Archive for August, 2010

A Culture of Remembrance

August 31, 2010

America is torn in a debate at present over the building of a Mosque at Ground Zero, the former location of the Twin Towers in New York, destroyed by an act of terrorism. At the same time, an Orthodox Church that was crushed by the falling towers has been ignored by New York authorities. It is a painful time, full of the anger and recriminations that seem to accompany all political discourse in America today.

Many nations have suffered many things – most of which overwhelm the Twin Towers in their numbers and historical significance. As a planet we can be a “culture of remembrance.” The pain of our memories is something of a false memory, in that it will not last forever. Only memory that is grounded in the End of things – memory that is eschatological – has true significance. There are forces that are seeking to re-write history at this very moment. There are false believers who imagine that acts of violence can shape the outcome of history.

This is not so. The outcome of history took place in the Resurrection of Christ. Regardless of whatever madness we may imagine year by year, the Resurrected Christ is at the center of all things, He is the Alpha and Omega. He cannot be seen with eyes of hatred and anger. That vision is normatively given to the pure in heart.

For those who want to know, I do not favor a mosque at Ground Zero, and I do favor that the state keep its promises and rebuild the demolished Orthodox Church that stood until September 11, 2001. But triumph will only come if our memory is of the only meaning given to us as human beings. It is to behold fallen towers and to say, “Christ is risen!” I offer some reflections on the “culture of remembrance” written shortly after my return from pilgrimage to the Holy Land.


I grew up in a “culture of remembrance.” By that, I mean that the history of the place in which I lived was far more a matter of discussion and meaning than the present or the future. That culture was the American South. Much of the remembrance we discussed was not true – just a left-over from the sentimentality of the 19th century. My childhood was spent in the 1950’s, which may have been the last decade in America (or in many places of America) before the modern period became the norm. Modernity is not a culture of remembrance but a culture of forgetfulness. My children sometimes ask, “Which war was it Granddaddy fought in: Vietnam or World War II?” (The answer is World War II). But their forgetfulness staggers me. It is not that they are poor students of history (they were all great students) but history plays a different role in their culture than it did in mine.

My wife and I have swapped stories about our Southern childhoods and the experience of playing “Civil War” or “War Between the States” in our youth. The difficulty came in the fact that the game always involved where you were born. My wife was born in Washington, D.C. (where her native South Carolinian father was working at the time) which automatically meant she would have to play on the Northern side, which, in South Carolina, was always greatly outnumbered.

The culture of remembrance, however, is frequently false. We remember wrongs and hatreds that were not done to us and may not have even been done to our ancestors. No one in my father’s family fought in the Civil War (my mother’s family did). But no one burned our houses down or any of the other things we saw in “Gone With The Wind.” Many of those things happened to others – but not to all.

I was struck some years back when we took my home-schooling son to the Chickamauga Battlefield near Chattanooga. It is one of the oldest Battlefields preserved as a national monument. Reading about the history of its founding as a park is to read the story of soldiers from both sides working to set aside the area as a place of remembrance. It’s dedication was attended by men of both armies who met, ate, walked the fields and wept together. This is the remembrance of soldiers and was part of the healing of a nation. The culture of remembrance that I inherited included no such stories – it was the culture of a false memory.

The world has many cultures of remembrance – many of them bitter and angry. Many have continuing stories of violence and oppression – both of which feed the poisoned memories.

One of the promises in St. John’s Revelation is: And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (21:4).

There is a proper culture of remembrance – a culture which is born of the mercy and forgiveness of God. It abides and will remain when the former things are passed away. The toxic remembrance of past wrongs does not build a culture of life, but a culture that serves the dead. There are some wrongs that are so great that we cannot easily ask another to forgive. Forgiveness is always a gift, never a demand.

Orthodox Christianity practices remembrance in a number of ways. The Sacraments of the Church are always a remembrance – but always an “eschatological” remembrance in which our focus is on the transcendant truth of things tabernacling among us.

Our Churches are usually filled with icons – some are covered in frescoes from floor to ceiling. And these icons are always a remembrance – of Christ, His Mother, the Saints, the Parables, etc. But icons, when painted according to traditional norms, are never mere historical records. We do not walk into a Church of photographs of the past. Rather, the saints – everything and everyone – is painted in an artistic grammar that points towards the final truth of things – the world to come which is already coming into the world.

Thus as I visited the Holy Land and stood in the chapel of the Monastery of Mar Saba, I saw in a side transcept the skulls of the monks of the monastery who have been martyred for the faith – the largest number of which died in 618 A.D. It was a remembrance of the most vivid sort, and yet not a reminder of a wrong that had been done, but of the transcendant power of the prayers of the saints. We venerate their relics – and do not mourn their martyrdom.

I noticed during my pilgrimage that Jerusalem itself is like a monument of remembrance. The Jerusalem whose streets were walked by Christ is some 30 or 40 feet below the surface of the present city. To visit those streets and other sites, you often have to go underground. Below that layer is the city of Jebusites (and perhaps others still lower), and the city of David. And above the city through which Christ walked are yet more layers – the city of the Romans – the city of the Byzantines – the city of the Muslims – the city of the Crusaders – the city of the Turks – and today the city that holds all of those things in one place – a center of pilgrimage. For some, to be there is a pilgrimage to a lost past and the pain of wrongs not forgiven. For a Christian, it must be a place for pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre – which belongs not to the past but to a past transcendant – for it is not a place of the dead but a place where tears are wiped away.

For all the peoples of the world – the reality of that Sepulchre is the only way forward. Modernity would move forward, not in forgiveness but in forgetfulness, which is not the same thing at all. For tears to be wiped away, they must also be shed. For the dead to rise again, they have to die. To remember the truth is, finally, to remember the End of all things when the Truth shall be revealed. The former things – which were always distortions – will pass away. What remains will abide forever.


August 30, 2010

The Elder speaks on the circumstance of being harmed by a brother in Christ:

If it is necessary to grieve at all, then we should grieve for the loss of that person who has harmed us, not for the loss of our possessions. For, that person has done injustice to himself by being cast out of the heavenly kingdom. ‘Wrongdoers shal not inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Cor. 6:9). As for you that have been done injustice, the person that has wronged you has in face procured life for you. It is indeed said: ‘Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in Heaven’ (Matt. 5:12). Yet, instead of grieving over the loss of one of Christ’s members, we sit and weave thoughts about corruptible and insignificant matters, which are easily lost and worth nothing. We are truly and rightly condemning ourselves.”

In effect, God has placed us in an order of many members, which have Christ our God as their head, as the Apostle said: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and the head of all is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). Therefore, when your brother afflicts you, he is hurting you like a hand or an eye that suffers from some illness. Yet, even when we are in pain, we do not cut off our hand and throw it away; nor do we pull out our eye, but consider the rejection of each of these as being a very serious matter. Instead, we place on these members the sign of Christ, which is more precious than anything else, entreating the saints to pray for them, as well as offering our own fervent prayers to God on their behald. In addition to this, we apply medication and plaster in order to heal the sore member. Therefore, in the same way that you pray for your eye or your hand to heal and longer to hurt, you should also do that for you brother. Nevertheless, when we see the members of Christ hurting in this way, not only do we not grieve for them, but we even curse them. Truly such conduct is appropriate for someone without any compassion.

From the Reflections of Abba Zossimas

Treasure in a Box

August 25, 2010

Suppose you had a great treasure and placed it in a box – locked tight – and kept the key to yourself.

Others could desire the great treasure. The treasure could be given to them – though still in the locked box.

Suppose, as well, that the content of the treasure is described in writings of those who have seen the treasure. But the box is locked.

And now lets add about 2000 years since the treasure was placed in the box and the description written.

How do we deal with the treasure in the box?

It would be possible, of course, for some to be extremely loyal to the description left in the writings of those who were witnesses to the treasure. Those who questioned their conclusions would assail the veracity and reliability of those who gave the description of the treasure in the box. Very quickly the arguments would become about the witnesses to the treasure (and the reliability of a 2000 year-old testimony) and the box itself would become secondary.

It would be possible for some to be loyal to the idea of the treasure in the box, but sceptical of the exact details given in the description of the witnesses. This would give rise to a community of discourse in which the discourse about the contents of the box would quickly replace the contents of the box.

Of course there would be others who would contend that there is nothing in the box – the testimony of those who say there is something in the box completely discounted and even a growing industry of debunking the ideas of those who believe in treasure in the first place.


My short parable is about the problem of history and the Christian witness.

For many Christians, the essential elements of the Christian faith are completely historical in nature. As such, the Christian faith is made problematic. For history, like the box in the parable, is something that is locked and largely inaccessible to us under normal circumstances. For some, the witness of those who bear the original witness to the treasure, is the key to the Christian faith. Their writings, the New Testament, is considered sufficient witness to the contents of history.

Of course, such a faith quickly becomes faith in the witness of the book, and not the contents of the box – Scripture comes to replace Christ as the central figure of faith. Others, such as modern liberals, question the contents of the box, and the reliability of the witness. Again, the argument remains outside the contents of the box.

History, as a collection of past events, remains are largely closed box. The further removed from us in time, the more mysterious the contents. Within this metaphor we cannot say that we bear witness to the contents of the box – only that we have faith in a written description of its contents. Little wonder that those who do not share that faith have less and less comfort in the authority of that witness or its reliability as a guide for modern life.

In such a scenario, Christianity becomes an argument about a book within an argument about books. We move ourselves onto the same ground as Islam and its claims of an inspired text, Mormonism and its claims of an inspired text, etc. The faith of Christians in such a context is just one more text.

Reducing the Christian faith to a belief about certain historical events is a mistake that has the unintended effect of placing the very essence of our faith out of reach and at the mercy of our enemies. It can be devastating to those who are young in the faith and an unnecessary stumbling block for all. The Christian faith is more than a belief about certain historical events – it is a living participation in those events and a life lived in union with them. We do not bear witness to a witness, but also a witness to what we know.

The death and resurrection of Christ are not locked in a box.

There is a historical captivity to which much of modern Christianity has acquiesced. The events of Christ’s death and resurrection are treated in a historical fashion and thus made subject to all of the limits imposed by historical study. All of His teaching is made subject to the same historical restrictions. Thus it has not been unusual that the 20th century saw such books as The Search for the Historical Jesus (Schweizer) and the gradual disintegration of agreement concerning the person of Jesus. Today, the most liberal of Christian Biblical scholars have no certainly about Christ whatsoever.

The most conservative (particularly Protestant) Christians continue to simply assert the inerrancy of the Bible and avoid the obvious problems raised by historical limitations, and thus become more and more marginalized within the context of modern discourse. They also have the added problem of relating only to the text – and thus reduce Christianity to a historical text, a book among books.

The Orthodox understanding of these matters is deeply important. The death and resurrection of Christ are not locked in a box, for, though they historical, they are not merely so. That which occurred within history is also that which is Alpha and Omega and thus transcends history. As transcendent of history it remains available to the present and can be known now – even as the witnesses who first saw it.

The content of the Christian faith affirms certain things about certain historical events, but it also affirms that those events have shattered space and time and that the God who entered into space and time is also the God who is outside of space and time and can be known everywhere and always.

Such a witness that transcends space and time is also the basis of a Christianity that is sacramental and bears witness to the continuing reality of a living encounter with the resurrected Christ.

The classical Christian witness is to events that are evidence of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. God has entered our world, utterly disrupting the limitations of space and time. Those who bear authentic witness to Christ offer more than a rational acceptance of the authority of Scripture – they bear witness to the continuing presence of the Risen Christ and His lordship over all things.

Scripture itself teaches such a transcendent view of the events of Christ.

Get out of the box. Christ is in our midst.

Fellowship and the Tower of Babel

August 22, 2010

I had an occasion last week to be confronted by a Protestant fundamentalist “street preacher.” Wearing a cassock and a cross in public clearly identifies me as a priest (though in this part of the world most people know nothing of Orthodox priests). It also makes you a target for some who want to have arguments about religion. Thus, last week, while doing work on the local university campus, I was approached twice by different “preachers.” The first conversation was relatively short and generally non-confrontational.

My second encounter was less pleasant. The gentleman who approached me wanted an argument and tried his best to draw me into such a conversation. He eventually left in frustration. However, one of his questions has stayed with me. He asked, “What do you think salvation is?” I answered, “Salvation is union with Christ.” He had obviously never heard that answer and wasn’t sure what to say in return (he changed the subject). I realized on reflection that he had no idea what I meant – which brought another thought to mind: how can you have a conversation about faith when the most basic vocabulary is riddled with contradictions? The words are the same (salvation, Baptism, Church, etc.) but the meanings are utterly different. We both spoke English, but the two of us did not share a common language.

There is a relatively small number of words that come up repeatedly in my writings: mystery, union, communion, participation, icon, iconic, etc. It is not so much that my vocabulary is greatly restricted – rather our common vocabulary is restricted. Some words are deeply essential in sharing the Orthodox life. Unless such words are understood, no conversation can take place. The ancient Greeks used the word Barbaros (“barbarian”) for those who did not speak Greek. The etymology of the word was simple: those who spoke a foreign (non-Greek) language sounded as though they were saying, “Bar, bar, bar, bar, etc.” Those with whom no language is shared are often the most foreign to us. I have also found it to be true that even when I do not share a common language with someone, if I share a common faith, they are no longer foreign – conversation takes place at a deeper level. I have served in liturgies in which there were at least three languages present in the altar and not mutually understood – and yet, the liturgy went smoothly despite the shifting languages. There was the common language of priesthood and liturgy – in many ways, an experience of Pentecost.

I ask patience on the part of my readers if my blog postings occasionally seem repetitive. Many things have to be spoken and repeated for understanding to take place (thus comments are of very great value). It is not common language we seek in the end – but a common God – the good God who loves mankind.

The following is an article on a key word – a word that would have changed the conversation last week that failed. The Tower of Babel is much closer than we think.


Too little has been written about the politics (and theology) of Bible translations. From the very first instance, the goal of English translations has not been a primary concern with a faithful rendering of the meaning of the text. Much of the history of the English Bible has been precisely over the agenda carried by the translation itself. Most readers remain unaware of such issues. Most will not notice that the King James version rendered the Greek word episcopos as Bishop, while the Geneva translation rendered it as overseer. The King James version, authorized by the Anglican King as the official Bible of the Church of England, was insistent on the correctness of Bishops as the proper form of Church government. The Geneva Bible, as the name suggests, was a Calvinist product, equally insistent on the absence of bishops – hence the neutral term overseer. Both could argue that their translation was accurate. Yes, but.

This is only one of the most famous instances of theologically driven translation issues. There are many more. It is important to read Scripture, but it is equally important to know who translated the Scripture that you read and why. In many cases, modern translations exist in order to give a publishing company a product to which they alone hold copyright.

But all of the above is preliminary. I have a concern with a particular word in Scripture that has its own history of translation issues. The Greek is koinonia. The root of the word is the adjective: koinos, meaning common. The creation of abstract nouns from adjectives (common in Greek thought) was a critical component in the rise of philosophy within that culture.

The word koinonia had a fairly clear religious, even sacramental meaning by the time of the New Testament. It had a history of usage even in pagan religious settings. Its meaning was fairly clear: communion, participation or sharing. In each of these meanings the strongest sense of the word is meant. To have koinonia is to have communion, to actually participate in the life of another in the sense that your life and the life of the other share a common existence.

In the history of English translation the word receives a mixed treatment. In the King James Bible the word is generally translated either as communion, or, occasionally, by the weaker word fellowship. Interestingly, as time and Protestantism move along, translations have tended to move more often to the weaker rendering fellowship. Thus in the Revised Standard Version we read:

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).

What on earth does this mean? In our modern two-storey world, fellowship is a very weak word. It refers to a relationship between two discrete individualities. Rotary clubs meet for fellowship. It’s not unlike comradery with the exception that the term comrade sounds as if you actually shared a common experience.

The Greek is clear. If we say we have communion with Christ while we walk in darkness, we lie. We lie because to have communion with Christ is literally to have a share in His life, to dwell in Him and He in you. It is of the very heart of our salvation. By the same token, if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, because we are sharing in one and the same life. And it is this sharing in the life of Jesus that is itself the sharing in His blood that cleanses us from all sin.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.

To Walk in the Light

August 21, 2010

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.

For a variety of reasons, my thoughts have been drawn increasingly to the imagery within Scripture of darkness and light. It is powerful imagery that, for me, echoes the inner, existential experience of the Christian life. To walk in the light is to walk in communion with God (in Whom there is no darkness at all). But I find that a great deal of human existence is spent in darkness.

Lies are darkness. Fear is darkness. Anxiety is darkness. Hatred and enmity are darkness. Bitterness and anger are darkness. Enslavement to the passions is darkness. All of these things, or things very similar, are a common part of the human experience. Their effect is the opposite of the light. To walk in darkness is to break communion with one another and to ourselves estranged from God as well.

Someone recently asked me, “What makes a good confession?” Of course, there is no one simple answer to the question. The answer I offered came from my own experience: “Whenever I am able to bring the darkness of my heart into the light of God’s good favor – that is a good confession.” The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

The area of Tennessee in which I live is riddled with caves and caverns. Some of them have been turned into tourist attractions. Years back, I took my family on a visit to one of the larger caves. It was well-fitted for tourists – with handrails and other safety measures. A common part of the tour took place in one of the deeps rooms of the cave. When everyone was safely seated (on benches that had placed in the room) – all electric lighting was extinguished. We remained in this state for a number of minutes. The experience is one that generally does not come to us on the surface of the planet. There was a total absence of light. It becomes impossible to see anything, regardless of distance. There was simply no light.

The experience is frightening to many, and was certainly unnerving to me. I felt that for the first time I understood “darkness,” and I disliked the experience in the extreme.

The human life is a journey – either towards darkness or towards light. I do not think I have ever met anyone whom I would describe as in “total darkness” – there are minor sources of light in even very darkened lives. I do not think I have ever met anyone whom I would describe as in “total light” – though I have met some in whom the light of Christ so shone, that I was not aware of darkness.

We are created to walk in the light. The “robe of righteousness” about which we sing at Baptism, is the righteousness of Christ – some of the fathers describe this as a “garment of light.” Moses was clothed in such light when he came down from Mount Sinai.

It is an image, as I’ve noted, that has held my attention for some time now. More than an image – the light is the uncreated light of God.

I pray daily for Christ to lift the darkness to pierce through my blindness and to grant grace for my heart to embrace the light. I want communion with others and the blood of Jesus to cleanse me of all sin.

O, Gladsome Light!

Icons in a Literal World

August 19, 2010

I wrote this reflection nearly a year ago. Today I found my mind wandering back to the topic – searching beyond what I could see to what is unseen and yet more real. I have become increasingly convinced that the “literal” world we see is deeply distorted by our own self-deception. It is not a problem with the nature of creation – but rather the distortion of our own falsely constructed existence. May God ground my life in His reality!

What do you see when you see the world and how do you see it? I have written much about the secular character of our culture and its “literal” view of the world. The world is what you see and nothing more. Significant events take their significance from their own relation to other literal events. Much that passes for Christian theology or “thought” belongs to this world-view today. Thus those who concern themselves with “prophetic” events are constantly working to make a connection between the words of Scripture and the “literal” events of today’s news. The coming of Christ is seen by them as an event that will fit within the headlines of the paper – and even fantasize about the difficulties presented to mainstream media when the event of a “literal rapture” occurs, and a significant portion of the population goes missing. It is a way to see the world – not significantly different than how any non-believer sees the world – and – I would suggest – deadly dull and wrong.

There are other ways to see the world. The “other way” with which I am most familiar is the world as icon. Of painted icons we say they are “windows to heaven.” Though no more than wood and paint, faithful believers find them to be something which points to something yet more – they both point to and make present here.

The house in which I live has a marvelous feature. The living room – dining room (more or less one large room together) has one entire wall as floor-to-ceiling windows. In addition, the living room is cantilevered so that parts of two additional walls consist of windows as well. The effect is that the main living space of my home constantly includes the outdoors. In the Autumn the room is suffused with golden light from the leaves of the many trees that overlook the rear of our house. In the Spring and Summer, the room takes on a radiance from the many trees and flowers. Even in winter as the room looks out over the naked wood of trees and offers views of neighboring streets and houses – the room remains transformed.

To say that something is a window is to recognize both its “literal” presence as well as its “iconic” function. It provides both wall to enclose and yet reaches out to include. The world, I believe, when properly seen, does the same. There are occasional views of certain aspects of the world that make the most hardened, literal heart pause and recognize that something transcendent, or something which certainly hints at the transcendent has come into view.

I well understand that there are people who do not believe in God. Oftentimes when they tell me about the God they don’t believe in, I have to say that I don’t believe in that God either. But I do not understand people who live in our world and do not wonder whether there is a God – whether the beauty that refuses to disappear, despite our best efforts – is not reflective of some greater Beauty that refuses to utterly hide Himself.

My children (now adult) laugh at me for once having scolded them about “fairy circles.” We were walking in the woods in Durham, N.C. My oldest girl was 8, her sister between 5 and 6. We came on a clearing with a beautiful circle of mushrooms. “It’s a fairy circle!” I exclaimed. Despite late night readings of Tolkien and Lewis, both of them laughed at me and said, “Papa!” in their most disapproving, skeptical voices. My scolding was that they did not at least pause to wonder.

I do not believe in fairy circles, nor did I expect my children to. But I do wonder (and I still pray that my children do and often). I wonder because I believe the world to be iconic – a window that reveals more than a first glimpse. It reveals a beauty and a vastness that stretches beyond the literal. The patriarch Jacob once fell asleep. He dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven and saw angels going up and down the ladder. His response was iconic: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not! How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”

I want to sleep and wake like a patriarch.

Knowing the Personal God

August 18, 2010

The word personal has a commonplace meaning in English. If I have personal knowledge of an event, it means that I was actually there and saw what took place. Personal knowledge of another person, means that we have actually met, spent time together and shared information. Difficulty arises when this commonplace use of the phrase is mistaken for its theological meaning.

The word person, is pretty much a Christian invention, or certainly comes to a place of importance through its use in Christian theology. In Greek, it is the word prosopon, which originally meant the face, while in Latin the word was persona, which originally meant a mask. In both cases the words were taken up to do service in the efforts of early theologians’ to give expression to the Christian understanding of the Triune God. Person, in its various forms, came to be used for the more technical Greek term hypostasis, and referred to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in their unique aspects. Thus we had three persons in one being.

The word was also used as the Church sought to give expression to what it knew of Christ. Thus we learned to speak of the person of Christ who was both human and Divine: one person, two natures.

In all of these early uses, the term carried far more weight than its commonplace meaning today. Today we mean little more than individual when we say person. To apply that meaning to the persons of the Trinity would be to fall into serious heresy.

And to a degree, to apply that same commonplace meaning to human beings is at the very least a disservice, if not outright error. For there is something about our existence as persons that is precisely linked to our creation in the image of God and the truth of our existence of which the commonplace meaning knows nothing.

Fr. Sophrony Sakharov says that to be created as person is to be created potentially and not actually. That is to say, there is something very “open-ended” in our existence as persons. It is not a limiting term but a term which describes something of infinite capacity. We are created potentially, because we are not yet what we shall be. We are commanded to be conformed to the likeness of God – and this is our goal in Christ. This is far more than moral perfection, but has an ontological meaning as well. Indeed, when Scripture speaks of this aspect of our destiny it generally does not speak in moral terms, but in terms of knowledge and relationship.

“Then I shall know even as I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

“We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

That capacity of knowledge – which is another way of speaking about the fullness of our communion with God – is also a way of speaking of our capacity for love. It is the gift of personhood that we are (by grace) capable of loving everyone and everything. We would not be commanded to love even our enemies were it an impossible thing. Apart from Christ we cannot become what we were created to be – but we were created to love in just such a manner – for to love less is to be less than the image and likeness of Christ.

Our commonplace language, even in our faith, speaks of a personal relationship with Christ. It is correct to do so, and even to mean by it that you have “first-hand” knowledge of Christ. It also speaks of mutual obligation which is again correct in the covenantal relationship that God has given us. But it is also true in a less commonplace sense that we have a personal relationship with Christ – in that the nature of our relationship is that between persons. As such it has an infinite capacity and is open-ended. It will grow and become far more later than it is now. It will also mean a participation and a communion, a knowledge that is inherent to personal existence, even though we frequently are not aware of this capacity that is ours.

It is only in knowing the Triune God that we become what we are meant to be – that what it means to exist personally is fully revealed in us. A short quote from Fr. Sophrony:

The Person is He Who alone and genuinely lives. Aside from this vital principle nothing can exist: ‘In him was life; and the life was the light of men’ [John 1:4]. The fundamental content of this life is love: ‘God is love’ [1 John 4:8]. the personal being realizes himself through loving contact with another person or persons.

From We Shall See Him As He Is

The Quiet Work of God

August 16, 2010

Now Moses built an altar and called its name The-Lord-My-Refuge; for with a secret hand the Lord wars with Amalek from generation to generation  (Exodus 17:16 LXX).

After a number of decades as a Christian pastor, I am convinced that most of what God does in our lives and in our world remains hidden. I have many thoughts as to why this is so – but that it is so, I have no doubt. There are things in my life, which at the time they took place, seemed confusing and contradictory – but after careful, slow, reflection, have clearly seemed to be the hand of God. There are things that I have suffered through the years, that I now see as beneficial and even salvific, that I would never have considered to be so at the time. As a pastor, I am always hesitant (with others people’s lives) to offer that insight – in the midst of great suffering, such “insights” can be very difficult to receive.

I have been a pastor (both Protestant and later Orthodox) for over 30 years. I have buried over 400 people, many of whose deaths I was present for. I have seen the death of young children, the accidental deaths of children and spouses, suicides, and ever form of disease and suffering. And having been witness to all these things, I remain convinced of the goodness of God and His kindness.

I can never begin to describe the difficult situations in which I have pondered and even doubted the goodness of God. I am sure that my experience would be echoed by the experience of many others. And yet, despite everything, I remain convinced of His goodness and kindness towards us in all things.

The witness of Scripture draws a witness to the work of God: with a secret hand the Lord wars with Amalek.The secrecy of God’s work is perhaps what we find most scandalous. We would prefer that His work be open, undeniable and the content of our proclamation to the world. But believers often find themselves in the position of apologists, defending God, making effort in the face of human events to assure others that He loves us and cares for us. The most difficult attacks on the faith are those made against the goodness of God.

I believe the witness of Scripture holds the key: with a secret hand. What God is doing in our lives and in our world frequently remains opaque – we cannot see it clearly. I also believe that the opacity is not because of God, but because of the hardness of our own hearts. We do not see clearly, do not judge rightly, and rarely see the work of God in its proper perspective. This is the work of our own sin – and not a failure on God’s part.

I can say, of mine own experience, that I have occasionally seen this to be true, usually in rebuke of my own hard-heartedness. But I also take account of the witness of those good souls (such as the saints) who have told me far more than my darkened heart could see on its own. Such witnesses have never scandalized me – except for the scandal of my own darkness.

I was asked by a friend recently, “What makes a good confession?” I could only offer an answer from my own experience as a sinner. A good confession (for me) is one in which I bring the darkness of my own heart into the light of God. My darkness is generally surrounded in secrets – and not of the healthy kind. The light of God destroys the darkness of hidden sin and makes all things new. God’s “secret hand” is only for my healing. My secret hand is usually for my destruction.

The goodness of God is true and trustworthy. I bear witness to this as the truth – even with the flaws that my witness contains. But I have never heard it contradicted by the saints.

God give us grace to behold His secret hand and to give thanks always, for all things.

Right, Wrong and the Image of God

August 14, 2010

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Romans 12:1-2).

St. Paul calls the Christians in Rome (as he would Christians everywhere) to the essential Christian life – “be transformed.” For many modern Christians, this admonition of the great Apostle is understood as a moral transformation. The mind leaves behind the immoral thoughts of a sinful culture, and switches its allegiance to the moral world of Christianity.

As an interpretation of the Scriptures, such a reading is extremely “thin.” The changing of our allegiance to a new set of ideals renders the verse as a mere exhortation to self-improvement. Such moralistic treatments of the Scriptures remove the depth and mystery to which the great Apostle refers. To be transformed is not the same thing as adopting a new set of moral standards: it describes a deep transformation in which we become somehow different than we are at present – at the deepest level of our existence.

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).

This transformation is both a gift of the Holy Spirit and our steady cooperation with that gift. Throughout the centuries there have various efforts to reduce Christianity to nothing more than a moral system. Thomas Jefferson, one of the early American presidents, produced an edited version of the Bible in which he eliminated miracles and retained only the so-called “moral” or “ethical” teachings. Such efforts have largely grown from a mistaken understanding of the Christian faith and a rejection of the most fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.

Today, many Christians acknowledge the divinity of Christ and believe that He died for their sins – but having accepted this much they then consider the rest of their Christian life to consist of efforts to live correctly. No one should discourage someone from trying to do good – but efforts to live a moral life which are not efforts united to the transforming work of Christ within us are misguided, and, in some cases, positively harmful.

We begin our life in Christ by being united with Him in Holy Baptism. Having begun our life through union with Christ, we should continue our life through union with Christ.

Christ within you, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27).

Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved – St. Seraphim of Sarov

It is possible for someone to be “moral” or to live “ethically” without wonder, without joy. But it is not possible to live a life united to Christ without wonder and joy. St. Gregory of Nyssa, writing in the 4th century, said that “Man is mud, whom God has commanded to become god.” The moral life, lived apart from union with Christ, will never rise to the level of God’s true commandment. Only the transforming grace of God can do such a work in us.

God is looking for something more than a few good men.

Restful Beauty

August 13, 2010

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Russian painter Mikhail Nesterov, posted with vodpod