, no matter how many times we have read these seven wonderful epistles, we can always stand to do so one more time. They have a lot to teach us about Christ and the Christian life.

Besides their great doctrinal, moral, and inspirational content, the Catholic Epistles are also helpful because of their historical content. Evangelical Anglican priest and scholar Gerald Bray, in his excellent introduction to the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture volume that covers the Catholic Epistles, puts it this way: [The Catholic Epistles] “offer a non-Pauline witness to the beliefs and practices of the first Christian communities. It is true that they are not the only non-Pauline voice in the New Testament, but they are the only group of letters that has never been associated with the great apostle to the Gentiles. Letters, by their very nature, have an immediacy that is lacking in more formal documents…[the writers] were responding to real needs in the early Christian communities, and by examining these problems we can reconstruct the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere that shaped the first generation of the Church” (xxi).

As Bray points out, the early Church Fathers found the Catholic Epistles particularly useful in fighting heresies. St. John and St. Peter in particular devote much of their epistles to arguing against early heresies that threatened to divide the Church. One heresy the authors of the Catholic Epistles battled was a type of dualistic Christianity-pagan hybrid, perhaps the progenitor of the later “Christian” Gnosticism that would be taught by writers like Valentinus and documents such as the Gospel of Thomas. Although the specific heresies that the Fathers battled were different from those faced by the Apostles in the latter half of the first century, the Fathers were successful in borrowing the lines of reasoning and argument used by the Apostles in fighting the heresies of their day.

Another excellent reason to study the Catholic Epistles is the way in which they drive home a very important point: Christian faith is a matter of practice as well as formal belief. I hope you will indulge me if I quote a long passage from Bray’s introduction. Despite its length, the passage is worthy of being read in its entirety. As Bray eloquently states,

Peter, James, and John are all agreed on the assumption that faith without works is dead. They do not mean and none of the Fathers took them to mean that it is possible to earn one’s way to heaven by doing good works; indeed, such a notion was firmly resisted by almost all the ancient commentators. The words spoken of in these letters are not those of the Mosaic law but those that spring naturally from faith in Jesus Christ. The Catholic Epistles insist that actions speak louder than words and that the latter must be backed up by deeds that correspond to them and give them meaning. What the epistles and the Fathers who interpreted them understood by “works” can be summarized in three words: self-sacrifice, generosity and humility. The former meant that Christians must be prepared to give up their lives, if necessary, for their faith. The patient endurance of suffering here and now is a preparation for this supreme sacrifice, as the example of Jesus’ earthly life bears witness. Generosity is seen primarily in almsgiving and in hospitality, both of which were regarded as essential marks of the true believer. In an age in which there was no form of Social Security of even a reliable network of inns for passing strangers, generosity of this kind was immediately noticed by everyone, and where it was practiced it became one of the most impressive things about the Christian community. Humility was the spiritual foundation of both self-sacrifice and generosity. Toward God, humility meant recognizing that we have done nothing to save ourselves and even as Christians remain entirely dependent on his grace. Toward other people, humility was to be seen in a kind of behavior that avoided arrogant criticism of the failings of others. Christians were expected to hold their tongues and instead to do all in their power to help each other overcome their weaknesses, on the understanding that everyone has them. Even the elders of the church were to exercise their authority in a humble way, by respecting and encouraging those under their authority. The governing principle of life in the Christian community is love, for God and for one another. The two can be distinguished but never separ ated, and Christians must learn that their professed love for God in heaven will be judged by their behavior toward their fellow believers here on earth (xxii-xxiii).

And THAT, my dear readers, is about as good a summary of the overall message of the Catholic Epistles as I have ever seen!

Next time, we’ll look at one other major theme of the Catholic Epistles: spiritual warfare.

Monday, September 21, 2009

New Series: The Catholic Epistles (General Introduction)

A Flutterby
...and no, that is not a typo!
What does this beautiful creature have to do with the Catholic Epistles? Read on...

In any language, words, and phrases are often incorrectly used. Sometimes, a particular incorrect usage occurs so frequently that over time, it begins to be accepted as valid. An example is the English word “butterfly.” Have you ever wondered how the butterfly received its name? There is nothing particularly “buttery” about a butterfly. In fact, the original English word for this beautiful animal was “flutterby,” which makes total sense, given the way butterflies fly. For some reason, people began to mispronounce the poor creature’s name. Over time, so many people were mispronouncing it that “butterfly” became an accepted alternative name for the flutterby. Finally, no one even said “flutterby” any more, and what was once an incorrect way to pronounce and spell the word became the accepted correct way.

For another example, consider two phrases. The first phrase is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, you can’t know if something is good or not unless you try it (whether you are referring to an actual food or to something more metaphorical, like a certain activity). In recent years, this phrase has often been misquoted as “the proof is in the pudding.” This misquotation has happened so much that this mistaken way of saying the proverb now seems to be an acceptable alternative form of it. Another example is the saying “I couldn’t care less!” How many times have you heard someone incorrectly say, “I could care less?” In spite of the fact that this corruption actually means the exact opposite of the original phrase, it nevertheless seems to be increasingly accepted as an alternative way of saying the same thing.

This same process of semantic change has occurred with the English word “catholic.” When the average educated person sees the word “catholic” with a small “c”—meaning not necessarily referring to the Roman Catholic Church—what meaning does he or she assign to it? Probably nine out of ten English speakers would say that “catholic” means “universal.” But this is not the true and original meaning of the word. The English word “catholic” is really just a transliteration of the Greek word “katholikos.” This word derives from the prefix “kata,” which means “according to,” and “holos,” which means (not surprisingly) “whole.” Thus, “katholikos” and therefore “catholic” literally means “according to the whole.” In other words, it means whole, complete, lacking nothing.

But in a similar way to the other words and phrases I mentioned, for some reason, people started using the word “catholic” to mean “universal.” And that misuse of the word became so widespread that “universal” actually became an accepted secondary definition of the word. And it is that sense of the word that is used in the phrase “Catholic Epistles.”

But enough amateur linguistics—let’s get to some Bible study. First of all, what exactly are the Catholic Epistles?

The New Testament contains 27 books. If we subtract out the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the book of Revelation, that leaves 21 books. All 21 of these “books” are not really books, but epistles. Of these 21, two-thirds, or 14 in all, were written by St. Paul or by someone very close to him. That leaves seven epistles. These are the epistles that the Church has collectively named the “Catholic Epistles” (Protestants usually call them the “universal” or “general” epistles, in order to avoid the use of the term “Catholic.”). The reason these epistles are called catholic or universal is because unlike St. Paul’s epistles, they are not addressed to a particular church or group of churches, nor to a particular individual. Instead, they are all addressed to the Church in general.

Which epistles are considered to be part of the Catholic Epistles? The Catholic Epistles include the Epistle of St. James, the First and Second Epistles of St. Peter, the First, Second, and Third Epistles of St. John, and the Epistle of St. Jude. Because of the great depth of St. Paul’s epistles, plus their popularity and sheer volume, the Catholic Epistles tend to get overlooked. Because of this, I thought it would be good for us to spend the next few months studying them. Why is it important to study the Catholic Epistles? What contributions to they make to the Church’s theology and practice? And what do they tell us about how to live the Christian life? These are topics that I will explore in the next several posts.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

New "Thy Word" podcasts available!

For those of you who don't know this, I record my adult Sunday School class at St. Joseph's each Sunday and make it into a podcast, which I call "Thy Word." Sunday School at St. Joseph's has been on hiatus since late May, but now it has restarted. I have just posted not one, but THREE podcasts which continue the series I started last Spring on the excellent book Way of the Ascetics. Click on the link at the left side of this blog if you would like to listen to them.

Also, be sure and scroll down to read Clint's latest post, which, as usual is excellent.

Answering Questions -- by Clint

It seems like one of the most common responsibilities of a parent is to answer the plethora of questions that one’s children ask. You know what I mean. Questions like:

“What do leaves taste like?”

“Why are you so fat?”

Stuff like that.

Normally, it isn’t all that difficult to answer those questions.

“It depends upon what type of leaves you are talking about.”

“Because I eat too much and I don’t exercise enough – but don’t ask that again, because it is rude.”

See, it is easy.

When I served as a protestant minister, it even seemed like it was fairly easy to answer the questions of a religious nature. I mean, I was “the preacher.” I could always cobble together some type of intelligible answer. Since I tended to know more than anyone else around, even if I was not entirely clear, I could usually do better than most folks.

Then came the conversion to Orthodoxy. I am no longer “the expert.” Often my kids will ask questions that I simply have no idea how to answer. And I really mean that I can’t even cobble together some semblance of an answer.

“How does the Jesus Prayer help?”

“When did Nestorius start to go bad?”

OK, they really haven’t asked either of those questions, but I hope you get my point. In many ways, I am on the same level as my kids. I am a neophyte. It is humbling and I suppose that is good.

My wife recently said that every new Orthodox family should be assigned their own personal “little Babushka” to answer all those types of questions. Honestly, I don’t know if it is really practical to give us all a little old woman who can handle those questions, but it might be something to consider.

Really, I think that perhaps that is one way that those of us who are parents can struggle with those questions, and then pass along what we learn to our children. In any event, my status as “all knowing” has taken a hit with my kids. I may not like that, but it was inevitable anyway.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On the Pearl of Great Price (WOA Ch. 26; Final Chapter)

Having taken us to the heights of spirituality, that is, continual prayer, Colliander now has us look back on where we have been and where we are now (or will be) if we have walked the path of the ascetics.

“The strange thing has now come to pass that the deeper you pressed into your own heart, the farther and higher you climbed out of yourself. The outward conditions of your life are the same: you wash dishes and care for the children, you go to work, draw your salary and pay your taxes. You do everything pertaining to your eternal life as a person in a society, since there is no chance of leaving it. But you have resigned yourself. You have given away one thing in order to receive another.

“…And if I have Thee, what more do I ask on earth? Nothing, answers St. John Climacus, but ceaselessly praying, silently to cling to Thee. Some are enslaved by riches, others by honour, still others by acquiring possessions; my only desire is to cling to God.

“Prayer, with all it contains of self-renunciation, has become your real life, which you keep up as though only for the sake of prayer. Walking with God (Genesis 6:9) is from now on the only thing that has real value for you, and it includes all heavenly and earthly events. For him who bears Christ within himself there is neither death nor illness or any earthly clamour; he has already stepped into eternal life, and that embraces everything.

“Night and day the heavenly seed sprouts in your heart and grows, you know not how. The earth produces of itself, your heart’s soil, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear (Mark 4:27-28)” (99-100).

For those very few who have achieved inner stillness and purity of heart (among which most of us will never belong), a striking result can manifest itself: the uncreated light. Colliander explains: “The saints speak of something they call the inextinguishable light. It is a light not of the eye but of the heart that never ceases to walk in purity and clearness. It swiftly leaves the darkness behind and constantly strives toward the day’s height. Its constant quality is to be continually purified. This is the light of eternity that can never go out, and that shines through the veil of time and mater. But the saints never say that this light is given to them, but that it is given only to those who have purified their hearts in love for the Lord, on the narrow way which they have freely chosen.

“The narrow way has no end: its quality is eternity. There every moment is a moment of beginning—the present includes the future: the day of judgment; the present includes the past: creation; for Christ is timelessly present everywhere, both in hell and in heaven. With the coming of the One, plurality disappears, even in time and space. Everything happens simultaneously, now and here and everywhere, in the depths of your heart. There you meet what you sought: the depth and height and breadth of the Cross: the Saviour and salvation” (100-101).

Having said this, it is fitting that Colliander concludes in the same way he began the book:

Therefore, if you wish to save your soul and win eternal life, arise moment by moment from your dullness, bless yourself with the sign of the Cross and say: Let me, Lord, make a good beginning, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen” (101).

Thursday, September 17, 2009


In the 1962 film Lilies of the Field, Sidney Poitier plays an unemployed construction worker whose truck breaks down near a Catholic convent. He ends up staying near the convent and building the sisters there a new chapel. During his stay, the sisters teach him much about faith, and he teaches them a thing or too as well. One of the things he teaches them is the song "Amen," written in the twentieth century, but modeled after the Negro spirituals of the nineteenth. This song is a lot of fun. I thought I would include the clip of Poitier's character singing the song with the nuns. Enjoy.

And here is a more polished and professional version of the same song, sung by contemporary Christian artist Larnelle Harris, whom I saw in concert while I was in seminary. Just ignore the goofy intro; I couldn't find a clip without one. Harris has a truly incredible voice.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On the Jesus Prayer (WOA Ch. 25)

Colliander begins his discussion of the Jesus Prayer, that cherished jewel of Orthodox spirituality, by quoting St. Isaiah the Solitary. According to St. Isaiah, the Jesus prayer is “a mirror for the mind and a lantern for the conscience” (92). The prayer, which in its longest form consists of the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner,” is the means to achieving continual remembrance of the Lord, which is fundamental to Christian spirituality. It is the way that many thousands of Christians, both monastic and non-monastic, have managed to keep St. Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

But how does one get started practicing this prayer? Colliander offers this advice: “Repeat [the prayer] aloud, or only in thought, slowly, lingeringly, but with attention, and from a heart freed as much as possible from all that is inappropriate to it. Not only worldly interests are inappropriate, but also such things as every kind of expectation or thought of answer, or inner visions, testings, all kinds of romantic dreams, curious questions and imaginings. Simplicity is as inescapable a condition as humility, abstemiousness of body and soul, and in general everything that pertains to the invisible warfare” (93).

Some who do not well understand Orthodox spirituality have compared the use of the Jesus Prayer to mysticism, including that practiced in Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Colliander warns against seeing it this way: “Especially should the beginner beware of everything that has the slightest tendency to mysticism. The Jesus Prayer is an activity, a practical work and a means by which you enable yourself to receive and use the power called God’s grace—constantly present, however hidden, within the baptized person—in order that it may bear fruit. Prayer fructifies this power in our soul; it has no other purpose. It is a hammer that crushes a shell: a hammer is hard and its stroke hurts. Abandon every thought of pleasantness, rapture, heavenly voices: there is only one way to the kingdom of God, and that is the way of the Cross. And to hang crucified on a tree is horrible torment. Expect nothing else”(94-95).

As Colliander has just pointed out, the fundamental purpose of prayer is to activate grace—the power of the Holy Spirit—within us. One way prayer, and particularly the Jesus prayer, accomplishes that is to keep our thought life under control. If our thoughts are continually engaged in prayer, they will be much less likely to wander into areas that get us into trouble. Colliander explains it like this:

“You have crucified your body by nailing it fast with a simple and uniform manner of life under strict self-discipline. Your thought-life and imagination ought to be as strictly controlled. Nail them fast with the words of prayer and Holy Scripture, with the reading of Psalms and the works of the holy Fathers, where these things are commanded. Do not permit your imagination to fly about at will. What men call ‘the flight of thought’ is usually an aimless fluttering of the world of illusions. As soon as your thoughts are not occupied in your work’s behalf, let them turn again to prayer.

“See to it that both imagination and thought are as obedient to you as a well-trained dog. You do not allow it to run around and yap and rummage in garbage pails and bathe in the gutter. Likewise you ought always to be able to call back your thoughts and imagination, and you must do so untold times every passing minute. If you do not do so, you are like a horse driven now by one rider and now by another, says St. Anthony, until, worn out and lathered, it collapses” (94-95).

As he often does, Colliander warns the beginner about biting off more than he or she can chew, and about becoming discouraged when progress is slow (in this case, he refers of course to progress in prayer): “If you hammer a nutshell too hard, you may crush the kernel as well. Lay on with caution. Do not pass over suddenly to the Jesus Prayer. Hold back to begin with, and even afterward, use your other prayer practices as well. Do not be overanxious. And do not suppose that you can pay proper attention to a single Lord, have mercy. Your prayer is bound to be divided and scattered: you are, indeed, human. Only in heaven the angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven (Matthew 18:10): you, on the contrary, have an earthly body with its own cravings. Do not shriek to high heaven in amazement if at the beginning you completely forget your prayer practice for many hours at a time, perhaps for a whole day or longer. Take it naturally and simply: you are an inexperienced sailor who has been so anxiously occupied with other things that he forgot to keep watch on the breezes. Thus, expect nothing of yourself. But do not demand anything of others, either” (95-96).

Finally, Colliander discusses the benefits of prayer, especially the continual use of the Jesus Prayer: “Prayer will call forth an inner calm, a peaceful relaxation in grief, love, gratitude, humility. If you are, on the contrary, tense and stirred up, in high spirits or in deep despair, if you feel contrition or bitterness or an exaggerated will to action, if you are thrown into ecstatic experiences or a drunkenness of the senses, such as you enjoy when listening to music, if you feel a supreme enjoyment or satisfaction so that you are “content with yourself and the whole world,” you are on the wrong road. You have built altogether too much on yourself. Sound your retreat and go back to that self-reproach that must always be the starting-point for every true prayer.

“The angel of light always brings peace, the peace that the demons of the dark wish at all costs to disturb. By this, say the holy Fathers, one can recognize the evil powers and separate them from the good” (96-97).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Cross (John 3:13-17) - Part Two

Here is the second half of last Sunday's sermon. Scroll down to yesterday's post to see the first half.

What do we learn from this famous verse (John 3:16)?

First, we learn that God loves the world. This would have been a striking statement for St. John’s Jewish readers. They thought that God only loved the people of Israel. After all, were not the people of Israel God’s chosen people? Of course they were, and God loved (and loves) them dearly. But his love is not limited to the Jews. Contrary to what most of the people of Israel thought, God loved even the Gentiles. He loves the entire world. And he proved it through the Cross.

For what was the Cross if not a sign of God’s love for the world? An old saying goes like this: The world asked Jesus, “How much do you love us?” He stretched out his arms on the Cross, said “this much,” and died. Yes, my brothers and sisters, even though it may not always seem like it, God loves you more than you can understand. And he even loves the people that you can’t stand. He loves the unlovable. And he proved it by sending his Son to die on the Cross, making a way for us to have victory over sin and death.

The second thing we learn from John 3:16 is that Jesus was a gift to the world. For you see, the Father did not have to send Jesus to earth. He could have let him stay in heaven and avoid the hardships of being human. Jesus could have avoided the suffering he faced: the mocking, the beating, the indignity of being nailed to the Cross. As Jesus himself said, he could have prayed for ten legions of angels to come and deliver him from the Cross. And we certainly didn’t deserve to have Jesus come, let alone die for us. But he gave his life for us anyway—voluntarily—because of his love for us. And God the Father gave him to us out of his love for us.

Third, we learn that we must respond to this gift by believing. Only in this way will we not perish but receive eternal life. But what does it mean to believe? In the New Testament the Greek word pisteuo (“believe”) means more than just intellectual assent to a particular truth. It is more than just accepting the facts about Jesus, such as his virgin birth, his divinity, his death on the Cross, his resurrection, and so on. These things are an important part of belief, but there is more. Accepting these facts about Jesus is necessary for salvation, but it is not sufficient.

“To believe” in the New Testament always includes an element of trust. We trust that Christ is who he said he is, and that only he can deliver us from our sins and grant us eternal life. But, wait, there’s more! Belief is not just the inner mental act of placing one’s trust in Christ. It goes beyond even that. True saving belief in Christ involves a commitment to join Christ’s other followers as his disciple and to make a continual effort to live like one.

In his excellent commentary on the Gospel of St. John, Fr. Lawrence Farley points out a common and widespread misunderstanding regarding what it means to believe in Christ. As he writes, for many American Christians, “‘to believe’ indeed means the psychological and volitional act of placing one’s trust in something. ‘To believe’ describes the moment of saving faith, and this mental act and commitment is to be radically distinguished from anything bodily that might accompany it (such as, for instance, baptism). Believing, according to this teaching, refers to the cerebral and inner processes alone; it describes the moment of inner assent.”

But again, this is not what St. John means when he uses the word “believe.” As Fr. Farley points out, “For John, to believe in Jesus refers not just to a moment of assent, or even the fact of assent. It refers to the quality of one’s life as a disciple. It means to live as one of Christ’s followers and as a part of His Church. This corporate (one may also say ecclesial) dimension of believing is never far from John’s mind” (58).

So believing is not just a one-time experience. It also involves, again in Fr. Farley’s words, “remaning…abiding…possessing ‘staying power.’ It is only as those who belive Him also ‘continue in His word’ that they will be ‘truly His disciples’ and will find true freedom” (59).

Finally, I would like to comment briefly on the final verse of today’s Gospel passage: John 3:17. John 3:16 is so well-known that the verse after it often gets overlooked. But it shouldn’t, because it is a beautiful verse in its ownr right: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” This also speaks about the greatness of God’s love. For you see, God had every right to condemn the world. Despite all he has done for the world, the overwhelming majority of the world has rebelled against him. As St. Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And yet, in the Cross, God’s mercy has triumphed over his judgment.

So we see that
the purpose of Christ’s coming was to save the world, not to judge or condemn it. But this does not mean that there will never be any judgment at all. Christ came into the world, gave his life on the Cross, and rose from the dead to make it possible for the whole world to be saved. But the problem is, the whole world will not believe in him. Some will reject him. And those who reject God’s loving offer of salvation through faith in Christ will indeed one day face both judgment and condemnation. This condemnation will not be something that God arbitrarily assigns to people, regardless of their belief and actions. Rather, it will be nothing more than God respecting their wishes. As C. S. Lewis once said, when we say to God, “I don’t want you in my life,” and we keep repeating it over and over, God finally says, “Very well, then, I’ll go away…forever.”

In other words, to reject Christ--to fail to believe in him, to follow him, to live our lives for him—is to invite judgment upon ourselves. But we don’t have to do this. We can choose to look to Christ and his Cross for healing. We can choose to believe in him, and as long as we have a true faith, a faith that involves action, we can receive the incredible gift of eternal life. We can avoid condemnation on the Day of Judgment.

So, my brothers and sisters, let us, as our Lord Jesus said, take up our crosses daily and follow him. Let us place our trust in Christ for salvation and live out our faith day by day. For if we persevere in our faith until the end of our lives, he has promised us eternal life. This is the Gospel in a nutshell. This is the central truth of the Christian faith! “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”