Traveling Alone

Early this morning, our family took Chris to the airport. 

During our July 2018 visit to St Herman’s Monastery, the Abbot told Chris that the next step in exploring his calling to monasticism was a two-week visit to the monastery. Chris decided to wait until he finished his AA degree, which he accomplished this past August. So now, he’s taking a solo trip to the monastery. This is both his first time traveling alone and his first time on a plane.

I am emotionally torn about Chris’ calling. As his dad, I don’t want to lose my youngest. Imagining a life without him is too heart-breaking. Frankly, I’m already struggling with the prospect of two weeks without any contact with him.

But I’m also filled with joy and excitement for him as he learns to follow God into his unique life-calling. As someone who had a similar calling into professional pastoral ministry, I know that joy firsthand. I know what it’s like to wake up each morning with a sense of purpose in this world.

And as one who is no longer pursuing that calling into professional ministry, I also know the inner turmoil, self-doubt, and even depression that accompanies not fulfilling a calling.

I wish I could join Chris on this trip. But this next step, and all the subsequent steps, can only be walked by Chris alone. The monastic life is a solitary life. Chris will not be able to find solace or affirmation from family and friends. He must learn to trust God as his Good Shepherd. Because of this, my role in Chris’ journey has changed since our trip together in 2018.

I’ve done all I can to prepare Chris for this trip. And I will help him with any future trips. And if possible, Debbie and I will one day walk him through the monastery gates and entrust him finally to his abbot.

But now my role is to pray for him continuously and coach from the sidelines when appropriate as my son travels alone.

Visiting St Herman’s

Back in July 2018, Chris, who is my youngest son, and I visited St Herman’s Monastery near Platina, CA. We took this journey together because he feels called to monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I wrote the following reflection soon after the trip, but never posted it. I’ve decided to post it now because immediately following this upcoming busy holiday season, Chris will leave for an extended stay at the monastery as the next step of pursuing his calling. I assume I will be posting reflections over the next year as he moves forward in the process. So it seemed like the right time to post this initial reflection from our first trip to St Herman’s.

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It was the final moments of a long trip. I was sitting in the dark on the bus with my youngest son. 

The trip to the monastery was fourteen hours. Then three days of physical, emotional and spiritual intensity. Then fourteen hours back home.

Chris and I visited St Herman’s Monastery on a quest, a pilgrimage. For some time, Chris has felt called to monasticism. In many ways I see a bit of my young self in him. I was in my late teens when I became a Christian. Passionate to follow Jesus, who gave me a new life, I sensed a calling to ministry.

Now my youngest senses a call to monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church. And where I had no one to help me explore my calling, I have committed to help Chris explore his calling as best as I can.

If monasticism is his vocation, his call is more severe than mine. If he chooses to become a monk, his vows will sever him from our family in order to embrace a lifetime of ascetical hardship and suffering. Chances are I will rarely see him again, maybe never. As his dad, this absolutely crushes me. The thought of him never being present in our family’s life, never seeing his face or seeing him smile or hearing his voice shatters me to the core.

So I don’t want him to make this decision by himself. I will travel this road with him as best and as far as I can to help him determine what God is calling him to do with his life.

My role on this trip was simple — to help him get to the monastery and back, to support him in any way possible, and to pray for him. Most of my trip was spent praying for and talking with him. We discussed various aspects of the monastic calling and what it meant to follow Jesus in any context. I tried to help him understand Scriptures, to answer questions, to process his thoughts and to pray. And pray. And pray.

Chris has such a beautiful heart toward God. He truly wants to give himself fully to God and to be shaped into his fullness. My greatest fear is such a life might be wasted in pursuing the wrong thing. If he’s not called to the monastic life, then he will endure great pain and hardship in isolation when he could have made an impact for God in the marketplace and in our family. But if he is called to the monastic life, I lose my son.

Our trip was a success. It was one step in a journey. Chris met his expectations for the trip and I met mine.

So sitting in the dark on the bus, pulling into our final destination, I listened as Chris spoke with a young woman. She had asked about our trip and Chris tried to explain our journey to the monastery. She responded by saying, “That’s a really long trip to take.” And Chris’ response broke through my fears, my ache, my fatigue….

“I would have been lost without my dad.”

I know his statement was specifically about our trip. But, for me, I hope it speaks prophetically about the journey that lies ahead for him… and for me.

Not Chosen By God

PassionsThe other day I was reading Acts 1:21-26. This is the episode when the Apostles replace the fallen Judas as one of The Twelve.

Twelve is not just a nice round number. Twelve Apostles are necessary to continue Jesus’ work. Jesus is restoring Israel, God’s people, around himself. As the twelve tribes followed God’s presence in the pillar of fire, the twelve Apostles followed God’s presence in Jesus. They are embodying God’s renewed plan for Israel, so twelve Apostles are absolutely necessary to move forward.

So after a vetting process, the eleven Apostles find two qualified men — Mathias and Justus. And with a cast of lots, God chooses Mathias… and doesn’t choose Justus.

And the story quickly moves on. But I can’t.

My thoughts keep returning to Justus. Who was this man? What did he think and feel to be one of the two finalists to join The Twelve, only to watch God choose the other man?

Scripture provides us very little. He was known by three names — Joseph, Barsabbas and Justus.

Church tradition fills in some biographical gaps. Justus was a son of Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, from his first wife Salome. In other words, Justus was Jesus’ step-brother.

Now some people may be scratching their heads and asking, “Wait a minute. You’re saying Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, was married to someone else before Mary?” Yes. The image of a young Joseph and Mary depicted in our modern Christmas story is incorrect.

According to Church tradition, Joseph was previously married to Salome. They had four sons and two daughters before she died and left Joseph a widower. These are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” mentioned in the Gospels and include James (author of the Book of James), Jude (author of the Book of Jude), and Justus.

What about Mary?

Dedicated to God by her parents, Joachim and Anna, Mary grew up as a little girl in the Temple. Young women could not live in the Temple once they reached puberty. An elderly Joseph, now a widower, is selected by lots to become young Mary’s husband-caretaker. After birthing Jesus, Mary remains a virgin the entirety of her life. Joseph and Mary never had any children together.

So back to Justus.

Justus was among the original members of Jesus’ ministry. He was eventually chosen by Jesus to be among The Seventy, who were sent out as part of his ministry (Luke 10). Justus ultimately became the Bishop of Eleutheropolis and died a martyr. So we know that he faithfully served Jesus and his people his entire life.

Beyond the biographical information, Church tradition is as silent as Scripture regarding Justus’ thoughts and feelings at not being chosen by God.

At this point one can only speculate. I think it’s safe to assume that Justus was like any other person. So I wonder if he experienced disappointment, doubt or depression. What was going on in his head? One cannot be passed over by God without asking introspective questions. Was I not worthy enough? Did I do something wrong? Am I disqualified? Why him and not me? What now?

I also wonder if inactivity increased the volume of that inner voice. Jesus had instructed his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Father (Acts 1:4). And so they waited and prayed in the upper room. What did he feel when he saw Mathias now huddling with the other eleven Apostles? What were Justus’ prayers like? What was he saying to God? Was he repenting of envy over his friend’s new position? Was he praying for clarity over why he was passed over? Or was he praying for strength, safety and wisdom for his friend? From personal experience, I think his prayers were a mixture of everything.

Mere days later, God’s wind and fire would rest on Justus along with the other hundred-plus believers. In that moment, perhaps Justus’ thoughts and feelings of rejection are swept away in this amazing flurry of excitement and activity. Perhaps his questions are answered as he and the astounded community of believers realize they are now empowered to continue what Jesus had started. Regardless of position, there was new work to be done by all.

In a short reflection on Justus, NT Wright states, “Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.”

Knowing that Justus’ ultimate trajectory was to become Bishop and Martyr, I would like to think he quickly grasped that truth and found his fulfillment in whatever God placed before him. While God didn’t choose him to be one of The Twelve, he knew God had chosen him for service. And by embracing that vocation, he faithfully served God’s people and ultimately followed his Savior’s example, sacrificing his life in love.

And centuries later, Justus’ life still serves as a quiet example for all who feel they haven’t been chosen by God.

Father, some mornings I wake up wondering if I completely failed you and have been disqualified from your work. May Justus’ faithful life be an encouragement. There’s always work to be done in your kingdom. Keep my focus on that. And when necessary, remind me that whatever work you place before me, it is neither “great” nor “small”. It is work for which your Spirit has called and empowered me to do. May Justus remind me to be faithful to the end.

Being Before Behavior

Hands b&w-sRGB“A Christian is: a mind through which Christ thinks, a heart through which Christ loves, a voice through which Christ speaks, and a hand through which Christ helps.” -St Augustine

St Augustine’s quote is a beautiful expression of an incarnational life, a life that genuinely embodies Jesus so that he naturally lives through that person.

An incarnational life expresses itself in behaviors, habits, thoughts, attitudes and feelings that naturally reflect Christ. But it doesn’t originate there. The incarnational life first and foremost embodies Christ in our very being. The fancy theological word for this is “ontological.”

Fr Stephen Freeman has written an article on the ontological approach to understanding salvation that provides the proper context for discussing life in God. I would highly recommend reading his article. This ontological perspective is one of the primary theological perspectives that attracted me to Eastern Orthodoxy.

God is the only true Being. God gives us being and is the continual source of our being. His goal is for us to move toward “well-being” and ultimately to “eternal being” in communion with him.

Cluster of GrapesIn this light, right or wrong is either the path toward eternal being or non-being. Or to borrow Jesus’ imagery, it’s either remaining connected to the vine and naturally thriving or being cut off and naturally withering.

In contrast, the popular, yet distorted theology views right and wrong from a legal perspective of obedience and reward or disobedience and punishment — behavior and consequence. Sin is seen as immoral behavior and death its punishment while salvation is viewed as obedience and living forever its reward.

But from an ontological perspective, life or death are not the reward or punishment of our behavior. Life and death are about our being. In this light, salvation defines life — salvation is life and life is salvation. And death defines sin — sin is death and death is sin.

So life is well-being and ultimately eternal being as one remains in communion with God, the Source of Being and Life. Death is sub-being and ultimately non-being as one severs communion with God.

This is the framework for understanding Christian life. The incarnational life, a life that naturally embodies Jesus, is first and foremost God’s life in our being that naturally expresses itself through my will, mind and body into my relationships and world. From this perspective, St Augustine’s vision of incarnational life is an expression of life and well-being and not only behavior.

Too often, the discussion of Christ’s likeness centers only on behavior. In other words, a person is considered to be like Christ if he or she avoids certain negative behaviors like drinking, smoking and lying and adhering to positive behaviors like feeding the poor, attending church, acting lovingly, and praying for people. From this perspective, I expend my energy modifying my behavior to adhere to a list of appropriate behaviors, usually determined by the specific faith community in which I live and associate.

But as good as that behavior might be, by itself it isn’t necessarily Christ’s likeness. Again, the incarnational life that naturally embodies Jesus is ontological. The core issue is being, not behavior. From our being, and thus our well-being and eternal being, springs behavior.

So I should expend my energy cooperating with God in the transformation of my being — to choose the ongoing path of life and well-being in intimate communion with God.

Not Worthy Of Them

“The world was not worthy of them.” -Hebrews 11:38

What a wonderful epitaph to have proclaimed over one’s life. The writer of Hebrews declares this after a lengthy list of people popularly called the “Faith Hall of Fame.”

Cloud of WitnessesOne of the beautiful aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy are the icons of the saints. The saints are those whom the Church recognizes to have lived a full life of actually enduring to the likeness of Christ. Most are apostles, martyrs, church fathers, and monastics. But for every recognized saint, there are thousands upon thousands of unknown and unmentioned saints.

These unknown saints are the ordinary men and women who lived daily lives of faith, love and piety. They worked ordinary jobs and performed ordinary tasks. They are the “jars of clay” containing the unsurpassable treasure of God’s presence.

The other day, I heard a woman describe her 89-year old mother as a “saint” because she never drank, smoked or cussed. While I don’t doubt that her mom is a saint, I take issue with her measuring rod. A person is not a saint simply by adhering to a set of regulations or morality. A saint is someone who is set apart for God through his or her personal and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause — to transform and renew this world into his Father’s New Creation.

Like a stubborn toddler resisting and fighting against bath-time, this world resists God’s renewal. Unfortunately, the world fights back with far more destructive and violent forces. And those committed to the world’s renewal suffer. They lose reputation, friends, jobs, homes, health and frequently, life.

But they endure. They endure with grief, sadness, pain and loss merged with an indescribable peace, joy and hope. They endure because the one who will transform and renew the world has already begun the process in them. And so, they carry in themselves the promise of God’s future here in the present. And so they trust him and follow him. It sets them apart. They are saints.

Saints aren’t perfect. They struggle, sin and suffer. They are real people. They have different color skin. They speak with different accents. They hold different values. They raise their kids differently. They attend different churches. They enjoy different movies and books. They prefer different genders. They have different life goals. They manage their money differently. They have different political views. They have different scientific views. They have different spiritual views.

But they have one thing in common. They love God. They’re loyal to Jesus and his cause. They are being renewed by God’s Spirit, tasting a bit of God’s future today. As such, they are beneficiaries and agents of God’s New Creation. And for this they struggle to live by the life of God’s future world here and now and suffer as the world around them resists.

Upon completing his “Faith Hall of Fame,” the writer of Hebrews makes direct application:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Certainly this vast cloud is filled with those who have gone before us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women who drew close to God and lived a life of intimate and loyal faith.

But the cloud also contains the aspiring saints around us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women we encounter daily. They are our spouses. They are our kids. They are our friends. They are our co-workers. They are the single man or woman living a life of purity. They are the mom who works long hours to support her family. They are the dad who comforts his sick child in the late hours of night. They are the grandma who quietly and consistently prays for the people on her street. They are the cashier at Walmart smiling at every person. They are the UPS driver faithfully delivering our packages. They are the policewoman on patrol. They are the waiter at our favorite restaurant. They are the guy that cut us off on the freeway. They are the kids playing Pokemon GO.

Because God’s family overlaps the past, present and future, the great cloud of witnesses includes those who have successfully endured the struggle of loyal faith to Jesus and his transformative project, those who still struggle and suffer in their endurance, and even those who will yet endure.

And you and I are surrounded by this great cloud, this awesome community. We’re surrounded, because we are part of it. So, let’s throw off everything that hinders and entangles and run that race marked out specifically for us, with a deeply intimate and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause.

Authentic Sainthood

Peter's DenialI first saw this icon in a Facebook post by St John the Evangelist Orthodox Church.

I absolutely love this icon. For me, it captures a level of authenticity unlike other icons. This is an icon of Peter’s denial.

Four things immediately grabbed my attention when I saw this icon:

First, is the accusatory gaze of the rooster. If a bird ever looked at me like that, I would ring it’s neck. Or at least throw a rock at it. But Peter didn’t do either. Because in the sound of its crow and gaze of its eyes, he heard his friend’s voice, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

Second, is the despair on Peter’s face. This is a man at his absolute worst. Despite his bragging and posturing, he completely failed his friend. He has failed the movement. And as far as he knows, he has completely disqualified himself from everything Jesus spoke about and worked for. There are some failures from which you cannot recover, and this is one of them. And now, stared down by a lousy fowl, he’s curled into a shell of a man.

Third, is the smoldering fire. It’s barely burning, almost reduced to wisps of smoke. But those wisps ascend to heaven and are noticed by God. I think it’s very symbolic of this failed man. It reminds me of Isaiah’s prophecy, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

Fourth, is the halo. In the midst of failure, accusation, and despair, the halo remains. Peter doesn’t know it yet, but hope and holiness still shine in the darkness.

Peter was pretty familiar with failure. It seems to be one of the Gospels’ subplots. If it wasn’t so tragic, we would confuse Peter as the comedic sidekick to Jesus’ heroic journey. He’s brash. Quick to speak. Quicker to misstep. Sinks like a stone in the water. Called “Satan” by Jesus. Confuses flailing for swordsmanship and cuts off Malchus’ ear in an attempt to defend Jesus. And now, when his devotion counts the most, he denies Jesus three times.

But where any of these failures may have driven most men to quit and return home, Peter never walks away. Well… not until after his denial and Jesus’ torturous death on a Roman cross. At that point, it’s all over. Messiahs don’t get crucified. They don’t die at the hands of the army they’re supposed to rout.

So perhaps Peter’s failure was needed at that moment. I think Peter may have been brash enough to attempt to continue Jesus’ movement without him. And in doing so, he would have interfered with God’s far greater plan. So Peter’s ultimate failure in the courtyard when confronted by a young girl was the necessary breaking point in a man both to get him out of the way as well as to prepare him.

So disillusioned and stripped of self-confidence and grandiose plans, Peter returns to his life before Jesus called him to follow. Or so he thought.

I love how the scene plays out in John 21. Peter is trying to forget Jesus by immersing himself in his old life and work. Jesus appears on the shore and does the exact same thing he did the day he called Peter.

And Peter gets it.

His immediate response is still brash. But it’s a brashness similar to the prodigal son, a story Peter must have heard Jesus share many times. It’s a brashness that compels him to run to Jesus’ side. Well, actually swim, not run. I wonder if Peter thought to himself as he was struggling to the shore, “Now would be a great time to walk on water, Jesus.”

But there would be no divine assist this time. This time Peter needs to struggle to Jesus himself. Sometimes God needs to stand back and let us exercise our will and devotion.

What a morning that must have been for Peter. Breakfast with the resurrected Jesus. Jesus was not covered with bruises and blood like he was barely alive and somehow survived his torture and entombment. No this was a living, healed and vibrant Jesus.

And after breakfast, Peter takes a personal and painfully therapeutic walk with Jesus. He relives the failure from three days prior. And like his friend who was lain dead in the grave and now walks next to him with new life, Peter’s failure is resurrected and transformed into a commission.

Prior to his denial, Peter probably had the audacity to continue Jesus’ movement in the wake of his perceived failure at the hands of the Romans. Now commissioned, he is empowered to be the initial spokesperson and leader of Jesus’ movement in the wake of his glorious ascension forty days later.

And Peter’s transformation would not have been possible without crushing failure.

God does not extinguish the smoldering wick. In God’s New Creation, the smoldering wick can become the shining star.

Why Are We Here?

The standing congregation sings the Cherubic Hymn. “Let us lay aside our earthly cares that we may receive the king of all.” The tune is accentuated by the chiming of each swing of the deacon’s censor. Fragrant incense fills the room. Icons of saints look on. This is a holy moment.

Then the harmonies are disrupted with the dissonant crying from a discontented child. This pulls my attention back to my surroundings. As I glance around, I notice people shuffling tired feet and stretching aching backs. Others, both children and adults, look distracted. One heads to grab a tissue. Another exits toward the bathrooms.

I wonder to myself, “Why are we here?” Why do we gather every week? What brings us together like this? Shouldn’t we ask that question before each service?

Maybe someone is here looking for absolution for a word or deed they regret. Or perhaps it’s to find the love of God. Maybe it’s to be embraced in the comfort of friends. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to serve God and others. Maybe it’s simply out of cultural obligation. Perhaps it’s to impress parents, friends or a potential suitor. Maybe it’s to express thankfulness for a joyful event this past week. Maybe it’s to soothe the pain of the past week or to prepare for the demands of the coming week. Maybe it’s to be a good example for ones children. Perhaps the fires of spiritual renewal need to be answered. The answers to the question are as varied as the people in the room.

Body & BloodAs the hymn draws to an end, the iconostasis doors open and the Great Procession begins. The priest carries Jesus’ body and blood into our midst. HE IS PRESENT RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!

That’s why we’re here. The life and love of Jesus. His presence breathes onto all that we have carried into this place as he offers himself to us. Come. Eat and drink. My life for yours.

And we respond by offering him our lives with all of our joys and sadnesses, faith and fears, commitments and distractions.

In this holy moment he sweeps all of us and all we are and all we bring into a moment when heaven and earth kiss.

In the quiet, a mother near me hands her distracted toddler a graham cracker. She excitedly coos, “Coooookie!”

This is truly a holy moment.

A Concise Summary

Jesus' LikenessThe other day on Facebook I posted a homily by Fr Barnabas Powell called “This IS Eternal Life.” I mentioned in my post that this homily was probably the most concise summary of why I became an Orthodox Christian. But that wasn’t entirely what I wanted to say.

What I wanted to say was Fr Barnabas’ homily was probably the most concise summary of why I became an Orthodox Christian AND why I’m very tempted to leave the Orthodox Church after almost eight years.

Our family entered the Orthodox Church because we saw the potential of what Fr Barnabas described. We are created in the image of God to be formed into the likeness of Jesus — to become by grace what Christ is by nature. My years as a Christian have brought me to a similar conclusion. And we saw the resources of the Orthodox Church as the “equipment” to aid us in that purpose.

But our experience has not synced with our expectations. I don’t want to unpack my issues here. Suffice it to say, after almost eight years, Debbie and I are still struggling with significant unmet expectations. As Fr Barnabas states in his homily, becoming by grace what Christ is by nature is the purpose of Orthodoxy. “If that ain’t happening in your life, then you’re not doing it right.”

I realize I must take full responsibility for my journey to Christ’s likeness. I am not blaming anyone for any deficit in my own life. My relationship with God is my responsibility. Yet, we expected to join our personal journeys into a community of other like-minded people. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. And trust me, we’ve looked.

We have very good friends in the Orthodox Church. I’m sorry if I offend any of them with what I’ve written. This is something that has been weighing heavily on me for a long time and I wanted to give it expression. And again, I’m not attempting to dodge any personal responsibility.

Back when I was part of the Emergent/Home Church, I held some core values — the inward journey toward Christ’s likeness, the outward journey toward an incarnational and missional life and the corporate journey of a deep life-sharing community that supported and empowered all of this. I still hold those values. I’m looking for fellow Christ-followers who want to become like him, who want to implement God’s New Creation in this world that Jesus started, and who want to do it together.

At this point, I have no desire or plans to leave Orthodoxy. I still see the vision that Fr Barnabas proclaimed. I’m just not experiencing it and can’t find it in any other local parish. So I continue to focus on my personal responsibilities to become like Christ and hope to find others with whom we can join our lives.

Prayers & A Truck

Damaged TruckYesterday, my oldest child, Michael, was in a car accident. At 7:30 am, he was sitting at a stoplight when a car slammed into him from the rear. The force of the collision propelled Michael’s truck across the intersection. Fortunately, Michael kept his wits about him and quickly steered left to avoid a trash truck perpendicular to him in the intersection and then quickly steered right to avoid the cars facing him on the other side of the intersection. Michael walked away from that accident very sore but safe.

The other driver took full responsibility for the accident. He claimed his defroster wasn’t working quickly enough and he never saw the red stoplight or Michael’s truck or brake lights. The entire front of the other driver’s Honda was completely crumpled while only the rear bumper and muffler of Michael’s 1994 Chevy S10 was severely damaged.

Grandpa LeonardMichael’s truck has some history. It belonged to my Grandpa, who bought it new. When my Grandpa passed in 2001, it was handed down to my Dad. And he recently handed it down to Michael earlier this year. Michael loves the truck, even though it’s older and the air conditioner doesn’t work. He loves driving a piece of family history. I don’t blame him. It’s the last tangible piece of my Grandpa that remains.

So here’s where things get a little interesting. And I know there will be those who read what follows with a bit of skepticism. During Divine Liturgy this past Sunday, I felt a very strong compulsion to pray for my Grandpa and Grandma. This has only happened a couple of times in the past several years. Eastern Orthodox Christianity believes in a significant continuity between those who have passed and those who are currently on earth. It makes sense. Those who have passed are as alive, if not more alive than us who are presently on earth. So we pray for those who have passed and we ask them to pray for us.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know how any of this works. But I strongly believe that the compulsion I had to pray for my Grandpa and Grandma was not a mere coincidence, especially when less than 24 hours later, Michael walks away virtually unscathed from an accident in my Grandpa’s truck.

My Grandpa was not a religious man in any way. In fact, he held a disdain for religion and anyone in religious authority. As I’ve gotten older and nurse my own wounds inflicted by Christian leaders, I realize that I have some of the same attitudes as him. But my Grandpa loved his great-grandkids. I have fond memories of him holding them as babies. I know this sounds extremely sentimental and a far-reaching stretch, but somehow through his truck, I imagine my Grandpa somehow holding Michael during that accident.

So, I’m very thankful today. I’m thankful to God for watching over my son. I’m thankful for all of the prayers on Michael’s behalf. And I’m thankful for my Grandpa’s truck that protected him.

For The Life Of The World

For_The_Life_Of_The_WorldWhen I was beginning my journey away from professional ministry, I came across the phrase, “for the sake of the world,” which I believe is attributed to Karl Barth. This phrase became a centerpiece of my reconstructed theology. Later, as I was beginning to explore Eastern Orthodoxy, I came across a similar phrase, “for the life of the world.” Not only is it the title of a quintessential book by Fr Alexander Schmemman, but more importantly, it’s also a line from one of the priest’s prayers during Divine Liturgy, “On the night when He was delivered up, or rather when He gave Himself up for the life of the world…”

These two phrases remind me that God’s mission, while having a personal dimension in our lives, is far larger than any of us. Remember, for God so loved the world. Everything God is accomplishing is for the life of the world. Christ was sent out of God’s love for the life of the world. We are being saved by Christ and into Christ for the life of the world. We are becoming truly human in Christ’s likeness for the life of the world. We are God’s image-bearers and creation’s stewards for the life of the world. Our lives are mobile temples of God’s presence, stitching heaven and earth together for the life of the world. Our experience of God’s forgiveness, mercy and transformation is for the life of the world.

I’ve mentioned this before, but in Romans 8:18-27, St Paul summarizes how the world is liberated and renewed. Creation is groaning. Redeemed humanity is embedded in creation and joins in the groaning. And God’s Spirit is embedded in redeemed humanity, also joining in the groaning. This groaning is the pain of childbirth and intercession. God’s New Creation is being birthed from within creation, redeemed humanity, and the Holy Spirit, each embedded in the other. Our role is to be the bridge between the world and the Spirit, giving expression to their groans through our own for the life of the world.

In Colossians 1:27, St Paul writes, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Here’s the revealed mystery — Christ dwelling in us is the hope of Habakkuk’s prophecy fulfilled, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters covers the sea.” Christ dwells in us as a future-pointing sign that God’s glory will fill the earth. Christ dwells in us for the life of the world.

During Divine Liturgy, as the priest presents the Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood are offered for the life of the world. But it’s not only Christ. As his Body on earth, we, his redeemed community, join his offering. As Christ gave himself up for the life of the world, we too give up our lives for the life of the world. Where his life was offered to launch God’s New Creation for the life of the world, now our lives are offered to carry out God’s New Creation for the life of the world.

The Purpose of Pentecost

Prayer_CandlesToday the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost. The following excerpt by NT Wright is longer than what I would normally post. But it’s a clear and succinct summary of Pentecost. The takeaway for me is the quote, “It’s about God giving to his redeemed people the way of life by which they must now carry out his purposes.”

So much has already been said from all quarters regarding Pneumatology. And many times, the focus has been misplaced, such as upon phenomena or an individual’s gifts. But whether the flame and wind of the Spirit come as a firestorm and hurricane or as a steady flicker and gentle breeze, it’s the same untamable Spirit working in and through God’s people to heal humanity and creation. It’s about God and his lavish Gift by which we, his redeemed people, carry out his purposes in the world he loves.

That’s the purpose of Pentecost.

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“Sometimes a name, belonging to one particular person, becomes so attached to a particular object or product that we forget where it originally came from. The obvious example is ‘Hoover’: in England at least we speak of ‘the Hoover’ when we mean ‘the vacuum cleaner’, happily ignoring the fact that quite a lot of vacuum cleaners are made by other companies which owe nothing to the original Mr Hoover. It is as though Henry Ford had been so successful in car production that people said ‘the Ford’ when they meant ‘the car’, even if in fact it was a Volvo.

Something similar has happened with the word ‘Pentecost’. If ‘Pentecost’ means anything at all to most people today, it is probably something to do with ‘Pentecostalism’. And that — again, if it means anything to people at all — probably signifies a somewhat wild form of Christian religious experience and practice, outside the main stream of church life, involving a lot of noise and waving of arms, and (of course) speaking in tongues. We often forget that all Christians, not only those who call themselves ‘Pentecostalists’, derive their meaning from the first Pentecost. We often forget, too, perhaps equally importantly, just what ‘Pentecost’ itself originally was and meant.

For a first-century Jew, Pentecost was the fiftieth day after Passover. It was an agricultural festival. It was the day when farmers brought the first sheaf of wheat from the crop, and offered it to God, partly as a sign of gratitude and partly as a prayer that all the rest of the crop, too, would be safely gathered in. But, for the Jew, neither Passover nor Pentecost were simply agricultural festivals. These festivals awakened echoes of the great story which dominated the long memories of the Jewish people, the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when God fulfilled his promises to Abraham by rescuing his people. Passover was the time when the lambs were sacrificed, and the Israelites were saved from the avenging angel who slew the firstborn of the Egyptians. Off went the Israelites that very night, and passed through the Red Sea into the Sinai desert. Then, 50 days after Passover, they came to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law. Pentecost, the fiftieth day, isn’t (in other words) just about the ‘first fruits’, the sheaf which says the harvest has begun. It’s about God giving to his redeemed people the way of life by which they must now carry out his purposes.

All of that, and more besides, keeps peeping out from behind what the New Testament says about the spirit, and about Pentecost in particular. For Luke there is a kind of easy assumption that people would know about the first fruits. He can more or less take it for granted that readers will see this story, of the apostles being filled with the spirit and then going on to bear powerful witness to Jesus and his resurrection and to win converts from the very first day, as a sign that this is like the sheaf which is offered to God as the sign of the great harvest to come. And, when we look closely at the way some Jews told the story of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, we can see some parallels there, too. When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses went up the mountain, and then came down again with the law. Here, Jesus has gone up into heaven in the ascension, and — so Luke wants us to understand — he is now coming down again, not with a written law carved on tablets of stone, but with the dynamic energy of the law, designed to be written on human hearts.

‘Pentecost’, then, is a word with very particular meaning, which Luke is keen that we should grasp. But of course the first day of Pentecost, and the experience of God’s spirit from that day to this, can no more be reduced to theological formulae and interesting Old Testament echoes than you can reduce a hurricane to a list of diagrams on a meteorologist’s chart. It’s important that someone somewhere is tracking the hurricane and telling us what it’s doing, but when it comes to Pentecost it’s far more important that you’re out there in the wind, letting it sweep through your life, your heart, your imagination, your powers of speech, and transform you from a listless or lifeless believer into someone whose heart is on fire with the love of God. Those images of wind and fire are of course what Luke says it was like on the first day. Many Christians in many traditions have used similar images to describe what it is sometimes like when the spirit comes to do new things in the lives of individuals and communities.

It is most significant, in the light of what we said before about the ascension, that the wind came ‘from heaven’ (verse 2). The whole point is that, through the spirit, some of the creative power of God himself comes from heaven to earth and does its work there. The aim is not to give people a ‘spirituality’ which will make the things of earth irrelevant. The point is to transform earth with the power of heaven, starting with those parts of ‘earth’ which consist of the bodies, minds, hearts and lives of the followers of Jesus — as a community: notice that, in verse 1, Luke stresses the fact that they were all together in one place; the spirit comes, not to divide, but to unite. The coming of the spirit at Pentecost, in other words, is the complementary fact to the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The risen Jesus in heaven is the presence, in God’s sphere, of the first part of ‘earth’ to be transformed into ‘new creation’ in which heaven and earth are joined; the pouring out of the spirit on earth is the presence, in our sphere, of the sheer energy of heaven itself. The gift of the spirit is thus the direct result of the ascension of Jesus. Because he is the Lord of all, his energy, the power to be and do something quite new, is available through the spirit to all who call on him, all who follow him, all who trust him.

The wind and the fire are wild, untameable forces, and the experience of the wind rushing through the house with a great roar, and the fire coming to rest on each person present, must have been both terrifying and exhilarating. Of course, there are many times later in this book, as there are many times in the life of the church, when the spirit works softly and secretly, quietly transforming people’s lives and situations without any big noise or fuss. People sometimes suppose that this is the norm, and that the noise, the force and the fire are the exception — just as some have supposed, within ‘Pentecostal’ and similar circles, that without the noise and the fire, and particularly the speaking in tongues, something is seriously lacking or deficient. We should beware of drawing either conclusion. Luke clearly intends to describe something new, something that launched a great movement, as a fleet of ships is launched by the strong wind that drives them out to sea or a forest fire is started by a few small flames. He intends to explain how it was that a small group of frightened, puzzled and largely uneducated men and women could so quickly become, as they undoubtedly did, a force to be reckoned with right across the known world.

In particular, Luke highlights this strange phenomenon of ‘speaking in tongues’. This has been a prominent feature of some parts of church life in the last century or so, though for many previous generations and in many parts of church history it has been virtually unknown. It occurs, it seems, in other religions, as Paul was aware (1 Corinthians 12.2–3). Some people try to sweep ‘tongues’ aside as if it was a peculiar thing which happened early on and which, fortunately, doesn’t need to happen any more. Sometimes this is combined with a sense of the need to control the emotions, both one’s own and other people’s. But ‘speaking in tongues’ and similar phenomena are, very often, a way of getting in touch with deeply buried emotions and bringing them to the surface in praise, celebration, grief or sorrow, or urgent desire turned into prayer. It is hard, seeing the importance of ‘tongues’ in the New Testament, and their manifest usefulness in these and other ways, to go along with the idea that they should be ruled out for today’s church.

In particular, it is precisely part of being a genuine human being, made and renewed in God’s image, that people should do that most characteristic thing, using words and language, in quite a new way. We are called to be people of God’s word, and God’s word can never be controlled by rationalistic schemes, or contained within the tight little frameworks that we invent to keep everything tidy and under control.

People sometimes feel guilty if they think they haven’t had such wonderful experiences as the apostles had on the first Pentecost. Or they feel jealous of those who seem to have had things like this happen to them. About this there are two things to say. First, as we saw in the first chapter, God moves mysteriously among his people, dealing with each individual in a different way. Some people are allowed remarkable experiences, perhaps (we can’t always tell) because they are going to have to go into difficult situations and need to know very directly just how dramatically powerful and life-transforming God can be. Other people have to work in quiet and patient ways and not rely on a sudden burst of extra power to fix all the problems which in fact need a much more steady, and perhaps much deeper, work. There is no room for pride or jealousy in a well-ordered fellowship, where everybody is as delighted with the gifts given to others as with those given to themselves.

Second, it is clear from words of Jesus himself (Luke 11.13) that God longs to give the holy spirit to people, and that all we have to do is ask. What the spirit will do when he comes is anybody’s guess. Be prepared for wind and fire, for some fairly drastic spring-cleaning of the dusty and cold rooms of one’s life. But we should not doubt that God will give his spirit to all who seek him, and that the form and direction that any particular spirit-led life will take will be (ultimately, and assuming obedience and faith) the one that will enable that person, uniquely, to bring glory to God.”

NT Wright, Acts For Everyone

Coming To Grips With Calling

ObscureSince joining the Orthodox Church, I have wrestled with my sense of calling. For most of my adult life, I believed I was called to professional ministry. It was something that motivated me daily. I studied for it, trained for it, and poured everything I had into it. And even when I left professional ministry and co-founded a small home church, I continued to pursue the calling at a non-professional level. This calling formed the core of my identity.

However, joining the Orthodox Church threw everything into a state of internal turmoil. For several reasons, I immediately knew that I was not called to be a priest. My “talents” were in pastoral care and studying & teaching Scripture, not liturgics. I knew my life as a pastor prior to entering the Orthodox Church was led and ordained by God as I attempted to follow Jesus to the best of my ability. However, I could not synchronize from where I had come with what now lay before me.

For a couple of years I struggled deeply with my perceived calling. Was it real or was it fake? Did I waste my and my family’s life on pursuing something that was basically self-delusion or a need to provide my life with unique meaning? If it was real, I could not make sense of it as an Orthodox Christian.

For my own emotional health, I needed to end the inner wrestling I was experiencing. So I convinced myself that I had been mistaken and was never called into ministry. I convinced myself that all the good I did was basically God’s abundant grace at work in an immature and broken person who had deluded himself.

Through ongoing conversations with Debbie and friends, this stance eventually shifted to something a bit more balanced. I believed I was temporarily called for a period of my life and the calling was now revoked. And I was content to simply let it lie there. I chose not to seek avenues of ministry in my new parish because my theology and practices remain “too Protestant,” of which I’m not ashamed nor apologetic. But I respect my priest and Church traditions too much to cause any conflict. So, while I’m virtually useless in my parish, I’ve subtly directed my “pastoral” endeavors into my family.

However, life circumstances during the past month have shined a light back upon my life and calling. In addition, I’ve been reading The Crown and the Fire by N.T. Wright through Lent and Pascha, which serendipitously contains a chapter on “calling.” A couple of quotes are very germane:

“God’s call is not designed to make us supermen and superwomen, because that’s not what the world needs; it needs men and women who are humble enough, and often that means humbled enough, to work from within, from below, not to impose a solution on the world from a great height but to live within the world as it is, allowing the ambiguities and the perplexities of their own sense or absence of vocation to be nevertheless the place where they listen for the voice of God, and struggle to obey as best they can.”

“The call of God is not to become the heroine or hero in God’s new Superman story. It is to share and bear the pain of the world, that the world may be healed.”

The entire chapter has helped me to make better sense of my perceived calling. My calling has always been to help and to pastor people. For most of my adult life, this occurred through my career in professional ministry. But the calling still continues and I can no longer ignore it. As N.T. Wright states, the world needs men and women who are humble enough to work from within and from below, living in the world as it is and to share and bear the pain of the world that that world may be healed.

So what does this mean for me? A couple of things come to mind. First, I’ll continue to pastor my family. I still believe the Orthodox Church is the best place for my family to grow spiritually. My role is to help them understand and apply Scripture, Tradition and practices as Jesus’ apprentices within the world. Second, I will become more active in seeking ways of sharing and bearing the pain of the world from within and from below. I’ve already begun looking at opportunities to serve others and hope God will open the appropriate doors.

This may not seem like much, but it’s a step forward.

Sunday Of The Prodigal Son

Stitching Together Heaven and EarthYesterday was the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. I love Jesus’ stories, and the Prodigal Son is his absolute best in my opinion. It weaves together beautiful themes of mercy, repentance, resurrection, and New Creation, while expertly exposing the condition of the reader’s heart.

While the story arc of the younger son is beautiful and moving, I always find affinity to the older son. So much is said about the younger son’s attitude to his father. His request for his half of the inheritance was a “middle finger” in his father’s face. Yet, yesterday, I realized that the older son’s attitude was exactly the same. In fact, it was worse because he hid it behind a thin veneer of obedience and moral superiority.

And it’s only exposed by his younger brother’s transformation.

The older son is just as selfish and disrespectful as his younger brother. Despite the remarkable repentance of his brother and miraculous mercy of his father, the older son can only think, “I’ve been slaving for you and you never gave me a party.” Slaving!? The property upon which he worked was solely his inheritance! The other half had been cashed out and given to his younger brother. This was his land, his flocks, his servants — everything his father owned was his!

Now his younger brother had been resurrected from the dead! He had been delivered from the long exile of selfishness and self-destructive behavior and returned home a transformed person. The father is now embodying mercy and joy, offering his best for a coming-home party, and thus demonstrating how one truly blesses others. And all the older son can think is “I’ve been slaving for you and now you’re using my inheritance for this jerk and you’ve never thrown me a party.”

Think about to what the father is inviting his older son. The younger brother is being reconciled back into the father’s home and family on the older brother’s inheritance. The younger brother wasted his half of the inheritance.

Yet, the inheritance given to the older son was as freely given as to his younger brother. And while his younger brother wasted it in self-destructive behavior, the older brother was cooperating with his father to further develop his inheritance. But notice the different perspectives of the father and his eldest son. The father viewed his possessions as the means to bless and reconcile his younger son. The eldest son viewed it as his own personal reward for his diligent work.

This is how Israel was to be the blessing to the nations. It’s how Jesus’ followers become “mobile temples” of God’s presence and stitch heaven and earth back together. The mercy and joy of reconciling others is paid for by the grace freely given to us. The problem occurs when we start viewing God’s grace to us as our possession. Grace flows. It’s not owned or possessed. Grace is for others, not for ourselves.

We are called to grow in grace, but not for our own benefit. It’s for the sake of others and for the life of the world.

Let Him Be Measured By This Measure

Fr Stephen Freeman has provided a beautiful excerpt from Dr Alexander Kalomiros’ Nostalgia for Paradise. I would like to start with the final paragraph from that excerpt:

Such is the true theologian. If anyone wishes to be so named, let him be measured by this measure. Even he who simply wishes to be a disciple of such theologians must walk in their exact footsteps if he desires their words to be echoed in himself, and his eyes to see light.

Blessing Of The WatersLet him be measured by this measure…

When I was a professional pastor, I would have the occasional conversation with a lay-person who possessed either theological training or perceived a divine calling on their lives to be a pastor or teacher in the Church. The person’s self-perception was always the same — their education, calling or leading of the Spirit should entitle them to some form of recognition or position in the local church.

As a pastor in the local church, part of my responsibility was to discern not only knowledge or calling, but also the character of Christ’s likeness. And one of the hallmarks of a person who wasn’t ready for a leadership position was the sense of entitlement for a leadership position.

Let him be measured by this measure…

Here’s the catch: I knew then that I didn’t possess the Christlikeness to be a theologian, teacher or pastor despite my own theological training and perceived calling to ministry. While I never possessed any kind of entitlement for a leadership position, I was well aware of my own undeveloped virtue. In fact, this was one of the unspoken motivations of not returning to professional ministry. This decision took a few painful years to reconcile. Yet, I believe it was one of the best and healthiest decisions I ever made.

Let him be measured by this measure…

I am also well aware that removing myself from professional ministry doesn’t discharge me from the responsibility of following Christ, to yearn to be transformed into his likeness. In fact, it is for the very life of the world around me that I strain toward that which Christ has called me — the fullness and maturity of his likeness. To become by grace what he is by nature.

For this reason, I am always grateful for people like Dr Kalomiros, who can create fresh expression to what Christ’s likeness can be in ordinary human life. May the description below ultimately be formed within me.

Let him be measured by this measure…

Do not seek to understand God for it is impossible. Simply open the door of your soul so His presence may fill you and illumine your mind and heart, warm your body, and enter your veins. Theology is not a cerebral knowledge but a living knowlege that is directly relevant to man and sustains and possesses the whole man. A cold, cerebral man cannot know and discourse on divine things, even if his head contains an entire patristic library. He who is not moved by a sunset, a tree, or a bird cannot be stirred even by the Creator of these things. In order to grasp God and be able to talk about Him to others you must be a poetic soul. It means that you must have a heart that is noble, sensitive, and pure. You must be as an ear that is turned to the whisperings of the Infinite, and as an eye that sees through the bottomless depths while all other eyes see only pitch blackness. It is impossible for timorous souls and stingy hearts to discourse on divine things.

The heart that grasps the mysteries is one that is naive enough to think all souls worthy of Paradise, even souls who may have drenched their heart’s life with bitterness. It is a heart that feels and sings like a bird, without caring if there is no one there to hear it. It rejoices over everything that is beautiful, everything that is true, because truth and beauty are two aspects of the same thing and can never be separated. It has compassion for every living thing that is animate or has roots, and even for every seemingly lifeless stone.

It is a modest soul that is out of its waters in the limelight of men but blooms in solitude and quiet. It is a heart free to its very roots, impervious to every kind of pressure, far from every kind of stench, untouched by any kind of chains. It distinguishes truth from false hood with a certain mystic sense. Its every breath offers gratitude for all of God’s works that surround it and for every joy and every affliction, for every possession, and for every privation as well. Crouching humbly on the Cornerstone which is Christ, it drinks unceasingly of the eternal water of Paradise and utters the Name of Him who was and is ever merciful. Such a soul is like a shady tree by the running waters of the Church, with deep roots and a high crown where kindred souls find comfort and refuge in its dense branches.

Pascha & Pain

From The Cross

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. And upon those in the tomb, bestowing LIFE!

Today is Pascha or Easter for us Orthodox Christians. At midnight, we greeted this momentous event with the hymn above, along with others, extolling the wondrous work of Christ’s resurrection.

The Gospel reading at every Paschal service is John 1. John begins his Gospel as a Creation story, echoing the themes of Genesis 1. For in Christ and His Pascha, God’s New Creation has begun. The resurrection of God’s people, which is to inaugurate God’s New Creation in the future, has suddenly and surprisingly broken into the here and now through one Man. In the quiet morning hours at a tomb outside of Jerusalem almost two millennia ago, creation’s trajectory was forever altered. The River of Life, as depicted in Ezekiel 47 and proclaimed later by Jesus in John 7, began to trickle from the empty tomb.

I did something a little different this Pascha morning. As my family slept, I watched Blood Diamond. And I prayed and cried. For me, this movie is not entertainment. Rather, it is a stark reminder that two “creations” overlap. God’s New Creation has been injected into a creation festering with greed, violence, lust, hatred, and pain. The very nooks and crannies of God’s good creation and the people he created to care for that creation writhe with evil and death.

The pain of evil is not abstract. It grinds against all of us. It throbs through our news, our communities and our lives. No one is immune.

But neither is the triumph and jubilation of Christ’s resurrection abstract. Nor is it a pie-in-the-sky dream we hold for some distant future. It is here. Where? In those who choose to embrace Christ’s life, to become people increasingly like him. For he is God’s Temple where heaven and earth intersect. And as we become more like him, we too are the Temple. We are God’s Temple from which streams of Living Water begin to trickle and swell, bringing health to a septic and feverish creation.

At the Paschal service, we sing anthems of Christ’s victory over evil and death and we hear about God’s New Creation in John 1. But more importantly, we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. We consume his very LIFE. As he offered his LIFE to his Father for the life of the world, it now empowers us to do the same.

And so Christ’s Pascha transfigures the world’s pain.

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

Trisagion

IconThis rendition of the Trisagion is absolutely beautiful and moves me to tears. If you have a few quiet moments, just let it wash over you.

Holy God. Holy Mighty. Holy Immortal.

Holy God. Holy Mighty. Holy Immortal.

Holy God. Holy Mighty. Holy Immortal.

Have mercy on us.

Glory be to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit now and ever and through eternity.

When The Paint Dries

St Isaac the SyrianMy best friend, Mark, posted on Facebook these sayings from St Isaac the Syrian:

“Rebuke no one, criticize no one, not even those who live very wickedly.”

“Spread your robe over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.”

“And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept their punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.”

I’ve recently had several conversations about a saying that John Wimber made popular in the Vineyard movement. He used to say, “I want to grow up before I grow old.” This pithy statement would always evoke a laugh from the audience. But now in my 40’s, I’m realizing how important a life-goal this should be.

Most of the posts on my blog basically say the same thing. The core desire of my life is to be reformed into a person that naturally and easily embodies Jesus’ character into the world.

Through his resurrection, Jesus has inaugurated his Father’s restoration of the world he created and loves. That project is being further implemented by those who answer Jesus’ radical call to follow him and become his apprentices.

From a human standpoint, Jesus’ call seems absolutely crazy. Love God with everything you are. Forgive everyone for everything. Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in every circumstance. And the list could go on.

But this list is not a checklist of things to do. Rather, it’s a description, even a promise, of the kind of person we can be under Jesus’ tutelage.

Based on the average life expectancy of a man in the United States, I’m past the halfway point. This has caused a lot of internal reflection over the past couple of years. Much of my youth, even with my best intentions, was spent pursuing the wrong values; painting my life with colors I thought were attractive. But as the paint has begun to dry, I’ve realized I don’t like how it looks.

Sayings such as St Isaac’s, one of Jesus’ successful apprentices, remind me that there is a better way to live, a better way to be. And they compel me to repaint my life, hoping that when the paint finally dries in the latter part of my life, I will have chosen the proper colors that reflect Christ into the world and that help a bit in the renewal of this world that he loves.

Why Church?

The ChurchSometimes we can lose our focus on why we need the Church. Maybe we’ve been hurt or disappointed or disillusioned. Quotes like the one below remind us why God created his restorative family and community called the Church.

“The Church has been established in the world to celebrate the Eucharist, to save man by restoring his Eucharistic being. The Eucharist is impossible without the Church, that is, without a community that knows its unique character and vocation — to be love, truth, faith and mission — all of these fulfilled in the Eucharist; even simpler, to be the Body of Christ. The Eucharist reveals the Church as a community — love for Christ, love in Christ — as a mission to turn each all to Christ. The Church has no other purpose, no ‘religious life’ separate from the world. Otherwise the Church would become an idol. The Church is the home each of us leaves to go to work and to which one returns with joy in order to find life, happiness and joy, to which everyone brings back the fruits of his labor and where everything is transformed into a feast, into freedom and fulfillment, the presence, the experience of this ‘home’ — already out of time, unchanging, filled with eternity, revealing eternity. Only this presence can give meaning and value to everything in life, can refer everything to that experience and make it full.”  The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983, p. 25

The Lenses Through Which I See

I read a beautiful Paschal reflection by Fr Ted Bobosh. His reflection reminded me of how God has shaped me to view life through a few crucial lenses.

First, salvation, as experienced personally, is the entire process of God rescuing me from sin and death and restoring me as his image-bearer. In other words, salvation is the actual process of being transformed into Christ’s likeness. As such, “forgiveness of sins” is the doorway to salvation, but not salvation itself. Forgiveness is a necessary aspect of a far larger process of renewal, restoration and transformation. Therefore, I don’t possess salvation. Rather, I’m on a journey of salvation, a journey toward becoming like Christ in his life and likeness.

Second, God is saving his entire creation. There is a global dimension to salvation. The promised New Creation is this creation renewed and overflowing with God’s glory. The New Creation was inaugurated at Jesus’ resurrection and God is actively restoring his creation, primarily through the renewal of creation’s stewards — the human race.

Third, Jesus’ very being and life saves us. God’s salvific activity cannot be pinpointed to just one event in Jesus’ life. All of the events save us. He saves us through his birth, his circumcision, his baptism, his ministry, his miracles, his teaching, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension, his return, his ongoing kingship, and all the bits in between.

Fr Stephen Freeman summarizes nicely, “The Incarnation of Christ and the whole of His work – suffering, death, burial, descent among the dead, resurrection, ascension – serve the same singular purpose – to deliver all of creation (including humanity) from its bonds and establish it in the freedom for which it was created – manifest in Christ’s own resurrection.”

The convergence of these lenses bring the world into pin-sharp focus for me and have helped me to shed much of the delusion from my past.

Goodbye

This post is probably the most difficult one I’ve written. It’s a decision upon which I have reflected, prayed and wrestled for almost a year. Yet, as time passes, I am increasingly convinced that it’s time to close the door on this blog.

I began this blog in March 2003 as our family left professional ministry and embarked on a journey of theological exploration. This blog has recorded our joys and struggles as we explored a different form of Christian community. It has allowed me to deconstruct and reconstruct my theology and wrestle with my new identity outside of professional ministry. It has marked special events in our family’s life. And recently, it has recorded our family’s journey into the Holy Orthodox Church.

So why am I ending this blog?

There are a several reasons, but I won’t bore you with the details. Ultimately I believe I’m entering a time when my voice needs to be silent. For me, this blog has been a platform to share what I’ve learned and experienced as well as serving as a catalyst for conversations beyond my local relationships. During the past seven years, I have thoroughly enjoyed writing as well as participating in the conversations that various posts have sparked. I am blessed by the number of people who have contacted me to share their stories. I’m always startled by God’s grace and love in the midst of every person’s journey, struggles and joys. I feel like I was blessed with the rare opportunities to witness firsthand the remarkable transformations of faith as people searched for something deeper and more meaningful than their current church experiences.

But it’s now time for me to be quiet. And I had a choice to make. I could have simply stopped writing posts and let this blog fade away. However, as I’ve grown a bit older, I’ve realized that marking significant events has become increasingly important to me.

This blog has been a very n0table part of my life and I would have regretted not marking my decision to end it. This blog has sustained me for the last several years. It has been my journal and sounding board, allowing me to process my wounds, my theology and my journey. There are probably as many unpublished posts as published ones. But the discipline of writing all of them with prayer, reflection and discernment has been an essential part of the overall formative process in my journey. So because this blog has meant so much to me, I need closure.

As I say goodbye to this blog, some thanks are in order. First, I want to thank everyone who participated in our house church community — Mark, Barbara, Dan, Kerri, David, Jennifer, Angela, Gary, Anne, Thomas, Erika, Billy, Carol, Alan, Maribeth, Debbie and all of the kids and friends who been part of our extended family.

I also want to thank Steve for being a great friend and pastor to me through those house church years. And I want to thank David for being such a profound influence in my movement toward Orthodoxy.

While this blog comes to an end, my life-goals remain the same. I simply want to be a good man, husband, father and friend. I want to embody, demonstrate and announce Christ’s life and love to the best of my abilities. I want to incarnate Christ’s presence in a simple, quiet way to the people I love so that they may grow and excel in God’s life. In some small way, I want to follow St Seraphim of Sarov’s words, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.”

I want to thank all of you who have taken time to read my posts, leave comments, say prayers for my family, and be a little part of our journey. May God lead you ever further into his life, love and likeness.

Goodbye.

Bridegroom Hymn

During the last two evenings, our family has attended the Bridegroom Matins. These are such beautiful services, immersing us ever-deeper into Holy Week. One of the hymns we sing during these services is absolutely breathtaking. It succinctly captures the pathos of the Lenten journey of joyful repentance as well as the brilliant hope of Christ’s resurrection that awaits us at the culmination of Holy Week.

“I behold Thy bridal chamber richly adorned, O my Savior; but I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me.”

I’ve attached a short clip of our congregation singing the hymn:

Happy 18th Birthday, Michael!

Wow! Today, my oldest child, Michael, turns 18 years old! It has been such an honor watching Michael grow up. I’m astonished by his stellar character. He’s compassionate and thoughtful. He takes his faith very seriously. And he’s very intelligent and creative. I’m filled with such joy when I watch him serve at the altar in our parish.

As Michael quickly approaches his high school graduation, both he and our family are aware of the many changes we face. I know these changes are inevitable and are good for all of us. But I also know that I will deeply miss the unique family dynamics that we’ve enjoyed the past several years.

Michael, I love you more than my words and actions have expressed. You are an amazing person and  being your dad fills me daily with joy. Happy Birthday, Michael! May God grant you many years!

What the Holy Spirit Shows Us

I follow Jason Barker at Orthodoxresource.com. His site is a wonderful repository of Orthodox quotes. I especially enjoyed today’s quote by St Innocent of Alaska:

“But when the Holy Spirit dwells in the heart of a person, He shows him all his inner poverty and weakness, and the corruption of his heart and soul, and his separation from God; and with all his virtues and righteousness. He shows him his sins, his sloth and indifference regarding the salvation and good of people, his self-seeking in his apparently most disinterested virtues, his coarse selfishness even where he does not suspect it. To be brief, the Holy Spirit shows him everything as it really is.”

As a former charismatic and as one who still associates with people in the movement, I have claimed and still hear claims about things that the Holy Spirit has supposedly revealed. Needless to say, much of it is simply distorted passions run amuck in the guise of a prophetic voice.

But Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Truth. And if He is dwelling and working in us toward our salvation, then wouldn’t He show us what is true, especially about ourselves? Wouldn’t He illumine the dark crevices of our souls with the brilliance of Truth, replacing delusion with Reality? And that Reality would be our continuous and desperate need for Jesus and His kingdom.

Fr Stephen & “The Existence of God”

Do you hear the crack of the bat and the screaming crowds? You should. That’s because Fr Stephen had hit another one out of the park! His excellent post on “The Existence of God” is a must-read. Here’s a couple of paragraphs that made me want to shout “Amen!”

“We are living in a time of history in which saints are required. We have long passed the time in which rational arguments will carry the day. Nothing less than lives which manifest the existence of God will do. The world has heard centuries of arguments – has been subjected to crass persecutions and atrocities in the name of God (even if these were largely not the result of Orthodox actions). We have survived a century of extremes (Bolshevism, Nazism, etc.). That the world is hungry is beyond doubt. But the world is not hungry for a new and winning argument. The world hungers for God (whether it knows this or not).

“The proper Christian answer to the hunger of the world is to be found only in the manifestation of God. Thus the challenge of a modern atheist should not be met with an anxious rejoinder from our panoply of arguments – but with the urgency of prayer that we might ourselves become an answer through the reality of the presence of God in our lives.”

Fr Stephen is absolutely correct. The proper answer to questions of God’s existence are not logical arguments but living examples of God, embodied and incarnated in normal human lives. That’s why I believe the core of being “missional” is first and foremost theosis. Humans are designed to be God’s image, reflecting him into the world. Christ provides both the way and the example of being God’s image in human form. We must become like him for the sake of the world.

Fr Gregory & “Certitude, Doubt and the Virtue of Faith”

Fr Gregory answers an email, discussing the virtue of faith as well as the dynamic between certainty and faith. It’s a good read and I absolutely love the summarizing paragraphs:

“For St Gregory Nyssa, to wrap this up, this is the source of human perfectablity.  We are in a constant state of change, and so we are forever imperfect.  This however is not due to any lack on our part but is inherent in being a creature and it our changeability that makes it possible for to grow in perfection, that is become like God Who does not change.  We can only become like the Unchanging God, that is perfect, to the degree that we are willing to change “and change frequently” in Gregory’s formulation.

“To the degree that I imagine I have intellectual certitude–that is that now I understand God or the Christian life in an exhaustive sense–to that degree I am a fool and living not by faith but something else entirely.  A life of faith requires that I am constantly changing, growing and re-evaluating myself and my life not only in the Light of the Unchanging God but also the ever changing circumstances in which I (quite literally) find myself.”

Living As God’s Image

Living as the image of God is what it means to be truly human. We were created in the image of God and it has always been God’s intention that humanity would mature into the fullness of this image, which is fully embodied and demonstrated by Christ.

While this intention might seem impossible, we are never called to live like anything else. Our attempts to live as something else is the core of our corruption and distortion. Therefore, our healing and renewal, along with the entirety of creation, occurs as we relearn how to live as God’s image during the course of our normal daily lives.

The question that looms before us is “How do we do this?” After almost 25 years as a Christian, I am convinced that the Orthodox Church possesses both the fullest theological paradigm and practical process for learning how to incarnate Christ’s life and presence on earth.

This is why I resonate so much with a quote from Met Jonah that I recently posted. The primary reason for my joining the Orthodox Church is because I believe it is the Way to Christ’s likeness. And while I believe the Orthodox Church is the historical and apostolic church, for me that matters only in that it has helped the Orthodox Church to preserve the Way through the centuries.

A recent post by Fr Gregory Jensen has further stimulated my personal reflections. He succinctly summarizes his reflections about the future of Orthodoxy in America:

“Objective teaching about the Gospel, the Church’s worship (especially the Eucharist), and the human heart, all converge in Jesus Christ and the fruit of that encounter is the desire to evangelize, to bear witness to what we know personally. All four of these elements must be present. Where I suspect we have gone wrong is to neglect the formation of the human heart.”

I love Orthodoxy and all of its beauty. I love its history, its theology, its liturgy and its sacraments. Sure there are still points of contention that arise when my past Evangelical Protestant theology, practices and values are confronted with those of Orthodoxy’s. But I’m at home in Orthodoxy, even if my new home still stirs feelings of culture shock and homesickness now and then.

This is why I was thrilled to come across an essay by Met Jonah through Fr Stephen’s blog. The essay is entitled, “Do Not Resent, Do Not React, Keep Inner Stillness.” For me, this essay was a reminder and a refocus. It encapsulates the trajectory of my Christian life just prior to leaving professional ministry and my journey ever since. I still believe that as human beings created in God’s image, we are to join God in his mission to nurture and renew humanity and creation toward the fulfillment of his intentions. For me, this is what the last line of the Creed conveys, “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the Life of the world to come.” This line is not conveying a passive waiting, but an active anticipation as we lean into and live toward that future based on everything the Creed has previously affirmed.

So we live into God’s future, actively participating in God’s mission toward that future primarily by learning to be and live as God’s image. In so doing, we experience the healing and restoration of our human nature from which true embodied and everlasting love and goodness flow.

If you’re interested, you can also hear an hour-long lecture of the same material by Met Jonah on Ancient Faith Radio, entitled “The Spiritual Process.”

And if you’re interested in going a even further, there is also a five-part lecture series on the Met Jonah’s material at Icon New Media Network:

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, & Part 5

Fr Stephen & “Remember God Always”

Sometimes I think my blog is simply a pointer to Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog. And that isn’t really such a bad thing since virtually all of his posts are “must -reads.” This one in particular is a great example. It’s a wonderful reminder of the daily journey toward our salvation and how that journey actually occurs. Please take a moment and read his post.

Life, Death and the Nativity

Last night was a terribly sad night. I found out that a friend, whom I haven’t seen in several years, died of Leukemia. From what I understand, he fought well and graciously. Yet, in the end, he leaves behind a wife and two kids to grieve and to journey through this earthly life without him. My friend was a caring, intelligent and worshipful man and he will be missed.

News of his death came via email as I was walking out of Vespers already filled with sadness as my two youngest children made their confessions in preparation for the Feast of the Nativity. The Sacrament of Repentance is a somber moment for me and it’s magnified when my children experience it. I’m not naive about my children’s sinfulness. I know intellectually and experientially that they are distorted and corrupted by sin. Yet as their father, it breaks my heart knowing their lives will be filled with the brokenness and agony of sin. As they journey through life, they will experience the regrets and results of their own destructive actions, words and thoughts. And while I can coach and nurture them, they will still bear the scars of death and sin.

Held within a vacuum, my friend’s death and my children’s (and my own) sins can easily yield to hopelessness. But we don’t live in a vacuum. In fact, these events converge while the Feast of the Nativity looms ever closer and the words of the Apolytikon of the Forefeast of the Nativity, which we sang all weekend, continue to resound in my thoughts:

Be thou ready, O Bethlehem; for Eden hath been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha; for the Tree of life hath blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin; for her belly did appear as a noetic paradise in which is planted the divine Plant, whereof eating we shall live and not die as Adam. Verily, Christ shall be born, raising the likeness that fell of old.

I love the imagery of this hymn! The Tree of Life, which became inaccessible after the Fall, is again available to all. And this Tree has blossomed in the most unlikely place — from the womb of a young virgin in a smelly cave in Bethlehem. As we feast on this divine Plant, which is Christ, the effects of the Fall are reversed and death gives way to Life.

This is the vivid Reality in which death and sin are experienced. The final Word belongs to Life. “Verily, Christ shall be born, raising the likeness that fell of old.” We aren’t simply given a status of “righteousness” as though painted with a thin coat of whitewash. Rather, our very nature is reconstituted within the life and likeness of Christ. As St Paul states, “So if anyone is in Christ, New Creation!”

I absolutely love that! As we live in Christ, feasting upon him, who is the Tree of Life, we are being recreated into the human versions of God’s New Creation. And we confidently know that the One who began this good work of re-creation in us will bring it to completion until the Day of Christ Jesus (Phil 1:6). God became man so that man might become god.

This truth doesn’t diminish or assuage the grief and loss of my friend’s death nor of our own experiences of sin. In fact, death is currently allowed to coexist with Life. (Remember, even Christ’s birth was accompanied by Herod’s horrific murder of children.) But this truth does lift our sight, reminding us that there is exceedingly more beyond death and sin. And though it may be through tears and pain, we can join St Paul in proclaiming, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”

Great Quote About Converting to Orthodoxy

I had heard the following quote in the recording of the lecture by Met Jonah. But I was reminded of it when I visited Steve Robinson’s blog. This is a great quote to use in a catechumen class. But it’s also a great reminder for the recently converted. I’m quickly approaching the one-year mark of my conversion and this quote is a very timely reminder of why I chose to become an Orthodox Christian.

“This process of becoming Orthodox is not something that you can do just after 6 months of catechesis and a little bit of chrism on your forehead. It’s a life-long process, because it’s being transformed into Christ. And if we can keep our focus that coming into the Orthodox Church is not about joining a new organization; it’s not joining ‘the right church’; it’s not ‘joining the historical church or the apostolic church’; or it’s not ‘joining the right church instead the wrong church that I was in.’

“But rather, it’s an entrance deeper and deeper into the mystery of Christ. Then I think we’re on the right track. Because otherwise all we’re doing is getting stuck in our heads and caught up in judgment and condemnation. In other words, we’re just stuck in our passions and we might as well have not converted anyway, because we still haven’t left the world behind.

“Our task is to incarnate that life in Christ that is not of this world. We have to be in the world, but not of it.”

I believe Met Jonah is absolutely correct. Joining the Orthodox Church is not simply about finding and joining “the right church,” “the true church,” or “the historical church.” At its core, my decision to join Orthodoxy was about its vibrant fullness of the Christian faith that will ultimately enable me and others to incarnate Christ’s life in this world. I must not lose sight of this vision.

Baptism Anniversary

Three years ago today, I had one of the most meaningful and fulfilling experiences as a father — I performed my kids’ baptism.

The baptism took place at the Live Oak Vineyard, where we had been attending for awhile. I want to thank Pastor Steve and Pastor Floyd again for letting this ex-pastor have one last “pastoral fling” and baptize his children.

I wrote about the experience HERE. I also posted a video of the baptism HERE.

Little did I know that our spiritual journey as a family would soon take us around a corner and into the Orthodox Church.

As I mentioned in my original post about my children’s baptism, the event is a powerful reminder to me that my children belong to Christ first and foremost. He will always be with them, even when I cannot.

And the event is also a reminder that my children are part of Christ’s Church. I am moved during Divine Liturgy when I watch my kids receive the Eucharist. I am thrilled by the knowledge that they will grow up in the fullness of Christ’s life that resides in the Orthodox Church.

There is a beautiful prayer in the Orthodox Prayer Book that I use when I pray for my kids. It summarizes their baptism and everything I could desire for them as their father:

O God, our heavenly Father, Who lovest mankind, and art most merciful and compassionate, have mercy upon our children, Thy servants, for whom I humbly pray Thee, and commend them to Thy gracious protection. Be Thou, O God, their guide and guardian in all their endeavors; lead them in the path of Thy truth, and draw them near to Thee, that they may lead a godly and righteous life in Thy love and fear; doing Thy will in all matters. Give them grace that they may be temperate, industrious, diligent, devout and charitable. Defend them against the assaults of the enemy, and grant them wisdom and strength to resist all temptation and corruption of this life; and direct them in the way of salvation, for the merits of Thy Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, and the intercessions of His Holy Mother, and Thy blessed saints. Amen.

Fr Ted & Tradition

In many Christian circles, the word “tradition” can evoke negative images. We might think of church board meetings where someone ultimately raises the argument, “But we’ve always done it this way.” We rarely think of tradition as something fresh and relevant for now. However, Fr Ted Bobosch does. And I agree wholeheartedly with him:

Tradition, like Scripture, is not  made holy by being carved into stone, but rather by being interpreted within a community, by being the heart of the community’s relationship to God and the world.  Tradition is thus alive and constantly relating to the world, not written in stone and frozen in some past understanding.  For St. Paul, Tradition is dynamic, creative, vivifying and renewing and keeps people focused on the goal – where God is leading us to, not the past and where we were.   Tradition is not the ship’s anchor, but its sail.   It consists not of repeating past teachings, but of interpreting God’s Word for the current generation.

Fr Ted then offers a lengthy quote by Sylvia C. Keesmaat that is worth reading. Bottom-line, Tradition sets our trajectory into the future. And “what gives a tradition its life is an effective interpretation for a new time and context.” This is worth some serious reflection.

Working Out Our Salvation

Debbie posted a comment with some good questions in my previous post that I wanted to address. Since, I knew my response would be lengthy, I chose to respond in a new post rather than in the comments. Also, I may not be the most reliable person to answer these questions. This is simply my personal opinion and everyone is welcome to disagree.

Fr Stephen Freeman has a great often-repeated quote, “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live.” In this statement, Fr Stephen touches upon the real issue of our sin and distortion. Spiritual death — sin, corruption and death — is the devastating result of humanity’s rebellion and separation from God. All of humanity and creation have become broken and distorted. A destructive disharmony exists between humanity and God, between humans themselves and between humanity and creation.

The primary issue is our estrangement from God and its subsequent spiritual death. We are separated from the very Source of Life and therefore our very nature as human beings has become corrupted.

Therefore, our salvation is the renewal of the image of God in us through restored communion with God. Jesus is our Savior because he first vanquishes the death and corruption that enslaves all creation at the cosmic level and then invites us to appropriate this reality at a personal level through a cooperative life with God that restores communion with God.

This cooperative life with God is described in various ways in the New Testament. Jesus described it as denying yourself and taking up your cross. St Peter called it “participating in the divine nature.” St Paul described it as taking off the old self with its practices and putting on the new self which is being renewed in the image of its creator. He described it in another place as offering our bodies to God as a living sacrifice by not being conformed to the pattern of this broken world and by being transformed through the renewal of our mind.

In other words, the key to salvation or transformation is a life immersed in God’s grace that progressively discards our old nature and acquires the new nature, which Christ fully embodied. In Orthodox theology, we call this theosis. Here’s a definition from Orthodoxwiki:

Theosis (“deification,” “divinization”) is the process of a worshiper becoming free of hamartía (“missing the mark”), being united with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in bodily resurrection. For Orthodox Christians, Théōsis (see 2 Pet. 1:4) is salvation. Théōsis assumes that humans from the beginning are made to share in the Life or Nature of the all-Holy Trinity. Therefore, an infant or an adult worshiper is saved from the state of unholiness (hamartía — which is not to be confused with hamártēma “sin”) for participation in the Life (zōé, not simply bíos) of the Trinity — which is everlasting.

Theosis is a divinely empowered transformation of our nature through participating in the Life of God.

So what does this look like in daily practice? Moving further from theology and closer to practice, it is a life consisting of two simultaneous dimensions — an ascetical dimension and a sacramental dimension — both lived out within the overall life of the Church.

The ascetical dimension is struggling against our passions (our evil and distorted desires) with God’s grace. This is much more than behavioral modification, as important as that may be. For example, in 1Corinthians 13, we read St Paul describing love as not being easily angered. And so, many people expend a lot of energy not displaying anger even though they may be seething internally. That is not love. St Paul is not making a list of proper Christian behavior nor a description of how to act lovingly. Rather, he’s painting a portrait of what divine love looks like in human form when a person is genuinely transformed into the very love that God is. And that can only occur with God’s divine power.

So the ascetical dimension is a life of fighting and struggling as we baby-step our passions into proper order. This is practiced in cooperation with God’s grace and preferably under the direction of a wise spiritual father and within the collective wisdom of the Church. This is why fasting is a primary and almost universal ascetical practice within the Church. It is a practice that Jesus taught and that the Church has honed through the centuries. So we infuse our lives with this discipline and these small steps, when practiced wisely, help us struggle against our distorted wills in God’s grace.

Certainly, other practices may help. Regulating what we take in through our eyes and ears can be helpful, especially depending on what God is doing in our lives. But there are a couple things to remember as we engage in the ascetical life. First, we must remember that such practices don’t make a person a “good” or a “bad” Christian. We should never judge ourselves or others based on our successes or failures in these practices. Second, we can actually hinder God’s work in us by unwisely embracing practices that God hasn’t given to us. We can easily be crushed by joyless misery or swell with pride at our accomplishments. This is why the advice of a spiritual father and the collective wisdom of the Church is highly recommended.

The sacramental dimension is the mystical participation in divine grace. As Orthodox Christians, we have very specific Sacraments or Mysteries in which we participate in the life and grace of God. These specific moments, and in a more generic way all aspects of life, draw us into koinonia (participation in and shared lives) with God. Our lives are transformed into the likeness of Christ by the energies of God.

Like the ascetical life, there are a few important matters worth remembering. First, we must remember that transformation is a slow lifelong process. It is neither instantaneous nor experienced in great leaps and bounds. It will only be consummated in the New Creation. Second, the natural byproduct of transformation will be the dispassion of perfected love of God and others, not just modified behavior. Our distorted passions will be ordered and aligned with our healed will and soul. Third, we are not the ones who are overcoming our own sins. There is not a direct one-to-one correlation between the amount of our participation in the ascetical and sacramental life and our personal transformation. Only God transforms us. St Macarius wrote:

To uproot sin and the evil that is so imbedded in our sinning can be done only by divine power, for it is impossible and outside man’s competence to uproot sin. To struggle, yes, to continue to fight, to inflict blows, and to receive setbacks is in your power. To uproot, however, belongs to God alone. If you could have done it on your own, what would have been the need for the coming of the Lord?

Debbie voiced a desire that I believe many people share, “I want to see that kind of humanity [as embodied in Jesus] lived out.” But we must be very careful neither to shape that vision in our own image nor hold unattainable expectations for ourselves and others. Our eyes must always be turned inwardly to the kingdom of God within and not toward judging the success of others nor what we hope others may see in us.

In regard to training our children, we must help them live within the ascetical and sacramental life of the Church. We must also help them live within the world while simultaneously guarding their hearts from the influence of the broken world. Here is some instruction from St Basil:

Young people must be made to distinguish between helpful and injurious knowledge, keeping clearly in mind the Christian’s purpose in life. So, like the athlete or the musician, they must bend every energy to one task, the winning of the heavenly crown.

This includes helping our children (and ourselves) to form proper thinking, feeling, acting and relating through instruction, encouragement, prohibitions and boundaries. This isn’t legalistic as long as obedience or disobedience to all of this is not associated with being either a “good” or “bad” Christian or as somehow altering God’s love for us.

Again, I need to repeat that the primary issue in all of us, parents and children alike, is separation from God and the resultant spiritual death. So, the primary focus is always restored communion with God as we discussed above. And our role as parents is to make that available to our children, model it for them, encourage them to enter and pray, pray, pray for them.

Again, all of this is opinion and is subject to correction and change.

Incarnation and Salvation

I would wager that most Christians easily associate Christ’s Incarnation with humanity’s need for salvation. It’s popularly recited, “God became man in order to save us.” In fact, I would even go further and wager that most Christians believe our need for salvation compelled God to become man. I’ve lost count of how many “gospel presentations” I’ve heard stating that God’s only course of action was to become human and rescue us. And I’ve heard the Incarnation reduced even further to such statements as “God became human just so that he could die for us.”

While such a statement contains a modicum of truth, I believe it misses the amazing truth of how our salvation is contained within Christ’s Incarnation. Certainly God became human to save us. And he saves us by becoming like us — the Word of God took on human nature so that we humans might participate in his divine nature (2 Pet 1:4). Or to quote St Athanasius once again, “God became man so that man might become god.” In other words, our salvation isn’t simply found in the several hours of Jesus dying on the cross. Rather, our salvation is found in the entire event of the Incarnation — from Gabriel’s pronouncement, through conception, pregnancy, and birth, through Christ’s entire life, through his crucifixion and resurrection and even beyond.

Because through the Incarnation, we discover the amazing reality of “God with us.” That is our salvation.

Our salvation is communion with God, who has taken on our nature and dwells with us. We have koinonia with him, which means we share our lives with him; we participate in him and he in us. And in that sharing of lives, we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, who is not only the genuine image of God, but also the genuine image of humanity. Jesus wasn’t just God in a shell of human skin and flesh. He was fully God and fully human. And in the fullness of his humanity, Christ embodies the kind of humanity into which we are being saved.

So, through Jesus — the Word and Image of God incarnate — God is recreating and renewing his image within humanity. Yet this renewal requires the vanquishing of the death and corruption that continues to distort the image of God in us. Death and corruption must first be vanquished at a cosmic level, accomplished through Jesus’ crucifixion. That’s why we sing at Pascha:

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. And upon those in the tomb, bestowing life.”

But the death and corruption that finds residence in our lives also must be expunged at a practical level. Christ died on a cross not so we could avoid one, but so we could take up one ourselves. The New Testament documents are replete with pastoral exhortations to mortify whatever belongs to the old nature and to begin practicing by grace that which belongs to the new nature, the renewed image of God as embodied in Christ. So in practice, communion with God requires both an ascetical side of dying to self and a sacramental side of participating in the divine grace. Through this process we work out our salvation and become by grace what God is by nature.

Incarnation and Image

Spurred on by St Athanasius’ quote that I highlighted in my previous post, I have been reflecting on the Incarnation. I’m once again astonished at the magnitude of God’s work through Christ. It’s in that startling and mysterious event when God became man and heaven and earth uniquely merged that we find a realigning of humankind’s and creation’s conjoined trajectory toward salvation and restoration.

Truly, we discover our salvation in the Incarnation of the Word of God. As St Athanasius states, “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become god.” The Incarnation is intimately connected with the Image of God. We are being saved as we are reimaged into God. Our salvation is a forward movement in that we are not being saved backward into the original image of God that we find in the opening chapters of Genesis. Rather, we are being saved forward into the full maturity of the image of God as embodied in Jesus, the genuine human being.

And as the image of God that is depicted in Genesis was expressed through the proper stewardship of creation, the fullness of this image, as embodied in Christ and to which we ourselves are being saved, is expressed through a restorative and transformative stewardship of creation. We see this subtly demonstrated in the Eucharist.

During the Divine Liturgy, as we move closer to the Eucharist, the priest states, “Thine own of thine own we offer unto thee, in behalf of all, and for all.” Our offering experiences a threefold movement. First, our offering is given to us by God. God gives us wheat and grapes from the ground. He is the Treasury of good things and Giver of Life and we gratefully receive his benefaction. Second, our offering is the work of our hands as we present to him not wheat and grapes, but bread and wine. We do not simply offer back the raw fruits of the ground. As creation’s stewards, we cultivate, transform and return God’s gifts, mingled with our creativity and labor. Third, our offering is then transformed by God into his very presence and life — the actual Body and Blood of Christ — of which we then partake and carry into the world. In this way, heaven and earth merge in accordance with God’s original design.

Frankly, God could have skipped us in the process. Yet it has always been his intention that heaven and earth intersect through our creative cooperation with his will. We reflect his image into creation through our stewardship. We impart his life as we live in him, the Source and Giver of Life.

Simply put, as goes humanity, so goes creation. As humanity finds life in God, so creation finds life in God. As humanity fell and became distorted, so creation fell and became distorted. As humanity is rescued back into the life of God, so creation is rescued back into the life of God. In Christ’s Incarnation, God’s life fills human life. Then through human life, God’s life seeps into all of creation, reclaiming, reconciling and renewing every bit of space, time and matter from its destructive trajectory and resetting creation’s course toward the future God intended.

The threefold movement of the Eucharist forms a paradigm of our stewardship in the world as we are being saved and formed into the image of Christ. God graciously gives to us. We thankfully receive his gift, creatively and cooperatively develop it, and then humbly offer our work back to God. God then fills our offering with his very presence, transforming it even further so that it becomes a source of his life to us and to the world. This sacramental paradigm applies to all of the various areas and intricacies of daily life. In this way, we are the Body of Christ, his ongoing incarnation within creation.

Counting the Waves

A recent email conversation ignited within me a renewed interest in the Incarnation. Over the years, the elements of the Incarnation, much like the Image of God, have shaped large portions of my theological landscape.

Yesterday, I finished St Athanasius’, On the Incarnation. One line toward the end just about took my breath away:

In short, such and so many are the Savior’s achievements that follow from His Incarnation, that to try to number them is like gazing at the open sea and trying to count the waves.

That’s exactly what I’ve thought about the Incarnation. The Reality of the Incarnation is like a massive sea, mysterious and frightening, yet captivating and alluring. God takes on our humanity so that we might become god. Can you feel the splash of the mighty waves upon your face?

The repercussions of the Incarnation are like seismic vibrations rumbling through the bedrock of our very human nature as well as through all of creation. Creator God has become a human being and entered into the very time and space that he created in order to reclaim, reconcile and renew every bit of it back to himself. Can you feel the resonating tremors throb through your being?

Quotes on Prayer

Here are some great quotes on prayer that are worth reflecting upon that I extracted from Fr Stephen’s post on prayer:

Prayer is a matter of love. Man expresses love through prayer, and if we pray, it is an indication that we love God.

Only if prayer is living communion with God does it make sense to strive for unceasing prayer. The commandment to “pray always” is tantamount to saying: “Live!”

Indeed prayer is the sound (whether spoken or not) of God within us.

Fr Stephen & “Theology of the Image”

I have been enamored with the theology of “the image of God” for the last several years. I am convinced this reality is key to not only understanding our purpose and destiny as human beings, but also to understanding and living more fully our identity in Christ. Fr Stephen’s post is a wonderful summary of the theology of the image. Here are a couple of highlight paragraphs:

“For St. Paul, Adam’s creation in the “image and likeness” of God is fulfilled in Christ. “The first man [Adam] is of the earth (in Hebrew, “of the earth” would be Adamah). “The second man [Christ] is of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:47 ). It is this re-reading of Genesis that allows St. Paul to say that “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” The Genesis story of Adam is a prefiguring of Christ – in St. Paul the final meaning of Genesis is to be found in its fulfillment in Christ. The Second Adam (one of Paul’s names for Christ) is the true image and likeness of the Father – an image and likeness never fulfilled by the First Adam. Salvation in Christ is a “new creation” for St. Paul – in it, those who are saved are re-created and “conformed to the image” of Christ. Salvation as “conformity to the image” is clearly an important understanding for St. Paul – but sadly neglected by many Christians.”

“Christ is the true image of the invisible God – the God/Man who makes visible and tangible to us the God Whom we could not otherwise know. He is the Second Adam, the true image to which we shall be conformed. Apart from Christ, man lives in the image of the man of earth, the First Adam, and fails to live according to the likeness of God. In Christ, God makes us to become what we were always intended to become – the image and likeness of God.”

Fr Sophrony’s Prayer

PrayerAs a new Orthodox Christian, I have to admit that one of the most difficult things I’ve been learning to do is pray. This might sound strange coming from a Christian of over 20 years and from a professional pastor of 14 years. But it’s true. Becoming an Orthodox Christian doesn’t simply mean joining “another” Christian church. At the risk of sounding a bit melodramatic, becoming an Orthodox Christian means embracing a completely different Christian worldview. Believe me, the differences between Orthodoxy and Protestant Evangelicalism run far deeper than what one may see on the surface. But that topic will have to wait for future posts.

Because Orthodoxy is so different that Evangelicalism, my family and I are relearning how to pray. I remember theologian Gordon Fee once stating, “I can tell what a person actually believes by what they pray and what they sing.” That statement contains a lot of truth. As I have journeyed further into Orthodoxy, I’ve realized that what I used to pray for and how I used to pray as an Evangelical revealed some very faulty theology on my part.

One piece of advice Fr Patrick gave my family and me as young Orthodox Christians is to only pray using the Orthodox prayer book in order to relearn how to pray. He told us that we need to learn how to pray with the Church. Over the centuries, the Orthodox Church has learned how to pray so that their theology and practice are completely aligned. So, part of the life of Christ available in the Orthodox Church is learning to pray with the Church.

Using prayers written by someone else was almost scandalous to me as an Evangelical. In my old worldview, prayer was relational and relationships were spontaneous. Therefore, I had been taught to “pray from the heart” and to “talk to God like I would anyone else.” And while there is something valuable with this instruction, if I were to be honest, spontaneous prayer eventually devolved into something “less than” spontaneous. For example, prayers before meals and prayers for common requests eventually took on a rote nature. In effect, my prayer life was being formed by collecting and using “spiritually sounding” prayers that others had prayed or that I had prayed myself.

Now as an Orthodox Christian, I am truly appreciating written prayers. My mind and heart are being reformed (and hopefully transformed) by the prayers of men and women far more spiritual, intelligent and holier than me. Not only am I relearning sound theology as I pray, but I’m peering ever deeper into God’s mind and heart as I pray the prayers of those who have been immersed far deeper in God’s mind and heart than me. These prayers are helping me to find words to express myself to God, words that I would never have found even on a really good day.

So with that lengthy introduction, I wanted to say that I was pleased when I found a prayer by Fr Sophrony on Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog this morning. There is such spiritual depth and beauty to this prayer. This is one prayer that I will be praying over and over and hope to eventually incarnate over time.

O Eternal Lord and Creator of all things, in your inscrutable goodness you have called me into this life and have given me the grace of baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.  You have instilled in me the desire to seek your face.  Hear my prayer!

I have no life, no light, no joy, no strength, no wisdom without you, O God.   Because of my unrighteousness, I dare not lift my eyes in your presence.  But I obey you who said:

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.  (Mark 11)

Truly, truly I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father He will give it to you in my name.   Until now you have asked nothing in my name.  Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.  (John 16)

Therefore I now dare to approach you.  Purify me from all stain of flesh and spirit.  Teach me to pray rightly.  Bless this day which you give to me, your unworthy servant.

By the power of your blessing enable me at all times to speak and to act with a pure spirit to your glory;  with faith, hope and love, humility, patience, gentleness, peace, purity, simplicity, sobriety, courage and wisdom.  Let me always be aware of your presence.

In your boundless goodness, O Lord God, show me your will and grant me to walk in your sight without sin.

O Lord, unto whom all hearts are open, you know what I need and what is necessary for me.  You know my blindness and my ignorance.  You know my infirmity and corruption.  My pain and anguish are not hidden from you.  Therefore I beg you:  Hear my prayer and teach me by the power of your Holy Spirit the way in which I should walk.  And when my perverted will leads me otherwise, O Lord, do not spare me, but force me back to your way.

Grant me, Lord, to hold fast to what is good by the power of your love.  Preserve me from every word and act which corrupts the soul, and from every impulse that is unpleasing in your sight and harmful to the people around me.  Teach me what I should say and how I should speak.  If it be your holy will that I be quiet and make no answer, inspire me to be silent in a peaceful spirit that causes neither harm nor hurt to my fellow human beings.

Establish me in the path of your commandments, and until my last breath do not let me stray from the light of your ordinances.  May your commandments be the sole law of my being in this life and for all eternity.

O Lord, I pray to you:  Have mercy on me.  Spare me in my affliction and misery and hide not the way of salvation from me.

In my foolishness, O God, I plead with you for many and great things.  Yet I am ever mindful of my wickedness, my baseness, my vileness.  Have pity on me!  Cast me not away from your presence because of my foolish presumption.  Increase rather in me the right presumption of your grace and grant that I, the worst of people, may love you with all my mind, all my heart, all my soul and all my strength, as you have commanded.

By your Holy Spirit, Lord, teach me good judgment and sound knowledge.  Let me know the truth before I die.  Maintain my life in this world until the end that I may offer worthy repentance.  Do not take me away while my mind is still blind and bound by darkness.  When you are pleased to end my life, give me warning that I may prepare my soul to come before you.  Be with me, Lord, at that awesome hour and assure me by your grace of the joy of my salvation.

Cleanse me from secret faults.  Purify me from hidden iniquities.  Give me a good answer at your dread judgment seat.

Lord of great mercy and measureless love for all people:  Hear my prayer!  Amen.

(With editing by Fr. Thomas Hopko)

Personal Transfiguration

TransfigurationI had a wonderful meeting with Fr Patrick yesterday afternoon. I cannot adequately express my joy at having a spiritual father whom I consider both wise and safe. In addition, I never feel I’m receiving spiritual advice that has not first been hammered out in his own life. Fr Patrick is a trustworthy fellow sojourner on the path to salvation and life in Christ.

Yesterday, he reminded me of a very simple truth that has been resonating in my mind all night and morning. He said that the place of personal transfiguration is where God’s divine energies and our personal repentance meet. This “equation” for spiritual formation is neither a magical formula nor an instantaneous event. It requires both the discipline of an ascetic life and an abundance of time as we cooperate with God’s grace. But this simple equation basically summarizes the life of the Orthodox Church. The life of the Church through its Scriptures, services, sacraments and stories of the saints, is aimed at helping us by both developing personal repentance and exposing us to God’s divine energies.

I’m particularly captivated with Orthodoxy’s focus on repentance. Frankly, constantly hearing about repentance when we first began attending the Orthodox Church rubbed me the wrong way. Repentance is not a popular concept in American Christianity. It’s often associated with the “Woe-is-me-Beat-myself-up” mentality of abusive and destructive religion. It took some time for me to purge that image out of my head.

But that’s not repentance at all. Repentance literally means “to change one’s mind.” It’s used during the New Testament time in a similar way as our modern phrase, “Think about it.” To repent is to hear an alternative to one’s agenda or course of action, to carefully weigh the consequences of both, and ultimately to recognize the wisdom of the alternative and lay down your inferior agenda. Repentance isn’t just changing one’s mental perspective but it’s the actual transformation of one’s mind and subsequently, one’s life. When you embrace the superior alternative, it begins to transform your values, perspective and behavior. It’s a complete shift of worldview.

St. Isaac the Syrian correctly defines repentance as “to be transformed in the renewal of the mind.” While it can include remorse or confessing to breaking a law, repentance is ultimately the process of becoming one in heart and mind with Christ. Therefore, it is something we do through the rest of our lives.

So spiritual formation in the Orthodox Church is to be constantly confronted with the superior way, truth and life that is Christ himself, to be encouraged and urged to weigh the consequences of my self-destructive patterns of thinking, behaving and relating in light of the better way of Christ, and to lay down my way and to take up my cross and follow Christ. And this entire process is soaked in God’s divine energies.

“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:16-18

It is this way that the Church is therapeutic, healing and repairing us of our brokenness and distortion. It is this way that the Church is like a gym, training and honing us into holiness.

Silence of the Lips

I found this great quote on Cameron’s  “We Live and Move and Have Our Being” blog.

“Silence of lips is better and more wonderful than any edifying conversation. Strive to acquire humility and submissiveness. Never insist that anything should be according to your will, for this gives birth to anger. Do not judge or humiliate anyone, for this gives birth to anger. Do not judge or humiliate anyone, for this exhausts the heart and blinds the mind, and thereon leads to negligence and makes the heart unfeeling.”
– St Barsanuphius

Okay. I know quotes like these can evoke a “Yeah, but…” response in us. But I would encourage you to reflect on the truth contained there and let it seep deep.

Exaltation of the Life-Giving Cross

Today is the Feast of The Elevation of the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross. I found a wonderful quote on Fr Ted Bobosh’s blog that I thought was worth sharing:

“Only the cross can meet the suspicion of escapism: God gives hope not by promising to pull us into a different world but by offering us a fresh beginning in this world, by himself coming to a place of the very sort we are tempted to escape, a place where suffering, opposition, and senseless conspire to make life appear utterly futile and unbearable.  Only the cross can meet the suspicion of optimism in human nature: God gives us hope by meeting us not at the lofty summits of human achievement but at the point where all purely human hopes have shrunk and collapsed; it is here that exhausted human hope can be remade out of inexhaustible possibilities of God’s love.  Only the cross can meet the suspicion of violent domination: God gives us hope not by defeating the powers of darkness with some equivalent act of violence from above but by submitting to them and bearing their force from below, not by an imperial force that crushes from on high but by a love that absorbs evil in the depths.  This is the way of Golgatha, God’s wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-25).”   (Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth)

A New View on Theology

For twenty-three years as a Protestant, theology was basically an exercise in abstract doctrinal formulation. One was correct in theology if one assented to a pre-determined set of doctrinal bullet points. In this light, theology is about opinions. Surely, educated opinions, but opinions nonetheless.

During the last few years of my journey as a Protestant, I took this practice to its most logical conclusion. Burned too many times by embracing doctrines, ideas and opinions simply because I was told they were true and I must embrace them, I set about constructing my own theological system. Drawing heavily upon NT Wright and other theologians that I respected, I built a theological construct with which I could live.

One of the first things I realized on my way to becoming an Orthodox Christian is that theology is not viewed as matter of opinion in Orthodoxy. Nor is it about formulating an abstract religious belief system. In Orthodoxy, theology is life. As a Protestant, a theologian was one who usually had acquired the appropriate academic training. However, as an Orthodox, a theologian was one who had developed purity in prayer. In fact, there is an Orthodox adage, “The one who has purity in prayer is a true theologian, and the one who is a true theologian has purity in prayer.”

Frankly, that leaves me out. I spent too much time and money pursuing the academic side of theology and too little time praying. Obviously, this was a disappointing epiphany. But when I think about it, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m glad theology in the Orthodox Church isn’t left in the hands of people like me — men and women who have spent more time with their head in books rather than before icons in prayer.

A new post by Fr Stephen Freeman makes this crystal clear. In it he says:

Fr. Georges Florovsky, of blessed memory, once wrote that doctrine is “a verbal icon of Christ.” That statement may not carry much weight with the non-Orthodox – but should come as a profound revelation for contemporary Orthodox believers. What we find in the teaching of the Church is not a collection of “right opinions” but a verbal representation of Christ, similar to the representation found in the holy icons. Again, the non-Orthodox may not perceive the power in this statement – but it is an important way for Orthodox Christians to remove themselves from the position of valuing opinions and restore them to the position of holding doctrine in its proper veneration.

Orthodox theology is a verbal representation of Christ. This is HUGE! This removes theology from the realm of academics, theory, and opinions and places it in its rightful place within the obedient life of the Church. And this truth requires a significant transformation within me so that I learn to yield my opinions to the teaching of the Church and embrace the representation of Christ that is revealed within that teaching.

Speak to God about Your Children

I saw this quote on Orrologion’s blog, who found it on Adventures of an Orthodox Mom’s blog:

“Pray and then speak. That’s what to do with your children. If you are constantly lecturing them, you’ll become tiresome and when they grow up they’ll feel a kind of oppression. Prefer prayer and speak to them through prayer. Speak to God and God will speak to their hearts. That is, you shouldn’t give guidance to your children with a voice that they hear with their ears. You may do this too, but above all you should speak to God about your children. Say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, give Your light to my children. I entrust them to You. You gave them to me, but I am weak and unable to guide them, so, please, illuminate them.’ And God will speak to them and they will say to themselves, ‘Oh dear, I shouldn’t have upset Mummy by doing that!’ And with the grace of God this will come from their heart.”

“It is not sufficient for the parents to be devout. They mustn’t oppress the children to make them good by force. We may repel our children from Christ when we pursue the things of our religion with egotism.” – Elder Porphyrios in Wounded by Love

Holy Icons

Palm Sunday IconAmong the strangest, yet most wonderful things I have encountered in Holy Orthodoxy are the holy icons. They are stunningly beautiful. And intellectually, I had no problem accepting their place in Orthodox worship and  spirituality. However, learning to venerate the icons as an integral part of my own participation in Orthodox worship and spirituality was a significant and awkward hurdle as a former Protestant.

Interestingly, my children led the way for me. After several visits to St. Peter’s, my kids asked if they could join the parish members in venerating the icons. Since our family was exploring Orthodoxy together, how could I deny them this experience? While several of my evangelical red flags were flying high, my children seemed to have no qualms with crossing themselves, bowing before and kissing the icons. As our family journeyed through our first Lent, I made a decision. I didn’t want my evangelical reservations, which had no place in Orthodoxy anyways, to prevent me from experiencing the fullness of Lent and the approaching Holy Week. So after one of the services, and with a great amount of trepidation, I joined the other parish members in venerating the icon. It felt like everyone was watching me. In hindsight I know that was not true. Veneration of the icons is a very personal moment and each person is given their appropriate privacy.

Now, almost 18 months later, I cannot imagine worship and prayer, even life in general, without the icons. The icons are the thin veil between the dimensions of earth and heaven, points of communion with God. Each icon is an expression of the incarnation, the presence of God embedded within material and flesh. The icons depict the cloud of witnesses who have attained the fullness of Christ and are now interceding for my salvation. As I gaze upon the icons, I gaze upon reality of the risen life in Christ within those who are my fathers and mothers and my brothers and sisters in Christ, without whom my journey to salvation would be impossible.

So that’s my personal experience with the icons. The catalyst for this reflection was a wonderful explanation of icons by Fr Stephen Freeman. Again, Fr Stephen hits one out of the park. While his post is not an exhaustive explanation and may not alleviate the evangelical misgivings of idolatry, it is a great introduction if one is trying to understand the role of icons in the Orthodox life. Here’s a great quote from Fr Stephen’s post:

The veneration of the saints in the Holy Icons is a lesson to the heart of how to venerate Christ in every person (who is made “in His image” [icon]).

Frankly, knowing the hardness of my own heart, that lesson alone is worth everything.

Violence or Humility

Fr Stephen Freeman has written another great post today. (Quite frankly, when does he NOT write a great post.) Please take five minutes to read it.

Part of his post was an outstanding quote by Stanley Hauerwas, theologian and professor at Duke University:

“The Christian community’s openness to new life and our conviction of the sovereignty of God over that life are but two sides of the same conviction. Christians believe that we have the time in this existence to care for new life, especially as such life is dependent and vulnerable, because it is not our task to rule this world or to “make our mark on history.” We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children. For it is the Christian claim that knowledge and love of God is fostered by service to the neighbor, especially the most helpless, as in fact that is where we find the kind of Kingdom our God would have us serve.”     A Community of Character

This quote was followed by another:

“So soon as Christians agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.”

This thought is worth some serious reflection on both political and personal levels: It is neither the Christian’s nor the Church’s task to rule this world nor make our mark on history. And the moment we shoulder that responsibility, we have agreed to do violence.

Now this does not mean we simply huddle in a corner and gnaw on our fingernails with dread and worry. Rather, we are to take up our proper responsibility, marked first by the conviction of God’s sovereignty over life and second by the “downward Way” of humility.

In hindsight, it seems my entire adult Christian life was aimed, although unintentionally, at obscuring the true Gospel. I had one fiery passion. I wanted to change the world. I wanted the Church to change the world. I wanted to build a local church with members who would join its leadership in changing the world. I taught and programmed our church with the intent on helping others change the world. My life had purpose and I had big hairy audacious goals.

And I was a man of violence.

Sure, if you had confronted me with that accusation, I would have denied it. Angrily denied it. I was doing God’s work of bringing his kingdom to earth. So please get the heck out of my way.

And those around me suffered violence. Sure I didn’t physically abuse anyone. But my wife and kids had a husband and father that was constantly absent. And when I was physically present with them, I was usually mentally and emotionally absent as I mulled over ways of improving my leadership and ministry or impatient with them for taking up my valuable time. My volunteer leadership suffered violence as I subtly forced my agenda upon their ministries or downright replaced them when they didn’t live up to my expectations. I mentally categorized people by what they could offer to our church by their strengths, wealth, and gifts. And I suffered violence at my own hands through stress, imbalance and a lack of any inward formation.

Now, I wasn’t a task master. I was a really nice man of violence.  I tried treating people with respect. I tried to protect people from overworking in and overgiving to the church. I tried to pray for and care for everyone who came into and served our church. But my relationship with everyone was primarily shaped by my goals of building a church that would change the world. And so, my life and ministry incarnated the way of violence and took its toll on those around me.

I’m happy to say that God is rescuing me from that path. I can thoroughly appreciate Hauerwas’ quote:

“We can thus take the time to live in history as God’s people who have nothing more important to do than to have and care for children.”

I have been experiencing and continue to experience a worldview change. I no longer live each day with the passion to change the world. The well-being and care of my wife and my kids are the most important things to me. I “simply” (in quotes because it’s not a simple thing) want to be a good man to my family, friends, coworkers and any others God brings my way. I have a long way to go in this goal. And the only way to truly accomplish this is to enter into and follow Christ into his humility — the downward Way.

I used to measure my personal success by the amount of people I was influencing through conversations, preaching and writing. I’m now understanding what Fr Stephen says, that our goals should be measured by the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13).

I still have goals, but they are very, very different than my previous ones. One of my personal goals is for my wife and kids to look back upon their lives and know that they were genuinely, unconditionally and constantly loved by me. That may sound simple, especially in a world that is wrestling with some dire issues. But in reality, authentic love is such a rare thing today. It doesn’t happen naturally because it requires a certain kind of life that most avoid.

Fr Stephen ends his post by speaking of the Tradition of the Holy Elders who embrace, live and embody the downward Way:

“Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.”

During my journey here, I will most likely never experience this fullness of humility and life in Christ. But I hope and dream to enter it a bit. For my wife and children, I yearn to wet my feet on the shores of this mighty river, even if I can’t swim in it. For them, I hope to become a humble sampling of true life and love.

Happy 20th Anniversary!

Wedding DayTwenty Years LaterIn my last post, I mentioned that I was reserving my 600th post to talk about a major milestone that I was approaching.   It would have been more correct to say that Debbie and I were approaching.  In a few days, we will be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary!

I’m absolutely flabbergasted by this. It seems like we were just married a few years ago. But then I look at the size of my children and reality strikes.

When I reflect on the past twenty years, I am keenly aware of how fortunate I am. I have not only found someone who agreed to marry me, but someone who has chosen to be my best and most intimate friend. Virtually every evening, after the kids have gone to bed and Debbie sits next to me on the couch to unwind from the day’s activities, I am stunned by the fact that this beautiful and brilliant woman has chosen to spend her life with me; to spend that day with me; to spend that night with me.

Debbie has seen me at my worst. She has witnessed and borne the wounds of my bad decisions, my immaturity, my evil heart and my dismal failures. And despite all of this, she still chooses to love me, to trust me, to believe in me and to share her life with mine.

For those who have not met Debbie, I wish you could spend some time with her. She is gorgeous. She is intelligent. She is witty. She is funny. She is compassionate. She is courageous. She is spiritual. She is wise. She is virtuous. She is caring. She is sacrificial. She is optimistic. She is forgiving. She is generous. She is gentle. She is imaginative. She is loyal. She is an amazing person. (Oh, and did I mention she’s a Sci-Fi geek too!)

Forgive me for indulging a bit, but I absolutely love taking walks with Debbie with her hand in mine. I love looking into her eyes. I love it when she flashes me that smile that is for me alone. I love laughing with her, holding her, watching her.

When I look at Debbie, I am very conscious of how rich a man I am. I have been privileged to have spent most of my adult life with my best friend. I often imagine the kind of person I would have become without Debbie in my life. I know I would have become a self-absorbed and immature little man at best. But because God graced me with such a wonderful woman, I am confident that I am becoming a better man.

I have thoroughly enjoyed starting a family with Debbie and watching our four children mature into beautiful human beings. I see their mother’s winsome character in their lives and hope they come to realize how fortunate they are. And while I’m saddened at the thought that my children will eventually grow into adults and move on with their own lives, I’m comforted by knowing that Debbie will always remain at my side.

In fact, so much has shifted and changed in our lives. I have lost jobs and started jobs. We have changed churches and explored different forms of Christianity. We have watched friends move or die. We are watching our parents grow old and our children grow up. But through it all, our friendship and marriage has been the one constant unto which I have held.

I look forward to growing old with Debbie. I don’t know what the future holds for our lives. But I know that through the good and bad and through the joys and struggles, our love will surpass everything.

I love you, Debbie. I loved you beyond belief on our wedding day and my love has only grown over these twenty years. You’re everything to me and I pray God grants us many, many sensational years together. Happy Anniversary!

Fr Stephen Freeman & “The Fascination of Wickedness”

As always, Fr Stephen’s recent post is filled with accessible spiritual insight. Really good stuff. It’s a wonderful reminder of the power our “mere” thoughts, words and prayers possess, especially as we live in a culture that has trained us to naturally look at everything with a critical eye.

But for me, the highlight of Fr Stephen’s post was the introductory quote by The Elder Porphyrios:

Man has such powers that he can transmit good or evil to his environment. These matters are very delicate. Great care is needed. We need to see everything in a positive frame of mind. We mustn’t think anything evil about others. Even a simple glance or a sigh influences those around us. And even the slightest anger or indignation does harm. We need to have goodness and love in our soul and to transmit these things.

We need to be careful not to harbor any resentment against those who harm us, but rather to pray for them with love. Whatever any of our fellow men does, we should never think evil of him. We need always to have thoughts of love and always to think good of others. Look at St. Stephen the first martyr. He prayed, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ (Acts 7:60). We need to do the same.

Our goal is love. Spiritual disciplines, the various church services and the other vibrant resources of the Orthodox Church are wonderful traditions that have carried the life of Christ from the first Apostles until now and will do so far into the future. But the life of Christ is love.

“Lord, may I one day echo St Paul’s words:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Lord, your life and your love in me and through me.”

Steeping in Orthodoxy

Author and Orthodox Christian, Frederica Mathewes-Green stated in a recent podcast that there are generally two genres of books that Orthodox Christians prefer to read — explanations or experiences. This statement was an “aha” moment for me. Lately, I’ve been pondering the reasons for my relative silence on this blog. Believe me, I’ve tried writing many posts about Orthodoxy, either its theology or my experiences as a new Orthodox Christian. However, upon starting these posts, I find myself ultimately deleting them.

While standing in Matins this past Sunday morning, I realized that I have been an Orthodox Christian for seven months. During these past seven months, and the year of exploration prior to joining the Orthodox Church, I intentionally refrained from doing a lot of reading and studying. This may seem counterproductive, but due to my personality and training, I can easily over-theorize my faith. In other words, my conceptual understanding of the faith can easily overreach my actual life experience. I’ve been guilty of this as an evangelical and I wanted to avoid this as an Orthodox Christian. So my strategy was to soak myself in the life of the Orthodox Church.

SteepingI can only relate my experiences thus far to a steeping cup of tea. There is something soothing and satisfying about tea steeping in hot water. The wafting steam carries the aroma of flavor being released from the dried leaves. My “steeping” in Orthodoxy is occurring in the normal ebbs and flows of life within the Orthodox Church. This may not sound like much to those unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, but trust me, it’s life-immersing.

And over this period of time, I’ve noticed that the water of my life is beginning to carry a subtle, yet very distinct flavor as new thoughts, values and feelings are being gently coaxed out of me through the Holy Spirit’s activity within the Church.

Prior to coming to Orthodox Christianity, I steeped for 25 years in evangelical Christianity, which included fourteen years of professional ministry and an undergraduate and graduate degree in pastoral preparation and theology. Yet, having transitioned into Orthodoxy, I’m discovering that I need to consciously set aside much of my past experiences and training.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity, in its theology and practice, is very different from and occasionally incompatible with western Protestant Christianity. Just like it would be wrong for me to experience and judge a new culture into which I’ve moved with my American values, so it is wrong to experience and judge Orthodox Christianity with my old Protestant evangelical values. For example, historically speaking alone, Orthodoxy never encountered the issues and abuses that led to the Protestant Reformation. So what right do I have to use the Protestant theology that flowed from the Reformation as some sort of plumb line for my new life as an Orthodox Christian?

This places me in a somewhat awkward position as one who enjoys writing. As the theological concepts and spiritual practices that dominated most of my evangelical life fade away, I’m trying to write less and less from an evangelical perspective so as to allow the new worldview of Orthodoxy to seep deep within me.

Yet in light of Frederica’s comment, I have not learned enough to explain much about Orthodox Christianity in this blog. And I’m committed not to reading and studying a lot for several more months. But having only steeped for seven months, I don’t feel my experiences in Orthodoxy are very flavorful yet either. So, do I remain silent, or write about things of which I know little, or write about my extremely limited experiences?

Frankly, I haven’t decided what I will do yet. (My indecision toward this blog probably explains the additional activity on my photoblog and Flickr account lately.) Although I’m leaning toward writing about my minimal experiences as a new Orthodox Christian, I’m aware of the need for caution. Heeding Fr. Stephen Freeman’s words, I desire to guard the Secret Place by not turning my blog into a vehicle of full self-disclosure. Proper steeping and formation in Orthodoxy requires learning and practicing wise silence.

So bottom-line, I’m very content with where I am right now. I’m not fretting about my indecision. Nor am I in any hurry to make a decision, because I’m in this for life. Not just life now, but life forever. Seven months down and eternity to go. With that in mind, I’m going to relax and soak in the warmth.