Archive for July, 2007

Why Do I Believe in God?

July 26, 2007

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I am always interested in the posts that come to my site from self-professed atheists. They tend to live in a world far-removed from the one I inhabit (surrounded as I am with religious services and the whole culture of the Church). I never satisfy the questions posed (which usually demand rationalist answers, that, though they can be given, are not my particular strength). But I am interested in why someone does not believe in God – though my deepest suspicion is that the God they do not believe in has almost nothing to do with the God that I believe in – that is – I probably don’t believe in their God either.

But why do I believe in God? This is a question that has several answers – partly because my faith in God has gone through a number of permutations. I was born in a Southern Baptist family that was not pious nor active in the local Church. My older brother (5 years my senior) was a strong influence. During good weather, he and I would walk down the railroad tracks near our house (no trains on Sunday) to the local Baptist Church. I was Baptized there at age 7.

My earliest memories of a consciousness of God go back to those journeys down the railroad tracks. My brother believed in God. My Sunday School teachers believed in God – and always spoke in very kind terms about God. If we “stayed for preaching” the pastor would tend to yell a lot and talk about hell, but in my world, adults were always yelling about something and I paid little attention.

Instead, there was the kindness of a Sunday School teacher, the steadfastness of my older brother (who is still at the top of my hero list), and interestingly, the witness of icons. I know its strange to speak of icons in a Baptist Church, but my Sunday School room, like many others, had wonderful pictures (probably published by Broadman Press) of Jesus the Good Shepherd and Jesus and the Children. I add to that Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (here I join my witness to that of Dostoevsky and Fr. Sergei Bulgakov who wrote of the profound effect of this painting in their lives – Fr. Sergei credited his adult conversion back to the faith to an encounter with this painting in Dresden). My Sistine Madonna was simply a picture in the front of my Bible, given to me by my mother’s Sunday School class when I was born. Thus I cannot remember a time that Mary was absent from my relationship with Christ.

I began to doubt the faith – or at least the faith as I was hearing it – between the ages of 10 and 13. No age can be more idealistic. And my idealism was being shattered left and right by the hypocrisy of adults and the growing realization that there were problems within my world. Not the least of which was the problem of racial hatred in the South. I was born in 1953 – thus at age ten and beyond the television was filled with images of the racial strife in my native South. I recall my brother leaving a service in protest when he was age 18 (I was 13 and thus his dependent protege). A guest preacher was invited that Sunday and took the occasion to preach against the racial integration of Furman University (a local Baptist college which later became my alma mater). My brother interrupted the sermon and shouted to the preacher, “You’re crazy as hell!” after which we left in protest. Thus my first protest was because I needed a ride home.

I floundered for several years. My brother was off in college. I read and listened. I never felt attracted to atheism – it seemed empty and shallow to me and full of despair. I had an almost innate sense of a transcendence in this world. I was no stranger to suffering or evil. At age ten, I lost one aunt to the devastations of an incurable disease, another to the insanity of a random murder. Grief, and the insanity of evil were among the most real experiences of my young life. The same year one of my closest cousins was diagnosed with the onset of childhood Rheumatoid Arthritis. I have written elsewhere of that relationship and the eventual witness of her life. But at the time it was simply one more example of the reality of suffering and the randomness of its victims.

At age 15, I made another Christian profession, perhaps more consciously mystical than my childhood profession. My older brother introduced me to Anglicanism. This, of course, was in the days before liturgical renewal struck the Episcopal Church. The rhythms of the old prayerbook and the beauty of its traditional services, along with the Victorian splendor of an old Southern Church made a deep impression on me. A sense of the presence of God – not one that I could articulate – but one that I could cry out to – were palpably real to me. It was in that setting that my first sense of a vocation to priesthood was formed.

Belief in God, if it is to survive, almost never survives without tremendous testing. I endured college along with its freshman philosophy and even the shallow slogans of agnosticism and youthful atheism. I wondered and I doubted. I went to seminary (Episcopal) straight from college and found little solace there. Some professors believed. Others were openly Arian (denying the divinity of Christ). Others represented such a mix of faith, pseudo-science, and nonsense that they were less than helpful.

Upon graduation I was ordained and took up the struggle of being responsible for the spiritual lives of others. I made mistakes. I took wrong turns. I took right turns (and left ones, too). I watched the birth of my children, and the death of friends. I watched the Church to which I belonged live its life subject to a corrupt bureaucracy and to the Spirit of the Age.

I occasionally struggled to fight back.

In the end of all that, I struggled to come to grips with the Orthodox faith. And coming to grips with the Orthodox faith was, in all reality, coming to grips with belief in God. As a Protestant you may believe in God, but what that means is under constant revision and construction. The Orthodox Faith, on the other hand, professes faith in a God who has made Himself known, and the reality of that is larger and clearer than the confines of one’s own life. This God you can either embrace or reject – but do little else with. Years of reading, praying, thinking, conversation, visiting, etc., all led me to understand that if Christianity was true then it was true in its Orthodox form. Everything else was a deviation.

And thus in 1998 my family and I were received into the Orthodox faith, at first certain that financial ruin was to be our lot. Probably for the first time in my life I was staking everything practical on the reality of the existence of God. I was frightened. But at every turn, my fear was overcome with the faithfulness of the God to whom I had sworn an oath. He sustained us and protected us. The decision we made was so final that had it resulted in ruin and death I think I would not have wavered.

Why do I believe in God? There is no rational argument or syllogism that comforts my heart. No argument from philosophers has anything to say to the death of an aunt, or random murder. It has nothing to say to the pain of childhood disease. But from my earliest childhood I knew a kindness and a goodness that seemed to shine in my life and heart despite everything around me. Had I abandoned that kindness I do not think I would be alive today.

I believe in God because, I think, He believed in me and sustained me (and has sustained me) through the whole of my life. I believe in God because when I pray, I do not hear an empty echo of my own voice, but a resonance with a Goodness that I see everywhere around me. I believe in God because I have witnessed the death of hundreds of believing Christians. It is a great mystery to stand by the bed of the dying and I have seen people die well, despite pain and deprivation. I have heard the prayer from lips that bless God for His goodness even as they breathe their last.

I believe in God because I can think of almost nothing beautiful that has been begotten by atheism. It produces bad art, bad novels, and empty cultures. Were it not for believers, atheists would have almost nothing to discuss. Even in their science, they live off the fruits of believers. I do not know of an attractive atheist leader, despite the many unattractive Christians whom I know all too well.

I believe in God because He is real, true, beautiful, good, compassionate, kind and then more than I can say. Atheism can offer me nothing (precisely). I do not believe in nothing.

What An Icon Says

July 25, 2007

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According to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, “An icon does with color what the Scriptures do with words.” It is a very simple, straightforward explanation of icons – but it holds within it a world of theological understanding. This morning I had opportunity with a visitor of the Church to fall into conversation about the Scriptures. The discussion turned towards the relationship between the Old and New Testament. My point was to underscore the fact that Christians have a radically different understanding of the Old Testament because of Christ. We should believe that He is the meaning of all of the Old Testament Scriptures, and that they cannot be rightly read apart from Him. Further, we believe that the God who makes Himself known in the Old Testament, is indeed the same as the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament is not about “God the Father,” with the New Testament being about “God the Son.” Rather, “No one knows the Father, except the Son.” The manifestation of God in the Old Testament is through His Logos, just as much as it is in the New Testament.

The discussion, for me, finally went beyond what I could say. Instead I took my visitor into the narthex of the Church. On one wall of the narthex at St. Anne’s, there is a large icon of the “Hospitality of Abraham,” which pictures the visit of the three angels to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18. The icon said it all: the central angel’s nimbus (halo) was inscribed with the cross and the traditional “ho on” with the IC XC on the outside – all of which are the traditional identifications of Christ in an icon. Only here was an Old Testament scene.

The “ho on,” itself is a revelation. In the Greek Old Testament, when God reveals His name to Moses He says, “Ego eimi, ho on,” (I am He Who Is). All icons of Christ identify Him with this revelation (as does the frequent use of Ego eimi, “I am”) in the Gospel of John.

But in this Old Testament scene, the Fathers have seen a prefiguring of the Holy Trinity, but not an embodiment of the Father and the Spirit. Simply an angelic visitation that presents Abraham with the Logos of God. There is a strange movement between the language of the three and the language of one. The inference towards Trinity was inescapable for Christians:

And the LORD appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said. And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth. And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat. And they said unto him, Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent. And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? And the LORD said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh. And the men rose up from thence, and looked toward Sodom: and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way. And the LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him.

After explaining the meaning of the various items in the icon, my visitor stood quiet for a minute or two. It was clear that he understood it all. “They never told us this,” was his comment. Now they have.

Leaving the Secular Life – Part 2

July 24, 2007

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It is one thing to describe the cultural mix in which we swim and quite another to swim in an opposite direction. One of my favorite icons is a Theophany icon (Christ’s Baptism). In it you can see fish swimming in the water. All of the fish are swimming downstream except one. A single fish, just beneath the hand of Christ, is swimming in the opposite direction. The first time I saw this icon a priest said to me, “With the blessing of Christ, we overcome the world.”

The same is true of us – fish as we are. With the blessing of Christ we do not have to be conformed to this world. Our minds can be transformed (Romans 12:2). A large measure of this is to be found in availing ourselves of the grace given to us in the Mysteries of the Church. Confessing our sins, striving to make a good communion, the simple ascesis of attending services with their attendant struggle to turn our hearts to God.

But there are many more opportunities in the day (for most, the Mysteries of the Church are far from daily opportunities). I think of two particular opportunities that offer themselves with great frequency. The first, of course, is prayer. Simple prayer, such as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or simple phrases from the Psalms: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name,” or the hundreds of other possibilities. Such prayer turns our heart to God and moves us towards the “constant remembrance of God.” Such remembrance allows us to see the world as it truly is and to see others as they truly are. With such true sight comes the Kingdom of God.

Another opportunity, which I think is akin to the first, is to practice obedience to the commandments of God. I have suggested before in my postings the simple obedience: Today I will be kind to all whom I meet. Kindness is more than the absence of rudeness or malice – it is a positive act of generosity of spirit towards all whom I meet. Such an obedience, simple to state, is full of struggle. But the struggle also reveals to us the state of our heart and also reveals the world around us in a clearer light. As we struggle towards mere kindness, we see that our own hearts are darkened – and not as the result of the actions of others but from the depths of our own selves. And so the struggle helps to beget repentance as well.

There are any number of such obediences – drawn simply from meditation on the commandments of God.

Today I will seek to deceive no one.

Today I will not refuse an opportunity to do good.

Today I will speak ill of no one.

The list can be lengthened quite easily. It’s not unwise to discuss such an undertaking with a confessor or a trusted spiritual friend. In my own experience, it’s almost impossible to take on such a thing for more than a day at a time (our Lord enjoins us to live one day at a time) or to take on more than one such obedience at a time. Of course we should strive to keep all of God’s commandments at all times – but having said that – such a statement quickly passes into banality – indeed it becomes an abstraction, part of the murky waters of our secular world.

We should be wary of generalities – not because they aren’t true – but because they are often true in a very vague way – a way that is too vague to practice. We are very concrete beings and it helps to put things in concise and concrete terms. If you feel tempted to point out that this paragraph is a generality, I noticed it already. Its antidote is to be found two paragraphs above.

Tonight I will turn off my computer and go to bed. God’s peace.

Leaving the Secular Life

July 23, 2007

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The default position of America is secular protestantism.

I say this is the default position and mean by it – that without effort and care – we all find ourselves thinking and acting out of a secular protestant mindset. Of course, I need to offer a definition for my terms. By secular protestantism (and I mean no insult to Protestants by the term) I mean a generalized belief in God – but a God who is removed from the world (hence the term secular). Secularism is not the belief that there is no God – but the belief that God belongs to a religious sphere and the rest of the world is neutral in some independent sense. I add the term “protestantism” to it, because, generally, our culture gives lip-service to protestant foundations, and because Protestant Churches generally understand themselves as relatively human organizations, the true Church being something in the mind of God. (I will grant exceptions to my definition and understanding).

With such a mindset, of course, whatever religious sense one has is generally a matter of effort, organization, control, marketing – in short – religious life is no different from every other aspect of life. It is separated and defined only by its purpose. Such religion is, of course, not Christianity at all, even though it may strive to do good secular work for Christ. True Christianity is a life lived in union with Christ and all that we do that has value is what we do in union with Him.

It is in reflecting on this that I ponder many conversations I hear (or overhear). Many times I hear myself or others expressing dismay or anxiety over a situation, or plotting to achieve one goal or another. The frightening dynamic in many of these conversations – let alone the actions that flow from them – is the dynamic of secularism. We live as though there were no God, or as if the God Who Exists is not able to act within our world. Having decided what is in God’s best interest, or the interest of the faith, we design our efforts (perhaps even thinking to please Him).

But God does not seek to be pleased by actions taken in separation from Him. It is union with God that saves us (and this alone). Neither can we undertake any activity that has a saving character except that activity be taken in union with Christ.

Why should we love our enemies and pray for them? Because there is little else you can do for them that is in union with Christ. You cannot seek vengeance in union with Christ. You cannot even seek to “fix” other people in union with Christ. The action of Christ is always respectful of our freedom and always acts in love. Action in union with Christ cannot have some other character.

Actions such as kindness and mercy, patience and love are easily lived in union with Christ. But our secular mindset rarely sees such actions as useful.

I read the following statement in the counsels of the contemporary Elder, Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia:

Our love in Christ must reach all places, even to the hippies in Matala [in Crete]. I very much wanted to go there, not to preach to them or to condemn them, but to live with them, without sin of course, and leave the love of Christ to speak of itself, which transfigures life (from Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit).

Such a statement is a world away from our secular mindset. The Church is either the Mystical Body of Christ or it is nothing at all. And if it is the Mystical Body of Christ in this world, then its life will be lived and governed in no way different from the life of Christ considered in any other manner. Thus, the way of the Cross is always the way of life. Laying down our lives for one another and for the world is simply how we are to live. It is not an extraordinary act – it is a normative act.

Doubtless our culture and its mindset will be what they are. But in its midst we should live “without sin” and let the love of Christ speak of itself (if the love of Christ isn’t speaking of itself, then our own words about the love of Christ will be hollow and meaningless) – and this transfigures life. This is not a plan or a roadmap for the transformation of our culture. God alone knows such things. But it is a roadmap for obeying the admonition of the Apostle:

“…be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2).

Godly Counsel from a Holy Elder

July 22, 2007

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I am sharing here a few sayings from the Elder Amphilochios of Patmos, someone whose life and teachings I have heard spoken of before by Metropolitian Kallistos of Diocleia (Kallistos Ware). They are worth savoring. The quotes come from the volume Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit. I am especially fond of his attitude to trees.

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My children, I don’t want Paradise without you.

Whoever plants a tree, plants hope, peace, and love and has the blessings of God.

Consider all people to be greater than yourself, though they may have many weaknesses. Don’t act with hardness, but always think that each person has the same destination as we do. Through the grace of God I consider all people to be saintly and greater than myself.

I am like the old tree in whose shade the meek sheep of Christ gather during the hot days of summer, and in whose branches the small birds gather. All ask that the old pine tree might live so that they have their joy. However, slowly, slowly its roots rot and the heavy winter will come, when a strong wind will knock him down and he will become wood for the fire. Now, however, the pine tree makes glad the sheep and birds that gather in the desert.

When man partakes of Holy Communion he receives power and is enlightened, his horizons widen, and he feels joy. Each person experiences something different, analogous to his disposition and the flame of his soul. One person feels joy and rest, another peace, another a spirit of devotion and another an inexpressible sympathy towards all things. Personally I have often felt tired, but after Holy Communion I felt myself completely renewed.

Brother, forget your sins: our Christ has blotted them out from the Book of Life.

In the hour in which we are tempted we must be patient and pray. Temptation is a clever craftsman. He is able to make small things loom large. Temptation disquiets, saddens, and creates external battles. He knows many arts. He brings man to doubt. For this reason we have many shipwrecks. When we are beset by temptations, that’s when the grace of God comes. When one undergoes temptation, he recognizes his weakness, is humbled and attracts the grace of God. Don’t let the winds of temptation affact you. They can’t do you any harm.

When someone opens your heart, I’d like him to find nothing there but Christ.

I ask you to put this order into practice: as much as you can, try to cultivate your love toward Christ’s own person. You must reach the point that whenever you mention His name, tears run from your eyes. Your hearts must be truly ablaze. Then He will be your Teacher, your Guide, your Brother, your Father, your Elder….

Pay no attention to things earthly and passing. Be concerned about the union of your soul with God.

A Thank You

July 22, 2007

I noted with gratitude that Glory to God for All Things passed the milestone of 250,000 views today, all of these since beginning late last October. I am grateful for those who visit this site and pray that it is of some use to you in your day. Someone asked me today if I ever felt that the blog was like a parish. Yes and no. The cyberworld has its own sense of reality. I do have a great sense of community with many who read regularly and occasionally post notes. More than that, I feel a sense of responsibility for what I write – the same as I do for what I preach in a sermon. I know that I shall have to give an accounting for every idle world (including those on a blog).

I note that in the same time period, there have been over 3500 comments, most of which have adhered wonderfully to my admonition to be kind to one another.

The good folks at WordPress have, through their akismet program, blocked over 6,500 pieces of spam in the same period, and with the exception of about 2 days have kept this site virtually free of spam. If you could see the shameful things that constitute spam, you would be deeply grateful for this successful bit of software. I certainly am.

Again, I offer thanks to my readers and pray God’s mercy be with us all.

Somethings Have to be Shared

July 20, 2007

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Having posted several times about my son’s wedding last weekend (how could I not?), it seemed only right to post a photo of the young couple (James and Anna). I asked one of my extremely talented, artistic children who had all of the photos in digital form to send me a few wedding pictures this week so that I could share them – but strangely – none of the pictures were of the bride and groom together. Having arrived home a little earlier this evening – I have now acquired a photo for sharing. I know that our earthly marriages are only an image of the union between Christ and His Church – but it would be hard to imagine greater joy than I saw in this young couple last Sunday. Again, I thank so many of you for your prayers and your many well wishes. We are very pleased – to say the least.

Orthodoxy and the Christ-Haunted Culture of the South

July 20, 2007

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One of my favorite priests in the Diocese of the South is Fr. Paul Yerger who serves Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi. His gentle demeanor and kind words are what I have always associated with the South, though it is rarely witnessed today. I had a chance to visit with him this week at the Diocesan Assembly in Miami. Three years ago he was our keynote speaker at our assembly in Dallas. His talk has become a classic for me – both as a lover of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and of the South she loved so dearly. With his permission I reprint his copywrited article.

Address to the Twenty-sixth Annual Assembly of the Diocese of the South
Dallas, July 22, 2004
by Father Paul Yerger

I was asked to speak on evangelizing the South, but I don’t feel adequate to the assigned title. Archbishop Dmitri has planted in us the vision of an Orthodox South, and by his own life and work has shown us how to carry it out. That’s why so many of us sit here tonight.

I’d like to speak to a particular limited aspect of that vision. We have made much progress, but it seems to me we haven’t much engaged the culture of the South. Orthodox missionaries of the past lifted up to God what they could of the culture they found. We have many Southern converts who have attempted to leave their own culture behind and embrace some other one. What do we find in the culture of the South that is somehow seeking Orthodox Christianity?

Vladyko speaks positively of his Baptist upbringing – in some respects Southern Protestants laid a good foundation, and we reap where they labored. More than most places the South still cherishes basic Christian values: marriage, family, community. Many of our Southern converts were attracted to the stability of the Orthodox Church for this reason.

It’s deeper than that: go up in one of these gleaming glass towers in Dallas, realms of high technology and global enterprise. Look at the computer screens where these workers ply their trade. When one of them leaves his desk and the screen saver comes up, as likely as not it says, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God…” or “For God so loved the world…” – or stuck around the edge of the screen may be a prayer or a Psalm verse. Scratch many an urban Southern technocrat, and not far under the skin are Bible stories and characters, memories of altar calls on hot summer nights, addictive hymn tunes, images of heaven and hell (especially the latter).

I’d like to introduce an old friend of mine, the writer Flannery O’Connor, who reposed in 1964. I did not know her in the flesh but have read her so long I call her a friend. She was a Georgia girl, a devout Roman Catholic whose short life included much physical suffering, who had a particular gift for capturing in words the spiritual warfare raging in many rural Southern souls. I recommend to you her two volumes of short stories and two short novels, as well as her letters and essays.

When asked once why the South had produced so many writers and artists, without hesitation she said, “Because we lost the War.” That’s part of who we are in the South. A culture, or a person, that has never lost doesn’t understand a big part of human experience. Here in Texas it’s the Alamo that’s remembered, not San Jacinto. Many things are somehow connected with this: a deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, an affinity for the underdog, for some an adulation of heroes and glory, whether in wars, athletics, or automobile races; and for some a yearning for a past that never was, another life that might have been. Unfortunately it’s easy for some Southern Orthodox just to substitute another lost empire, the Byzantine or the Russian, as the place to escape to instead of the Old South.

Flannery O’Connor described the South as “Christ haunted.” I want to tell you about one of her characters, O. E. Parker, in her last story, Parker’s Back.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot. Except for his loins which were girded with a panther hide, the man’s skin was patterned in what seemed from Parker’s distance-he was near the back of the tent, standing on a bench-a single intricate design of brilliant color. The man, who was small and sturdy, moved about on the platform, flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. He was a boy whose mouth habitually hung open. He was heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. When the show was over, he had remained standing on the bench, staring where the tattooed man had been, until the tent was almost empty.

Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.

He had his first tattoo some time after-the eagle perched on the cannon. It was done by a local artist. It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing. This was peculiar too for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing…

Shortly after this he quit school “because he could” and joined the Navy.

…Everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos.

He had stopped having lifeless ones like anchors and crossed rifles. He had a tiger and a panther on each shoulder, a cobra coiled about a torch on his chest, hawks on his thighs, Elizabeth II and Philip over where his stomach and liver were respectively. He did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful; on his abdomen he had a few obscenities but only because that seemed the proper place for them. Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up. The front of Parker was almost completely covered but there were no tattoos on his back. He had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself. As the space on the front of him for tattoos decreased, his dissatisfaction grew and became general.

After one of his furloughs, he didn’t go back to the navy but remained away without official leave, drunk, in a rooming house in a city he did not know. His dissatisfaction, from being chronic and latent, had suddenly become acute and raged in him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a raging warfare.

Eventually Parker married a woman named Sarah Ruth Cates. Her father was a Straight Gospel preacher, but he was away, “spreading it in Florida.” She was a plain severe thin girl who “was always sniffing up sin. She did not smoke or dip, drink whiskey, use bad language or paint her face, and God knew some paint would have improved it, Parker thought.” She was the only woman he had met who was not fascinated by his tattoos. She refused to look at them and called them “vanity of vanities.

“Parker could not understand why he stayed with her. He “did nothing much when he was home but listen to what the judgement seat of God would be like for him if he didn’t change his ways.”

…Dissatisfaction began to grow so great in Parker that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo. It had to be his back. There was no help for it. A dim half-formed inspiration began to work in his mind. He visualized having a tattoo put there that Sarah Ruth would not be able to resist-a religious subject. He thought of an open book with HOLY BIBLE tattooed under it and an actual verse printed on the page. This seemed just the thing for a while; then he began to hear her say, “Ain’t I already got a real Bible? What you think I want to read the same verse over and over for when I can read it all?” He needed something better even than the Bible! He thought about it so much that he began to lose sleep.

At this time Parker had an apocalyptic experience. Daydreaming, he drove a tractor into a tree and it burst into flames. Thrown to the ground, he looked up to see his own shoes, which he had somehow come out of, burning in the wreckage. Immediately as if fleeing something he drove furiously into the city and burst into the tattoo artist’s studio.

 …”Let me see the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” Parker said breathlessly. “The religious one.”

. . .The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”

“God,” Parker said.

“Father, Son or Spirit?”

“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”

The artist returned with a book. He moved some papers off another table and put the book down on it and told Parker to sit down and see what he liked. “The up-to-date ones are in the back,” he said.

Parker sat down with the book and wet his thumb. He began to go through it, beginning at the back where the up-to-date pictures were. Some of them he recognized-The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. One showed a gaunt green dead face streaked with blood. One was yellow with sagging purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it appeared to be roaring inside him like a great generator. He flipped the pages quickly, feeling that when he reached the one ordained, a sign would come. He continued to flip through until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart too appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK.

Parker returned to the picture-the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.

“You found what you want?” the artist asked.

Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture.

“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said. “You don’t want all those little blocks though, just the outline and some better features.”

“Just like it is,” Parker said, “just like it is or nothing.”

When he sees the tattoo with the aid of mirrors, Parker “turned white and moved away. The eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him – still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence. … The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed.”

He drove through the night to show his gift to his wife. “It seemed to him that all along that was what he wanted, to please her.” He arrived just before dawn to find himself locked out of his house. He knocked on the door.

“Who’s there?”

“Me,” Parker said, “O.E.”

… “I don’t know no O.E.”

When they first met, Sarah Ruth had extracted from him his real name, which he had previously revealed to no one.. . .

…”Who’s there?” the voice from inside said and there a quality about it now that seemed final. The knob rattled and the voice said peremptorily, “Who’s there, I ast you?”

Parker bent down and put his mouth near the stuffed keyhole. “Obadiah,” he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.

“Obadiah Elihue!” he whispered.

The door opened and he stumbled in. Sarah Ruth loomed there, hands on her hips. . . .Trembling, Parker set about lighting the kerosene lamp.

“What’s the matter with you, wasting that kerosene this near daylight?” she demanded. “I ain’t got to look at you.

“A yellow glow enveloped them. Parker put the match down and began to unbutton his shirt.

“And you ain’t going to have none of me this near morning,” she said.”Shut your mouth, he said quietly. “Look at this and then I don’t want to hear no more out of you.” He removed the shirt and turned his back to her.

“Another picture,” Sarah Ruth growled. “I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”

Parker’s knees went hollow under him. He wheeled around and cried, “Look at it! Don’t just say that! Look at it!”

“I done looked,” she said.

“Don’t you know who it is?” he cried in anguish.

“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It ain’t anybody I know.”

“It’s him,” Parker said.

“Him who?”

“God!” Parker cried.

“God? God don’t look like that!”

“What do you know how he looks?” Parker moaned. “You ain’t seen him.”

“He don’t look,” Sarah Ruth said. “He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.”

“Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolater in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.

Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.

She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was-who called himself Obadiah Elihue-leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.

Christ-haunted — Southern Christianity is split down the middle, head and heart divided asunder. There is head religion: some tincture of Calvin, all about law and judgement, righteousness and sin, the fearful grace of the sovereign God tamed by respectability. Then there is heart religion: Pentecost, revivals, Jesus and the Holy Ghost called forth on demand to save souls and soothe the heartaches of life. And there are redneck existentialists, too, who want nothing of either, like Hazel Motes in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, who preaches the Church Without Christ: it ain’t got no Jesus to die for you and make you feel guilty about it.

Such is O.E. Parker when we first meet him: he says he doesn’t see what there is to be saved from. But something attracts him to Sarah Ruth; he is hungry for something: to love something greater than himself, to partake of beauty and glory and mystery, like the tattooed man he saw at the fair. But when he tries in his own way to put on Christ, to give her his whole self, his whole body, his back that he could not see, he is rejected. The deepest longings of his heart find no place in her religion.

Orthodoxy is the only Church that puts it all together: the mind in the heart, the body and the spirit, the word and the image, grace and freedom, the good God who loves mankind. This is the “evangel”: the Good News for the South. Her deepest longings are met here. As Vladyko has taught us, all that is good and true in Southern Protestantism is here. Jesus and the Holy Ghost are here: the real Jesus confessed as Lord and God and Saviour, risen from the dead. We are steeped in the Bible and love to hear its cadences. We also know that deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, that yearning for something lost. The writers of the Bible knew this yearning well: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. This yearning is really a yearning for the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

Let us not make of Orthodoxy another law to be obeyed, another head religion to feel proud of, another emotional trip, another escape to some other world. Let us proclaim it as the Good News that the people of the South and every land are hungry for.

Quotations from Parker’s Back in Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, New York, Farrar, Strauss, 1993.

The Intercession of the Saints

July 19, 2007

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Doubtless one of the less understood aspects of the Orthodox faith, particularly by Protestants, is the importance of the intercession of the saints. Orthodox doctrine and teaching is quite clear that we do not treat saints as objects of worship, nor as worthy of worship. This would be blasphemous to us. Nevertheless, it is a huge part of the “ethos” of Orthodoxy, probably only understood from the inside and then only after a time.

The first thing I think of in this regard is simply that Scripture never seems to speak of God as “alone.” He is the Lord God of Sabbaoth (Hosts) – He is the “God of a huge crowd” to render it into the vernacular. This is first disclosed to Isaiah in his prophetic vision in chapter 6 of his work – but it is, to some degree, reflected in the fact that the Hebrew word for God is frequently rendered in the plural (Elohim). The Fathers rightly saw in this a veiled reference to the Trinity – but it is also proper to see in this a plural that surrounds God. We do not worship a plural God – but a Triune God – who is nevertheless surrounded by a great Host.

Much of our modern world, governed as it is by images of the dominance of the individual, tends to focus on God as individual. Islam (in certain forms) is radical in this respect – and some forms of modern Christianity have, for all intents and purposes, followed suit. The doctrine of the Trinity is reverenced but not truly understood, much less made the basis for worship. With this has come a radical shift in the understanding of heaven, our life in the Church, the meaning of prayer, the hope of salvation, even the understanding of what salvation itself means.

Orthodox worship and prayer, on the other hand, is simply crowded. Though we worship only the Triune God, we nevertheless do so in company with a “great cloud of witnesses,” whom we frequently acknowledge in our prayers, asking for them to join us in our prayer, seeking their prayers for us, just as assuredly they are urging us on from the life in heaven and interceding constantly before God for us.

This is probably the greatest change in my consciousness since becoming Orthodox. We are never alone, nor are we even simply alone with God. I am always with many even when I draw into my closet to pray.

Encouraged by the many stories of the lives of the saints, I am also encouraged by the holy icons, whose images of the saints remind me of these great heroes and heroines. More than that I am truly aware of their presence with me (us). My prayers seem to echo and to crescendo, joined as they are with those who now pray ceaselessly.

Many times there are saints whom one seems to know personally – either because you have frequently asked for their prayers – or for some aspect of their story that seems important – and even occasionally because something has happened that can only be described as having been “sought out” by a saint. An example of this last case is (for me) the not too infrequent phenomenon of simply being “found” by an icon. By this I do not mean buying an icon – but that an icon has come to me by some other means, accompanied by the sense that “this is no accident.” Such stories are not uncommon in Orthodoxy. Some of the greatest icons known to the Church were simply “discovered,” their origins remaining completely unknown to the Church. An excellent example of this is the famous wonder-working “Kursk Root-Icon of the Mother of God.”

I was once asked by an Anglican friend if I ever thought about returning to my former life. There are a thousand reasons I could have given him for “no,” not the least of which being, “I have found the true faith, etc.” But as I recall I simply said to him, “I couldn’t bear the loneliness.” How could I pray without the Mother of God? without the saints? And not in some secretly held “pious opinion” that might be allowed by the Church – but as the Church’s true worship, because it is the revelation of the Lord God of Hosts?

No. “God is with us, understand all ye nations and repent yourselves, for God is with us.”

The Boundary of Death

July 19, 2007

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This was posted originally last Spring. I have posted again for re-reading and for its assurance that Christ is the only guarantee of our dignity.

Having spent two-and-a-half years as a Hospice Chaplain, I had opportunity to be present to over 200 deaths (that does not include the many I have witnessed in my years in ordained ministry. As you sit with someone who is dying, there finally arises a boundary beyond which you cannot go: death itself. I can pray for the “departure of the soul from the body” (the priestly service done at the time of death in Orthodoxy), and I can pray and even know the fellowship of the saints and the departed.

Christ told His disciples, “Yet a little while am I with you, and then I go unto him that sent me. Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come. Then said the Jews among themselves, “Whither will he go, that we shall not find him?”

Christ has been where we have not and entered where we cannot yet go.

The experience of death, and the boundary it represents, also hides from us a reality we can only know by faith. And, according to Scripture, it is probably the greatest occasion for fear.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he[Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

I sometimes think that most fears are really about death on some level. The loss of power over our own lives that we frequently imagine to be true during our healthy years. It is admitting this powerlessness that is inevitably the case that gives us pause, and engenders fear.

I had a cousin, about a year older than myself. She was diagnosed with Childhood Onset Rheumatoid Arthritis (a very virulent form of the disease) when she was only ten. In the summer I used to go and stay a week or two with her family near the South Carolina mountains to be company for her. We gained a closeness that never seemed to leave the relationship over the years. She was among the most honest people I’ve ever known.

I recall talking to her in the months before she died  (it was becoming apparent that this was the case), we were both in our forties. In the conversation the subject of faith, God, heaven, etc. came up. She spoke with great tenderness about God. I remember asking her, “How is that you’ve been in pain and crippled for the 35 years and yet speak so kindly of God?”

Her answer was very enlightening.

“I haven’t always felt this way about God,” she said. “There was a time when I would wake up in the morning and curse God.” But then her voice lowered and she added meekly, “That was before I knew He was good.”

It is among the greatest professions of faith I have ever heard.

To stand at the boundary of life and death, and to stand without fear, we must know that there is a good God. In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles someone says of Aslan, “He’s not a tame lion, but He’s good.”

This is the fear of death: that goodness does not win in the end. I believe it therefore to be utterly necessary in the preaching of the gospel to remind people again and again, “He is a good God and loves mankind” (the words of the traditional Orthodox dismissal).

In is only in Christ, finally, that we have the perfect image of the perfect God and can say, based on that revelation, “He is good.” I rejoice in that goodness, and pray to know more each day as we journey to Pascha and beyond.