Archive for December, 2006

The End of What

December 31, 2006


I do not know the source, though I think it was an American, who said, “It may not be the end times, but it rhymes with it.” I have probably misremembered the quote and changed it completely in my mind. But the statement holds true for all of the times after the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. We live in the end times, and though the times I live in may not be the last of the last days, they do, nevertheless, “rhyme” with them.

The Beast is always lurking about, placing his mark where he will, demanding a false loyalty and a false worship.

The woman and her child are always persecuted, driven into the wilderness. The marytrs are always beneath the throne of God crying out and praying. And even though the cities to which the seven letters were written have largely fallen into ruin, the Church remains and the promises still are true. Each promise is to “him who overcomes.”

We are at December 31, the end of something. Mostly it means forgetting to write the correct year for about a week or two when filling out a check. But there are larger issues, the issues that rhyme with those of the end.

We sometimes strategize our lives, thinking to do this now, and do that later. Occasionally everything works out. But inevitably if what we have put off to later is “doing the right thing,” time will become an enemy and the “right thing” will always stay a day away.

Things seem so clear when we see them in someone else’s life or in a book, or a movie. We can see that they should choose now, or jump here, or whatever. Our own lives are never quite so clear.

I have known many clever men in my life. Many of them had responsibility for large things. It was often the case that these clever men in charge of large things sought to finesse the outcome of events, to massage the truth, to avoid scandal. Thus far in my 52 years of life I have almost never seen this work. It is far better to simply do the right thing the first time and suffer the consequences, whatever they may be. The consequences of the right thing, done for the right reasons are usually far more easily borne than the complications and inevitable consequences of our clever machinations.

Christ said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” This was good advice to the disciples and remains good advice to us, though it be simple and frightfully straightforward. In my life and yours, as each day unfolds, do the right thing. Before God it will be well, and more than this we cannot ask.

What We Cannot Change

December 29, 2006

There is no doubt that God is changing the world – though most of this work is hidden. A strange part of this hiddenness is the work that God does within us. The work is not entirely hidden – I can look back and see change that has occurred in my life – it’s just that it helps sometimes to live long enough to see it.

Human beings seem to change at a pace that is entirely human – which should come as no surprise. Thus we find ourselves going to confession repeatedly with the same sins. But apart from abrupt personality changes, this is simply the likeliest and most human of events. The struggle against some sin is the struggle of a lifetime.

Some things happen quickly – in a “single moment” as we sing about the thief on the cross. But these are rare or involve decisions that have as their very character an either-or nature. “Either I am going to say yes or no.”

Patience is perhaps the most common word in the New Testament. Indeed, in its full meaning it is not just patience but “patient endurance.” Being patient is one thing, but bearing with the things with which we must bear while we are waiting is the stuff that endurance is made of. And, of course, if the change we are waiting on is in someone else (a lousy spiritual practice), the wait can be a very long time.

God is indeed transfiguring the world, and each of us in it as we give ourselves to Him. But this is always a day to day effort and generally a slow work. But occasionally – just occasionally – grace does what we would never do and we find ourselves already become what we could not be.

This is the grace of prayer, for instance. The marvelous gift of prayer when we did not think we could pray, or an act of kindness when our heart was deeply hardened. I give thanks to God for these small, sudden changes, gifts of grace that tell us not to lose heart in the long struggle. God wins. What I cannot change, He can, and will. Thanks be to God for His grace.

Transfiguration of the World Where You Are

December 29, 2006


I am traveling in the latter part of this week, going home to see parents and in-laws (which for me means going to South Carolina). As I posted in answer to an earlier question, we cannot “change the world,” even if this is an eschatological goal of the Kingdom. Political movements speak of transforming the world – it is not speech that originates in the Church.

In the name of lofty projects, governments have historically done much evil (and Churches as well when they were behaving like governments). The loftiest project we should have as the Church is the service of God and of our fellow human beings. And that service should, under most circumstances, be as close to home as possible. The Roman Catholic Church refers to this as the principle of subsidiarity. I see it as simply trying to avoid the theological or spiritual sin of abstraction. Speaking about people halfway around the world is frequently to speak in abstractions. Not that we cannot serve them or should not serve them, but not in the abstract.

Being with family gets very non-abstract. Indeed, it is so non-abstract that it is rare that we get things right. Sharing with a cousin about the Orthodox faith can be just about as hard as it gets. 🙂

 But it also says much about the transfiguration of the world. Think of how small an area in which Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry. Other than the Flight into Egypt to avoid destruction as a child, his entire ministry was spent in Galillee and Judea (and parts of Samaria). It’s a very small corner of the world. But He truly transfigured people and things around Him.

“Of course,” someone might say, “that was Jesus.” But if the Master did one thing should His disciples do another? Even when we send missionaries, we send people and they live and pour out their lives in real places. Some of that came home to many of us this year with the voluntary death of Lynnette Hoppe in Albania. It was voluntary in that she (as an American missionary with cancer) could have chosen to remain in America with all of our technological “comfort measures.” She chose and was permitted to die as a missionary in Albania. There she taught a reborn Church what it looks like to die as a Christian. It was a transfiguration of a small part of Albania (as well as of many friends back home).

I served two years as a Hospice Chaplain, while I was being retrained for Orthodox ordination. I was part of the medical teams in some 250 deaths. There is very little around you that can be transformed when you come to that point in your life. The world gets smaller and smaller, often confined to a bed, and then only to certain hours or minutes in a day. Everything becomes precious. Each word spoken can take on huge meanings as the last word. Each gift given and received, a last gift.

I recall a patient who said he would gladly give his few remaining weeks for just 15 minutes walk in a wood. It never came to him, but I described my walks, observing the world around me in a way I normally never would. It was a transfiguring experience.

I taught the nurses I worked with to think of every dying patient as some at heaven’s gate, and to understand that they stood on Holy Ground. We would do well to think of all ground as Holy and to be present to it in such a way. We don’t and our lives fall short of meaning again and again.

I am passing through very familiar territory at the end of this week. Roads I’ve seen for years, landscapes of memory. Much wasted time and space.

I wrote several posts ago about the “smallness” of God in the Nativity. There also needs to be a smallness of me – a smallness of my life and attention – a refusal to be where I am not and a struggle to be where I am. It is where I am that transfiguration can take place.

Of course, in our electronic world, where I am is hard to define. Although I am learning to pray for people whom I only know by strange names (like Bigjolly, etc.). But God knows their real names and their needs and the details that make us what we are.

Coming home can be going to a particular place, but most especially it is coming to the particular place that is me (and more particularly me in Christ) and then reaching out to what can be touched and known and loved.

Thank God for the many persons who have reached out to me in the past few weeks and made my life more full and more truly what it was created to be. May it be a transfiguration that comes from God.

The Transfiguration of the World and the Life of the Church

December 28, 2006


For many centuries, the life of the Church (I am not here speaking particularly of the Orthodox Church though it applies even there) has been relegated to itself as institution and dispenser of the sacraments.

Many of the the things we think of as intergral parts of the institution have only existed for a short while and do not constitute anything of eternal value to the Body of Christ.

Parish Councils, to use a simple example, are recent innovations (in Orthodox life). Though our way of handling Church monies in America can be well served buy such organs.

Much of what parishes think of as “program” is wholly foreign to the history of Christianity. The modern Church can become a dispenser of programs, the priest, a sort of “club director.” With this, of course, have come increasing demands on priests and their time and attention, often to the detriment of prayer and study of the Word.

Many of the things that occupy Church headquarters are also recent additions. In many denominations, including non-hierarchical, people find the “tail wagging the dog,” where national concerns are overriding local concerns and (especially through the enforcement of property law) are becoming requirements of the local congregation.

The transformation that begins to take place is not the transfiguration of the World in the Life of the Church, but the transformation of the Life of the Church into an obedient dispenser of religious product.

Years ago, as an Anglican, I received annual mailings from Dunn and Bradstreet, that asked me questions about the “business” I ran. It wanted to know about membership, money, etc. What I found most amusing was its reference to me, as the priest of the local congregation in a hierarchical situation, as the “branch manager.” Sometimes things can be all too true even when they are unintended.

The Church exists primarily to give thanks to God and to make intercession for the world. Part of that mission (giving thanks and interceding) occur when we remember the poor and give to them (not that we hope to change the world – I have posted this before -but Christians should never expect to change the world – it’s delusional). We give to the poor in love because Christ commanded it and because in giving to them we give to Him (Matthew 25:40). Those who will not remember the poor in the name of Christ will never know God (unless they are so poor they cannot give).

St. Augustine once observed that the definition of poor is “not having enough.” And that the definition of rich means having “more than enough.” Thus, he said, if you wish to be rich, then give some of your wealth away, and by definition you are rich. This is a transfiguration of the world (one man at a time).

If the Christian Church disappeared tomorrow, how many of its activities would be subsumed by some para-political entity? Certainly a large number of them.

But there are things that connot be replaced. The ministry – the true ministry of priest – cannot disappear. When a priest ceases to chiefly be the presider at worship and “Christ among us,” leading us by example in prayer and praise of God – then there is nothing that replaces him. A “worship leader” in many congregations (protestant) is not acting as priest.

My oldest daughter spent a year in Siberia. There she faithfully attended the Orthodox Church. She had a friend who was Orthodox who invited her to go to Church one Sunday. The Church, however, was not Orthodox, but a recent American plant, using the “mega church” model. Being in Russia, and being culturally sensitive, this new Church met in a movie theater, but had large icons around the room. Russians expect them.

My daughter said to her friend, “But you are Orthodox? Why do you want to go to a protestant Church?”

“What’s the difference,” her friend replied. They both have icons, only the American Church has rock and roll!” This, again, is not the transfiguration of the world, but the morphing of the Church into a rock concert.

Each member of the Church is bound to gather for Sunday liturgy (at least), and to allow themselves to gradually be transfigured as they worship, give alms, receive the sacraments and forgive all those around them.

Just how much Dunn and Bradstreet stuff do you need to do that? This question we must ask of ourselves if we are ever to live properly in the culture that surrounds us.

The Transfiguration of the Material World – Part 2

December 27, 2006


The transfiguration of the material world is not just a corollary of the doctrine of the Incarnation, but of the complete doctrine of salvation itself. Christ did not come and die, and rise again, only to make us better people. He came to make dead men live. He came to make a creation that is in the grip of death and decay become partakers of the incorruptible Life of heaven.

Orthodoxy is full of practical stories in which this transfiguration is seen to take place. The bodies of many of the saints show no signs of corruption (decay) centuries after death, despite the normal conditions for corruption. There is great devotion in the Church to the relics of these saints. Their incorrupt bodies, though not the resurrection itself, point towards something greater than the laws of nature where death is not having its complete way.

There are many stories as well of nature itself behaving in strange ways. Flowers blooming at the wrong time of year simply because they are in the presence of the Holy. Indeed, a nice Christmas story involves the “Glastonbury Thorn,” a rose which grows at the Abbey of Glastonbury in England that was always known to bloom at Christmas despite the contrary conditions. It was long a place of pilgrimage. I have no idea whether it still grows there or not.

For myself, my interest turns towards these many signposts – most of them small and relatively insignificant – that point to an order of nature that is not the order we know – but an order we do not know. It is an order that makes sense only if Christ is Lord and the Kingdom of God is even now breaking in on our world.

It’s as if the news of Narnia, that Winter is breaking and signs of Christmas have begun to be seen were being announced.

Every miracle, for me, stands in this category. Each one does not have to prove itself over and against all the contrary order. They happen when they should never happen. That they ever happen means that something is losing its grip and that something else is taking its place.

I have been part of miracles from time to time, and have benefitted from them, both for myself and for my family more than once. A Russian monk friend once said, “You Americans! You talk about miracles like you don’t believe in God!”

And he is probably right. We barely believe. But the inbreaking of the Kingdom continues to occur and all the powers of this age cannot hold it back.

The Kingdom of God is among us.

By the way, on the Orthodox calendar, it is my nameday, the feast of St. Stephen the Protomartyr. May he pray for us all and for the ministry of this blog!

Transfiguring the Material World – Christmas Through the Ages

December 25, 2006


I’ll have to ask for forgiveness at the outset on this post – mostly because of its speculative nature – something I generally prefer not to engage in – at least not for others to read.

The Incarnation of Christ is significant in the course of our salvation – but we all too easily look at the story from a mere moral or soteriological point of view and fail to stop and think what has actually happened. St. John says it quite clearly in the prologue of his gospel (vs. 14), “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

There are several places on which to place the emphasis in that short sentence, but the fact that God has actually become flesh, has united Himself with our material world, is not the least significant of those.

St. Paul will spend ample time in the 8th chapter of Romans speaking about the ultimate end of matter, what St. Maximus the Confessor would later call the “marriage of heaven and earth.”

We experience this on a regular basis when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. Bread and Wine are not mere bread and wine. Something else has taken place and we receive the Body and Blood of God.

In all of the sacraments or mysteries of the Church, something quite ordinary (as we think) and material is changed and becomes united with Heaven and we receive Heavenly things (or better yet, are united with God). Thus the Baptismal waters become the “waters of Jordan” and are themselves embued with the Holy Spirit. We come out of the waters no longer the same.

My speculation (the above is not speculation, but dogma), is to think about the union of Heaven and Earth, but to think about it in the course of our daily lives – to think about it as a matter of course.

One of the gifts I received for Christmas was a CD of a Russian choral group singing music somewhat of the Church, somewhat of more folk origin (though it is largely modern in its composition). The group is called, “Svetilen,” and is a delight to listen to (I think I first heard them on Ancient Faith Radio.) Part of what they do is an attempt to recover the experience of an older great culture (Holy Russia), but, I would say, it is also an attempt to convey heaven in music. For if ever there was a Holy Russia, it was only because there was, for some and in some places, a union of Heaven and Earth to some degree.

I think about this today because I wonder what it is we want to do in our music, in our art, and especially when we do these as part of the expression of the gospel in Church.

It certainly cannot be enough to try and capture a bygone era, or evoke feelings of something past. A great icon, a truly great icon, is indeed a window into heaven. This is both a function of the iconographer, the icon, and the viewer of the icon. It requires all three. But what I am describing is, in fact, a normative view for the Christian life.

We should never yield to the temptation to simply relegate sacraments to Churchly rites that take place, “holy things” we go to Church to get and go home the better for it. They are surely that, perhaps, but must be much more. The whole of a service should be much more.

I can recall speaking with some Russian Church singers several years ago after a performance in Knoxville. They had just sung some of the most sublime and difficult music of the Orthodox Church, but had rendered it in a fashion that was beyond description. I was discussing this with a couple of the singers (there were only about 5 or 6 in the group), and was told, “We must be very careful of our relationships with one another. If we are not in love and kindness with each other, the singing will be a disaster.” Thus the music is more than mere notes mixing, it is also the sound of heaven, human beings transformed by God into the sound of heaven as they sing in love and forgiveness.

Art, too, should carry this element and more. Indeed, my speculative question today has to do with the whole of our activity. What does it look like to live in union with heaven? How does it sound? What else should it mean? The Word has become flesh, but flesh must also be united with the Word and be changed from glory to glory into the image of Christ. This is Christmas throughout the ages.

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

December 24, 2006


Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,

Has shown to the world the light of wisdom.

For by it those who worshipped the stars,

Were taught by a star to adore Thee,

The Sun of Righteousness.

And to know Thee the Orient from on high,

O Lord, Glory to Thee!

Troparion for Christmas Day

The Fiery Furnace of Christmas

December 24, 2006


The three youths, wise in God,

who shone with joy in the furnace,

proclaimed the birth of Christ on earth;

For just as the Lord sent down a precious dew,

He preserved from the flame her who gave birth;

He keeps her undefiled and enriches her with divine gifts.

Therefore Daniel, pleasing to God, rejoiced and was glad,

For having foreseen the stone from the unquarried mountain,

he now prays in boldness on behalf of our souls.

From the “Lord I Call”, Sunday before the Nativity

The New Testament is indeed a fulfillment of the Old, and nothing can make this more clear than to stand through several of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Christian year. The average Christian reader of the Old Testament would likely only see in the story of the Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace, a lesson in obedience – it is certainly at least that. But in the writings of the Fathers it is much more. Just as the hymn quoted above notes, their standing in a fiery furnace and yet being alive is seen as a type of Virgin Mary, whose womb will become a “fiery furnace,” when our God, who is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), is incarnate within her. She is not consumed, but preserved. So too, she will be seen as the unquarried mountain (a Virgin), from whom the very Rock of the Corner will be taken. The images go on and on, one Testament enlightening the other if you have “eyes to see.” Thanks be to God for the liturgical riches of our faith that teach us to see “what eye has not seen” and to hear “what ear has not heard.” What a great mystery we prepare to celebrate!

Waking Up

December 23, 2006


The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). This fear descends on us from on High. It is a spiritual feeling, firstly of God and then of us ourselves. We live in a state of awe by virtue of the presence of the Living God together with awareness of our own impurity. This fear places us before the Face of God to be judged by Him. We have fallen so low that our distress over ourselves turns into profound suffering, more painful than the torments of seeing ourselves in the darkness of ignorance, in the paralysis of non-feeling, in slavery to the passions. The dread is our awakening from the age-old sleep in sin. It brings us the light of perception – on the one hand, of our fatal condition and, on the other, of the holiness of God. It is an astonishing phenomenon – without its naturally purificative action the way to perfect love of God will not be opened to us. It is not only ‘the beginning of wisdom’ but of love, too. It will also alarm our soul with a revelation of ourselves, as we are, and bind us to God in longing to be with Him.

From We Shall See Him As He Is by the Elder Sophrony.

I remember the intense joy of waking up on Christmas morning as a child. The anticipation of the surprise to come was overwhelming. My father could be quite creative when my older brother and I were very young. I recall that my brother had once asked for a “stalk of Bananas,” something we had only seen in books. That my father actually found one and had it under the tree was beyond belief that Christmas Day. Every house in the neighborhood had a share in that surplus!

As years have gone by, waking up has taken on many different and more profound meanings – and increasing difficulty. The sleep that a child tosses aside so easily in anticipation of the joy that awaits him is a very light blanket indeed compared to the heaviness of delusion in which we so easily rest in later years.

Orthodox theology rests, finally, in the utter certainty of the knowledge of God. We do not simply speak about God – we know Him. Anything less than such a knowledge would be an emptiness and speculation. No dogma is secure if it rests merely on bald assertion.

It is for this same reason that perhaps the most important spiritual discipline in the Orthodox life is to be freed from delusion. If you read the Philokalia, or, better yet, Branchaninov’s The Arena, you will hear the repeated chorus of warnings against spiritual delusion. It matters because there is such a thing as being awake and not being deluded.

None of us lives free from all delusion – none other than perhaps the greatest saints. But the process of awakening is itself the beginning of the spiritual life. It is the fear of God in the sense used by Fr. Sophrony and in the Scriptures that marks that awakening. Indeed, it begins with believing that there actually is a God, which strangely, is far less common than you would think.

The entrance of Christ into the world on that first Christmas morning was also an awakening. Mary was awake and understood what it meant to be the handmaiden of the Lord. Joseph, that good man, was awake and understood what it meant to act in obedience. The wise men were awake and found the Daystar from on High. The Shepherds were awake and heard the night sing.

But Herod slept, and doubtless dreamed. The soldiers who kept his orders slept with the peace that comes from a mission accomplished. The better part of the whole world slept, though there were some, like watchful children, who knew that joy was coming. The lightest footfall will arouse such sleepers.

Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.

Journey into the Winter Pascha

December 22, 2006


This morning, following the rubrics of the Church, we did the service of the Royal Hours, which include readings from Old Testament and Epistle and Gospel for each of the services of the Hours (1st, 3rd, 6th, and 9th). Also much incense.

It is a service that in structure will be repeated again before the Theophany as well as during Holy Week before Pascha. It signals that each of these services have something in common – and that Pascha is the key. I have always said that Pascha is simply the key to everything.

But the Church in her services, just as in her icons, again draws the attention of the faithful to the Paschal shape of our Lord’s ministry and revelation.

The great climax of Christmas (now there’s something I’ve never thought of before) comes at the birth of Christ. Hell will shake at this triumphant entry. Even though the Holy Innocents will be slaughtered and the Holy Family will flee to Egypt, it is simply “ducking” the falling debris of a Kingdom that is crumbling.

Now God’s feet touch the earth, its air fills His lungs. He drinks deep from the milk that His mother gives. He will cry.

But even though he will cry like any baby, calling for human help, it is still the cry of God, a sound that will break the bonds of hell itself.

In one interpretation of the name Sheol, the implication of silence is heard. “Who can praise you from the grave?” Thus the voice of God crying in the night is a sound that must make every tree and rock tremble with anticipation.

It is in light of such that we ourselves must not forget to give alms, to lighten the burden of those around us, to make every effort to set captives free and give sight to the blind. Our King and Savior draws near.