Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween - An Orthodox Approach


So today is Halloween. Ever since I became a Christian, I have been neither an enthusiastic celebrator of this "holiday" nor an opponent of it. For me, Halloween has always been irrelevant. It just doesn't exist...or at least it wouldn't if I didn't have kids. Jennifer and I have always allowed our kids to participate in Halloween alternatives, such as fall carnivals and costume contests (with very inexpensive, non-scary costumes). We also have taken them trick-or-treating, at least when we have lived in the U. S. Yes, I know that there is a lot of baggage associated with Halloween, trick-or-treating, etc. Yes, I know the origin of the "holiday." None of this has really ever mattered to me in my adult life.

Since becoming an Orthodox Christian, I have been even more apathetic about Halloween, not the least of which because it's not even an Orthodox feast day. The Eve of All Saints' Day, or "All Hallow's Eve" (from which the names Halloween comes) is a strictly Western feast.

I recently read on another blog an interesting approach to Halloween that one Orthodox Christian is taking. Here it is (thanks to David Schneider for telling me about it). The author is Steve Lammert from Greensburg, Pennsylvania.


Every year, on Hallowe’en, I sit on the front porch of my house with a bowl of candy, a box of beeswax candles, and a large icon for the Feast of All Saints.

Every child who comes to the house gets a piece of candy, and may also light a candle and place it before the icon. Very few kids (even the jaded teenagers) turn down the opportunity.

For those who ask, I tell them that the meaning of the word “Hallowe’en” is “the eve of the Feast of All Saints”.

If they press me on the point, I tell them that they can think of the true meaning of Hallowe’en as being that, because of Christ, they can dress up like ghosts and goblins and whatnot, because we do not need to fear those things any longer.

I wish I had a few photos of the kids in Satan masks, lighting a candle and placing it before the icon

Friday, October 30, 2009

Temptations and Their Source (James 1:12-19), Part Two

With God "there is no variation or shifting shadow," unlike with the moon


12Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. 13Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

16Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. 18In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. 19This you know, my beloved brethren.


Last time we looked at the question, "Where does temptation come from?"

St. James answers this important question in verse 14: it comes from within us. “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and tempted by his own lust (Gk. epithumia, better translated as “desire;” “lust” is too specific). As is taught throughout Scripture, we are fallen creatures, and we have an innate tendency toward sin. As FF explains, “This inner darkness manifests itself in willfulness, in rebellious determination to have our own way, and in uncontrollable appetites. Outer experiences [i. e., testing] cause us to rage against God, but it is this inner darkness, not the outward suffering, that is the danger to us and is to blame. Testing and suffering are only spiritually dangerous because we are fallen” (22-23).

Does this mean that trials in our life necessarily lead to us giving in to the temptation to sin? Not at all! God has given us all his Holy Spirit, and with this gift comes the ability to resist temptation. Desire, by itself, is not sin. The Scriptures and the Fathers teach that only when we, by an act of the will, give in to desire’s enticement, sin results. Although it is not easy, we have the ability to say no to sin. And this is something that we must do, for if we do not, the desire within us brings forth sin, and if we sin long enough, sin leads to death (v. 15), which can mean not only physical death, but spiritual death – eternal suffering in Hell.

So again, as FF states, “God does not allow testing and persecution so that we may fail, but so that we may succeed and become seasoned, proven, holy” (23). To think otherwise is to be deceived (v. 16). All that God gives us is for our ultimate good, for all good and perfect gifts are from above (v. 17). “Every blessing in life we receive—health, love, friendship, pleasure, peace—all come ultimately from the decrees of God in heaven” (Farley, 23).

(As a side note, here’s a question for you: Where in the Divine Liturgy is the first half of verse 17 quoted? No fair peeking!)

Note also that this aspect (his goodness) will not change, for God’s essence, his nature, does not change, as St. James assures us by saying “in whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (a reference to the variableness of the sun, the moon, and the weather and seasons in general). This teaching of St. James agrees with that of the author of Hebrews, who writes “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Perhaps the greatest gift God has given us is the fact that he “brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures” (v. 18). The Greek word translated “brought forth” is usually used to describe a mother giving birth; it is also the word used for desire giving birth to sin in verse 15. Here, the reference is to our new birth in the waters of baptism.

Through our faith in Christ (the “word of truth”) and our cleansing from sin through Holy Baptism, God has saved us and made us “a kind of first fruits among His creatures.” What St. James is saying here is that one day all of the Creation will be renewed and transformed, but now, we Christians are the first to experience this transformation. We are (or at least can be!) a sort of preview of what is to come. In FF’s words, “…for now, He has transfigured us, as the firstfruits and pledge of what He will do for all His creatures, His entire creation, St. James reminds his readers that their exalted status as God’s firstfruits is no novel teaching. He is simply exhorting them to live consistently with what they already know” (23).


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Temptations and Their Source (James 1:12-19), Part One


12Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. 13Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.

16Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. 18In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures. 19This you know, my beloved brethren.


In verse 12, St. James returns to the theme of trials. He pronounces a blessing upon those who have persevered under testing, and promises that they will receive a reward – the “crown of life.” “Here,” as FF says, “is the final incentive to persevere and rejoice under trial” (22).

This “crown of life” is almost certainly not a literal crown; rather, the crown (Gk. stephanos) should be understood as symbolizing the reward for persevering in the Christian faith and life (for “finishing the race,” to use St. Paul’s term). And the “life” is no less than eternal life with our Lord and His saints in heaven. So, the crown of life could also be translated as “the reward which is eternal life.” In the words of New Testament scholar Douglas Moo: “As the athlete ‘endures’ bodily stress in order to achieve a high level of physical endurance, so the Christian is to endure the trials of life in order to attain the spiritual endurance that will bring perfection” (70). (Of course, we would prefer the term theosis instead of just ‘perfection.’ Perfection is only part of the goal.)

Now, is it wrong for us to hope for a reward for our spiritual endeavors? Shouldn’t we just love God for God’s own sake? Some would say yes. But as Moo writes, “The New Testament consistently invites the Christian to contemplate the inheritance that awaits him. The contemplation of this glorious inheritance can be a marvelous source of spiritual strength and sustenance…By fixing his gaze on this inheritance, the believer is able to find sustenance and strength in the trial, recognizing that the suffering of this present time is not long” (71).

In verse 13, St. James shifts the topic of discussion from trials—difficult situations that usually come from without and do not necessarily lead one into sin—to temptations, which usually come from within and do lead one to sin—or at least can. Again, the Greek word peirasmos can mean both a “trial” and a “temptation”, so it is certainly possible to continue to translate it as “trials” or “tests” as does Fr. Farley. But the context here seems to require a shift from the idea of “trials” to that of “temptations.”

Certainly, trials can often have a harmful effect If not met with the right attitude. One wrong attitude that people often adopt is to blame God for the enticement to sin that trials can present. The Old Testament clearly teaches that God sometimes tests his people, meaning that he brings them into situations where their willingness to obey him is tested. But as Moo says, “…while God may test or prove his servants in order to strengthen their faith, he never seeks to induce sin and destroy their faith. Thus, the fact that the same Greek root (peira-) is used for both the outer trial and the inner temptation, it is crucial to distinguish them” (71-72). The Old Testament book of Sirach teaches us, “Do not say, ‘Because of the Lord I have left the right way’; for he will not do what he hates. Do not say ‘It was he who led me astray’; for he has no need of a sinful man” (Sirach 15:11-12).

Just as God himself is holy and cannot be tempted by evil, so he tempts no one to sin. So temptation to sin does not come from God. Where, then, does it come from? St. James answers this important question in verse 14: it comes from within us. “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and tempted by his own lust (Gk. epithumia, better translated as “desire;” “lust” is too specific). As is taught throughout Scripture, we are fallen creatures, and we have an innate tendency toward sin. As FF explains, “This inner darkness manifests itself in willfulness, in rebellious determination to have our own way, and in uncontrollable appetites. Outer experiences [i. e., testing] cause us to rage against God, but it is this inner darkness, not the outward suffering, that is the danger to us and is to blame. Testing and suffering are only spiritually dangerous because we are fallen” (22-23).


We'll finish this discussion tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Silence That Phone or Hit the Deck!


I saw this on another blog a few days ago and thought it was really funny. Since then, several other Orthodox bloggers have posted it, so you've probably already seen it. Just in case you haven't, I thought I would post it.

This is a photo of an actual sign that was posted on the door of a church in Russia. It translates as "Not turned off cell phones in Church - 100 prostrations!" We needed this sign the other night at Vespers....

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Boasting of the High and the Low (James 1:9-11)


Icon of the Rich Man and Lazarus, a biblical example of a major challenge of having wealth



In verse nine, St. James seems to completely change the subject, beginning to speak about “the lowly brother” (presumably referring to the poor) and “the rich one.” He presents an interesting paradox: the lowly one should “boast in his exaltation,” while the rich one should “boast in his lowliness.” This is because even though most rich people think that they are high and mighty, they will be humbled one day by death. As the old saying goes, death is “the great equalizer.” As St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “We brought nothing into this word, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out” (1 Tim. 6:7).

FF sees a connecting theme between this passage and the previous one: persecution. In other words, the reason the lowly should boast in his exaltation and the rich should boast in his lowliness is because “persecution reveals for the Christian the true state of things, stripping away the lies and illusions of the world” (21). For the lowly, “The persecutors may despoil him of his goods, but he has little to lose, and no persecution can take away his true riches, which await him in heaven (Matt. 6:19-21)” (21).

For the rich, “persecution reveals how transient and ephemeral earthly riches really are. When he is despoiled, it is a vivid reminder that he should not trust in his riches, but in God, for all will eventually die and leave their wealth behind” (21). St. James leaves this topic with a vivid analogy; just as the grass withers and the flower fades, so does the wealth of the rich.

Friday, October 23, 2009

St. James Adelphotheos (The Brother of God)

Saint James Adelphotheos (The Brother of God), first bishop of Jerusalem and author of the Epistle of Saint James. He is commemorated by the Orthodox Church today.


In honor of the anniversary of the martyrdom of my patron saint, Saint James the Just, I thought I would re-post a tribute to him (albeit slightly modified and expanded) that I wrote in March of 2007 (the original post was called "Knees Like Camels.") and reposted a year ago. The post also explains the rationale behind the name of this blog. I hope that St. James' story will be a blessing to you. If you have already read this, please forgive the repetition.

First, here is the saint's story, excerpted from the OCA website:

From his early years James was a Nazarene, a man especially dedicated to God. The Nazarenes vowed to preserve their virginity, to abstain from wine, to refrain from eating meat, and not to cut their hair. The vow of the Nazarenes symbolized a life of holiness and purity, commanded formerly by the Lord for all Israel. When the Savior began to teach the nation about the Kingdom of God, St James believed in Christ and became His apostle. He was chosen as the first Bishop of Jerusalem. St James presided over the Council of Jerusalem and his word was decisive (Acts 15).

In his thirty years as bishop, St James converted many of the Jews to Christianity. Annoyed by this, the Pharisees and the Scribes plotted together to kill St James. They led the saint up on the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple and asked what he thought of Jesus. The holy Apostle began to bear witness that Christ is the Messiah, which was not the response the Pharisees were expecting. Greatly angered, the Jewish teachers threw him off the roof. The saint did not die immediately, but gathering his final strength, he prayed to the Lord for his enemies while they were stoning him. St James' martyrdom occurred about 63 A.D.

The holy Apostle James composed a Divine Liturgy, which formed the basis of the Liturgies of Sts Basil the Great and John Chrysostom. The Church has preserved an Epistle of St James, one of the books of the New Testament.

Now a little about my personal connection to St. James. When I was in the process of converting to Orthodoxy, I asked my priest if I could take St. James as my patron saint, and he agreed that this was a good idea. I did not choose St. James merely because my first name is James, but also because I feel that it was partly because of St. James that I came to Orthodoxy.

When my family and I were at our last mission station, in Banja Luka, Bosnia, one of the things that I did was lead a Bible study on the Acts of the Apostles. One day, the day on which we were to study the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, only one of my students, a very devout young man whom I shall call David, showed up. Of all of my Serb friends in Banja Luka, David was the one that I felt the closest to.

In Acts 15, we see the Apostles and the other leaders of the Church gathered to discuss a criticial issue which had arisen as a result of St. Paul's first missionary journey. The problem before them was, in essence: Did Gentiles converting to Christianity have to first become Jews, or could they be received directly into Christianity, without first being circumcised or submitting to the full Old Testament Law? As David and I were studying the text, we noticed that after the council discussed the issue at hand, St. James said, "Simon [i.e. St. Peter] has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree." Then, after quoting a passage from the Prophet Amos, he concludes, "Therefore, I judge that they should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:14-15,19-20).

James' words "I judge" are key here. At the Council, there was much discussion, during which at the very least Peter, Paul, and Barnabas spoke. But then all were silent, waiting for James to make a ruling. There was no vote, and after James ruled, there was no further discussion. Rather, the Scripture tells us that "it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church" (15:22) to send people out to the various churches with St. James and the council's ruling.

David's and my study of this passage occurred before I even read my first book about Orthodoxy. The "ball" of my movement toward Orthodoxy was not yet rolling (or was it?). But I remember looking at David and saying, "That sounds like something a bishop would say and do." David looked at me and said, "Yes, it sure does." David and I, happy Baptists that we were, learned on that day that the first century Church really did have bishops that made rulings, just as the Orthodox Church has always taught. This experience planted a seed in both David's and my mind, and, not surprisingly, today both of us are Orthodox. I think that maybe, just maybe, St. James was praying for David and me on that day, that we would soon come into the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I could be wrong, but it seems too coincidental otherwise.

Because of all this, I consider myself to be, in a sense, St. James' kid. And my prayer is that all of us will become St. James' kids. Of course, I do not mean that all of us must have St. James as our patron saint; rather, I mean that all of us should live with the same devotion to Christ that St. James had. My prayer is that we would all be:

People who are "swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" (James 1:19).

People who are "doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (1:22).

People who "show...faith by [our] works," for "a man is justified by works and not by faith only" (2:18,24).

People who daily show "the wisdom from above" that is "pure, then peaceable, gentle, wiling to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy" (3:17).

People who "confess trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that [we] may be healed," for "the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (5:16).

People who pray so much that we too have knees like camels'.

May our gracious Lord, through the prayers of St. James and of all the saints, grant that we may follow the example of St. James and become increasingly holy and pure, that we may bring glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Enduring Trials - James 1:1-8 (Part Two)

"...he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind" (James 1:6)



2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.


In verse 3, St. James says that “the testing [or in Fr. Farley’s translation, "proving"] of your faith produces patience [or ‘perseverance’].” I once heard a famous, very sensible radio preacher say “Trials don’t produce character; they reveal it!” I actually think that they do both. Trials can produce patience, perseverance, and endurance in us…if we let them—if we remember them and learn from them. We have to let them have their effect on us, as St. James says in verse 4: “Let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”

The Greek word for “perfect” (teleios) does not primarily mean here “sinless,” but rather mature, blameless, and completely dedicated. The Hebrew equivalent to this word is used to describe Noah in Genesis 6:9. And the word for “complete” (translated by Fr. Farley as “intact”), means “whole, entire, not fractured by divided loyalties…enduring persecution with joy results finally in having a united heart, one zealously set on serving God, so that one is lacking nothing that one needs” (19).

[Note: from here on, I will refer to Fr. Farley as "FF" for short]

But many of us—I would argue ALL of us at least at some times—lack wisdom in how to cope with the trials we are enduring. What is wisdom? It is more than just head knowledge. It is , in the words of the OSB notes, “the practical and spiritual knowledge required for godly living.” When we are at the end of our rope, when we have no idea what to do, St. James urges us to “ask from God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach.” When we do this, God will give us the wisdom we need to endure. Note that God does not give us this wisdom stingily or grudgingly, but generously (the Greek word aplos literally means “openly,” as in "with an open hand"). He will not think badly of us for asking.

The only caveat placed upon our asking for wisdom is that, as St. James tells us in verse six, it must be asked “in faith, with no doubting” (“wavering” in FF’s translation). This lack of doubting includes, according to the OSB notes, “an unquestioning loyalty to God and…the confidence that comes from a life that is stable in all its ways” (541). But according to FF, “The word waver here indicates not so much the element of psychological hesitancy as it does the element of moral hesitancy. The waverer here is not one who needs mental certainty that his prayer will be answered. He needs moral decisiveness in his approach to God; he needs to repent of being double-souled (Gr. dipsychos), of trying to live both as a worldling and as God’s servant at the same time” (20).

What St. James is saying here is that we must have integrity. Integrity, in its most basic meaning, means “unity” or “lack of internal division” (as in the phrase “structural integrity” that is often used of aircraft). We often hear of people who are described as being “a study in contradictions;” it is said of such a person, “He claimed to be a Christian, but did such and such…” Let us not be such people! Let us be people that are NOT “studies in contradictions” or paradoxes. Let us be people who are internally unified, who are firmly in God’s camp, not trying to have one foot in the Church and one in the world.

For if we do not, we cannot expect to receive wisdom from God. As FF states, “The one who is divided in his choice to serve God and not the world can never receive such wisdom from God. Persecution will find him out for what he is, and he will be at a loss” (20).


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Enduring Trials - James 1:1-8 (Part One)

Artistic depiction of Job, a model for us of how to endure trials


1 James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings. 2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials,
...

A Slave of God (1:1)

St. James begins his epistle with a standard greeting in which he names himself and his recipients. We’ve already discussed this verse in our last study, but let’s briefly review a few points.

First of all, St. James shows his great humility by not identifying himself as the bishop of Jerusalem or as the Lord’s brother, but simply as a servant (the Greek word, doulos, literally means “slave” of the Lord Jesus. The greatest thing that anyone can say about us has nothing to do with our position, our accomplishments, our education, or our family background, but simply that we are a slave of the Lord.

Second, he addresses his letter “to the twelve tribes in the Diaspora,” a reference to the Church, particularly to Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who had been scattered as a result of the various persecutions against the very early Church. Remember that at the time James was writing, the Church was still overwhelmingly Jewish.

Third, He simply bids them, “Greetings.” Interestingly, the epistle written by James after the Jerusalem Council and preserved in the book of Acts (15:23-29) has the same brief opening (“Greetings.”). This, along with the other stylistic similarities between James’ epistle in Acts and this epistle, provide strong linguistic evidence that the author of this epistle is the same person who was the head of the Church in Jerusalem and presided over the council there.

The first interesting thing we see in verse two is that St. James addresses his hearers simply as “brothers,” a form of address that he uses fifteen times throughout the letter. This also speaks of his humility. As Fr. Lawrence Farley writes, “This shows that he addresses his hearers, not as an exalted judge, but as a fellow believer…, appealing to them to submit to the same teaching to which he himself submits, even though he is the leader of the community. The entire epistle breathes this free air of Christian egalitarianism” (Fr. Lawrence Farley, Universal Truth: The Catholic Epistles of James, Peter, Jude, and John [Ben Lomond, CA, Conciliar Press, 2008, 19).


Count it All Joy (1:2)

St. James then addresses the main theme of the first part of his epistle: trials (or “testing”) and temptations. The Greek word for these two very different things (peirasmos) is the same, and the sense of the word must be determined by the context. Most scholars believe that peirasmos is used in the sense of “trials” or “testing” in verses 2-3 and 12, but in the sense of “temptation” in verses 13-14 (more on this later). Curiously, Fr. Farley believes that St. James uses the word to refer only to “testing” or “trials” and not to temptation. More on this later…

Fr. Farley describes the trials St. James is referring to in verse 2 like this: the word perisasmos is “used for a trial of suffering so severe that it could cause one to fall away from one’s faith. It was from this experience of testing that Christ urged his disciples in Gethsemene to pray that God would deliver them and bring them safely through (Mark 14:38). James uses the word here to describe the various and many ways in which the Christian Jews are persecuted by their non-Christian neighbors. They may be tempted to despair and conclude that God has abandoned them” (19).

The Orthodox Study Bible’s notes on St. James’ Epistle add this about trials: “Trials, the world’s oppression, take place by God’s permission. The issue is not trials per se, but our reaction to them. Properly received, they reveal where our hearts are. They help to increase faith, which cannot remain static, but must grow or die” (The Orthodox Study Bible, New Testament and Psalms [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993], 540).

What is most amazing in verse 2 is how St. James tells his readers (and us too!) how to react to trials. He says to “count it all joy.” This is not the reaction that we usually have to trials. Most of the time, we gripe and complain, we grow angry, we question God, we try to figure out why this is happening, and so on. But St. James says that we should instead be joyful. Now this does not mean that we should adopt a Pollyana attitude or that we should masochistically say something like, “Yes! I’m so glad I just lost my job (or got sick, or am being mistreated, etc)!”

Nor should we get angry at God, for as the OSB notes say, “Though difficult circumstances are from the evil one, to be angry at circumstances is to be angry at God, who permits them” (540 – however, keep in mind that if we DO become angry, this is not an unforgivable sin). Instead of becoming angry or depressed, or adopting any other negative attitudes, we should be joyful and thank God for what he is going to accomplish in us through our difficult time. And what is that? St. James goes on to explain in verse 3.

We'll look at that next time...