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.

———————————————

“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

Three Men & A Gym: A Parable… well an attempt at one

MuscleThree men were relaxing at a smoothie shop after one of their regular visits to the gym. The first man declared, “Do you know why I joined this gym? Since I’ve been going the past couple of years, I’ve lost 40 pounds of fat and I’m so much stronger. I’ve never looked or felt so good in my life. They have the newest equipment and play the music I like. This gym is the best.”

The second man nodded in agreement, “Do you know why I joined this gym? Because in the past couple of years since attending, I’ve been working out with a personal trainer. I know all about most of the muscle groups and which exercises and equipment strengthens them. I’m learning so much about various foods and how to maximize workout and diet to maintain peak fitness. This is the strongest I’ve felt in my entire life. This gym is the best.”

The third man looked at the other two men and stated, “Do you know why I joined this gym? Several years ago I was in the hospital, not sure if I would see tomorrow. I realized then that my wife, kids, friends, and others in my life needed me. I joined this gym so I could be healthy in order to be with them and serve them as long as I can.”

If You Would Have Looked Into His Eyes

EyesI encountered a jarring story this morning in Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer. It’s a great reminder that even with the best intentions we can completely fail to see people.

“One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man were handed over to them before dawn. The people went to the minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: ‘It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.’

“Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden. And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him, and asked, ‘What have you done?’ He said: ‘I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.’ Then the angel said: ‘But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?’ ‘How could I know?’ the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said, ‘If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.’”

Be Eager To Walk This Path

“Snow can never emit flame.
Water can never issue fire.
A thorn bush can never produce a fig.
Just so, your heart can never be free
from oppressive thoughts, words, and actions
until it has purified itself internally.
Be eager to walk this path.
Watch your heart always.
Constantly say the prayer
‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’
Be humble.
Set your soul in quietness.”

–St Hesychios

TunnelAs Jesus’ apprentices, we are called to embody his life into our world. However, in order to embody Christ, we must walk the long journey of transformation into Christ’s likeness — to become by grace what God is by nature. This doesn’t occur automatically, but in communion and cooperation with God’s presence in our life.

St Hesychios provides us with some spiritual tools for the journey:

1. We must eagerly desire to become like Christ. This is our vocation and not our hobby. God uses every aspect of our lives in the process of transformation. We must receive this process with thanksgiving regardless of how painful the delivery system is at the time.

2. We must be genuinely self-aware. We must be honest about the monsters that lurk in the shadow of our heart and how they find expression in our lives. Self-delusion short-circuits the process.

3. Our lives must be marinated with prayer. Our lives must be steeped in prayer so that prayer becomes the natural default posture of our heart. One great tool provided by St Hesychios is the Jesus Prayer.

4. Practice humility. Learn to seek the good for others before yourself. This might express itself in being quiet so others can talk. Or it might be quietly serving someone without drawing attention to yourself. Or it might be learning to be thankful.

5. Learn to practice silence. Incorporate moments of silence as a regular part of your daily life.

It’s crucial to remember a couple of things about spiritual tools. First, St Hesychios doesn’t provide an exhaustive list of spiritual tools. The Church offers many indispensable tools on our journey to Christ’s likeness.

Second, practicing these disciplines does not automatically equate into Christ’s likeness. There is not a one-to-one correlation between practice and transformation. It’s similar to going to the gym. Using the equipment doesn’t automatically result in physical health. Surely, it can contribute toward a healthy lifestyle. But there are other essential factors as well.

When properly practiced, the specific tools provided by St Hesychios, as well as all of the resources provided by the Church, create an environment of communion and cooperation with God in our lives. It is this relationship that forms the structure for transformation into Christ’s likeness.

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.

Thoughts On My Son’s Birthday

My_KidsI’m going to step from out of the shadows for a moment to type some thoughts. Today, Michael, my firstborn, turns 23.

Parenting classes and instruction never prepared me for this phase of parenting, when I look backwards into time at my adult children’s lives. As a young parent, my kids’ lives and my role in their young lives stretched out before me. Now their childhoods are just photos and memories. Sometimes those memories come rushing back like a flood, accompanied with a lot of emotions — joy, humor, regret, shame. From where I stand now, there is no reset button. There is no do-over. I can’t grab my babies and pull them into my lap. I can’t touch their tiny faces or hold their small hands or listen to their little voices.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I love my adult children. We are all friends and very close. But those precious childhood years are gone, never to return or to be relived. Now my kids are only a few years from moving out and starting their own families. Even our present experience of nightly family dinners, frequent car trips, family walks and other precious moments together will be quickly winding down.

As I was thinking about this on my drive to work this morning, another realization hit me. I will be 50 next year. If my family is blessed with long life, I have another 30 years or so. That means I’m quickly approaching the halfway point of my life with my wife and kids. Half of it is almost over. It blazed by so quickly. I can’t help feeling like I missed so much of it.

For what it’s worth, here’s my advise to all young parents. Don’t let anything steal you away from your children. Don’t let financial struggles, career choices, relational strife, hobbies, church, or anything good or bad rob you from the irretrievable years of your kids’ childhood. I know that with young children, the first 18 or so years of their lives can seem forever. But they are not. That time will be gone before you know it.

When you’re with your kids, be with your kids. Put everything away and just be with them. When you’re watching a movie with them, look at their faces and enjoy the wonder, laughter or surprise. When you’re on a walk with them, hold their hands, look at what captures their attention, and don’t rush. When you’re eating together, forget the mess and the volume and simply share the moment.

These last several years of family togetherness are so precious to me. I cherish them more than anything. I’m convinced that the best legacy of my life will be my kids. I’m blessed that my kids still make time to have family dinner together almost every night. Most of the times, I can’t stop laughing at their antics and jokes. I’m also blessed that my kids still like to watch TV and movies together. We laugh and cry as we watch the show together and repeat quotes after the credits have rolled by.

There’s no one else I would rather be than with my wife and kids.

Favorite Tools

ToolsI’m definitely not a DIY kind of person. But I do have a handful of favorite tools that I use frequently. There are two commonalities about these tools. First, they are well-designed to meet the most common repair challenges I encounter. And second, because of their constant use, they are well-worn.

God’s cosmic project, initiated in and by Jesus and now continually implemented by Jesus’ apprentices, is the New Creation. Heaven and earth are being stitched together as God answers through our lives our communal prayer, “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

I think you see where this is going. We are God’s tools in his ongoing project. First, we are being formed to meet the common repair challenge of building toward the New Creation. St Paul writes in 2Cor 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the New Creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” In Christ, we are God’s New Creation in bodily human form. As such, we train cooperatively with God so he continues to form us further into Christ’s likeness.

Second, as we become properly shaped into Christ’s likeness we discover, usually to our amazement, that God uses us to build toward his New Creation. But this is not a simple and pristine endeavor. Sacrifice and struggle are common in building toward God’s New Creation. And they leave their marks on us. So over time, we will become well-worn.

It’s good to remember that all of God’s saints have carried the scars of service.

Blessed Are The Ordinary

CrowdSo much of our society focuses on superstars and celebrities. Whether sports stars, movie stars or pop stars, we follow their lives through glossy magazines and tacky TV shows. Many people dream of meeting them or having their lives.

Sadly, this perception permeates the modern Church as well. Many Christians have their favorite pastors, Bible teachers and music leaders. And because the modern pulpit has been replaced with a stage, everyone who ascends the platform is inevitably compared to other Christian superstars.

It’s obvious from headlines that the average human being does not possess the character to sustain the weight of stardom. Yet, whether it’s in our culture at large or the smaller Christian culture, we continue to place intense weight upon deficient shoulders by our fandom.

Our culture’s perspective isn’t unique. It infested Jewish culture at the time of Jesus. His students inquired, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Matt 18:1. You can almost sense them jostling each other for the prime position, hoping Jesus would highlight a quality or trait they possessed that would mark them above the others.

As usual, Jesus performs a complete reversal, turning their expectations and understanding inside-out. He beckoned a little child to join him. In that society, a child was worth virtually nothing.

The more I read the Gospels, the more convinced I become that God cherishes the ordinary. In a great blog post, Fr Stephen Freeman makes an interesting observation. The second creation story ties humanity’s first sin to the rather mundane and ordinary act of eating. Think about that for a moment. Humanity’s and subsequently creation’s damage was caused by such a small ordinary action.

Throughout the New Testament and into the Church’s life, the acts through which we cooperate with God’s grace toward our ongoing salvation and the subsequent renewal of creation are equally ordinary. Fr Stephen names these classical exercises in his blog post — fasting, prayer, generosity, and watchfulness.

There are other equally ordinary tasks. In fact, Jesus summarizes the entire Law into two ordinary commands — love God and love your neighbor. As the ordinary act of eating impacted humanity and creation, our ordinary acts likewise can impact our lives and world. Here’s a list of ordinary moments in which we might cooperate with God’s abundant grace:

  • Thank God immediately upon waking each morning.
  • Move over slightly for the motorcyclist beside you on the freeway.
  • Chat with a co-worker or neighbor about their life so you can secretly pray for them.
  • Remain at peace in the midst of a crisis or deadline at work.
  • Be polite to everybody.
  • Stop and notice what’s happening around you.
  • Don’t overindulge with food, TV or online activities.
  • Listen to your spouse and children talk about their day’s activities.
  • Exercise a little each day.
  • Attend church services.
  • Give to someone asking for a handout.
  • Read the Bible regularly.
  • Spend some time being quiet every day.
  • Get plenty of sleep every night.
  • Apologize when you’ve done something wrong.
  • Forgive when you’ve been wronged.

St Paul encourages Timothy to “Train yourself to be godly” (1Tim 4:7). Training to be godly occurs through ordinary actions by ordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

Repenting Of Repentance

The life of God’s son or daughter is a humble life of being God’s servant. It’s a life of following Christ’s example, learning from him how to be like him. Our life of apprenticeship to Jesus should be permeated by what Archimandrite Zacharias calls the greatest commandment of the New Testament:

“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” Luke 17:10

The humility exemplified by this commandment can only come through repentance. Elder Paisios of Mount Athos instructs:

“Ask for repentance in your prayer and nothing else, neither for divine lights, nor miracles, nor prophecies, nor spiritual gifts—nothing but repentance. Repentance brings humility, and humility will bring grace of God, because it is a law: grace of God always comes to the humble.”

Prodigal SonWe see this “law” at work in Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. Both sons have the same selfish heart. But it is the youngest son who experiences the mercy and grace of his father. Humility released grace. And it was repentance that humbled the son.

The eldest son stands in contrast to his younger brother. His distorted heart was hidden behind a life of “being the good son.” He worked hard and obeyed his father. But his father’s grace toward his younger brother exposed the deep shadows of his heart — anger, resentment, entitlement, and pride. Despite living in the father’s home and doing the father’s work, without repentance the older son lacked humility and completely missed participating in the free grace of his father.

Unfortunately, the idea of repentance has itself become distorted in our culture. It has accumulated a narrow definition, something like “remorse toward ones bad behavior.” But this is not what Jesus was communicating.

During Jesus’ time, repentance had layers of meanings. It meant something like, “Think about everything that you value and trust both personally and as a community. Think about the core of what shapes you and the repercussions. And come to terms that none of it is working.” This larger context encompasses things like individual behavior, but so much more.

It’s my opinion that aligning our perspective of repentance to Jesus’ exhortation (i.e. repent of our culture’s version of repentance) is essential if we want to truly understand his teaching and ministry.

Jesus was not calling “bad” people to repent of their bad behavior. He was calling all people — “good” and “bad” — to repent, to rethink everything that they value and believe and that shapes and directs them as a person and as a people. And frankly, the core of what they needed to repent were things that they would have considered “good,” such as how to be God’s people. Through parables and actions, Jesus was calling people to take a hard look at the symbols, stories, and values that shaped their understanding of being God’s people, God’s children.

Jesus was embodying and demonstrating what God had originally intended for all of Israel to be — how to be a nation of priest so as to bless the other nations. And he did it by embodying and demonstrating how to be truly human. By being truly human as God intended, one can truly be a blessing to the nations and to creation.

Returning to the Prodigal Son, the youngest son’s repentance was not primarily remorse over his attitude toward his dad, the waste of his inheritance, nor his despicable behavior, although all of this and more would have been included. Rather, it was a complete rethinking of his core, of what it meant to be a son. And the conclusion at which he arrived was to be a servant in his father’s home. This humble insight is what transformed everything else and compelled him to return home.

And as he did, he found his gracious father not just waiting for him, but running towards him, eager to restore him back to the very position of which his internal disposition had been transformed.

The Greatest Commandment

Unto My Words“What is the greatest commandment of the New Testament?” This is the question with which Archimandrite Zacharias ended his recent lecture at St Vladimir’s Theological Seminary. I’ve learned that when spiritual fathers ask what seems like an easy question, the answer is rarely the popular or presumed one.

So after the audience shouted out the standard answers such as, “To Love God,” “To love one another,” and “To be holy as your heavenly Father is holy,” Father Zacharias told the audience to open their Bibles and read Luke 17:10.

Luke 17:10 is the punchline to Jesus’ parable on faithfulness as an expression of true faith. The parable is his response to the disciples’ request to “Give us greater faith!”

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? Luke 17:6-9

So are you ready for the greatest commandment of the New Testament?

“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” Luke 17:10

In other words, all of the other New Testament commandments are expected of Christ’s apprentices. But the greatest commandment, the one that is probably the most essential, is a constant attitude of humility as we endeavor to embody all of the commands.

This ties directly to the eldest son in the Story of the Prodigal Son. Remember his complaint to his father?

“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” Luke 15:29-30

On the surface, the eldest son has been working diligently and faithfully for his father. On the outside, he’s the perfect picture of “the good son.” But beneath the external loyalty is a dangerous undercurrent of pride and entitlement. And it corrupts him and causes him to miss perhaps the most important event in his family’s life — his brother has returned from the dead!

Yes, we have been adopted into God’s family and have been embraced as his sons and daughters. But we must not be deceived by a false sense of entitlement, like the stereotypical spoiled brats of royalty. As God’s children, we are called to become truly and fully human as embodied by Jesus. God’s commandments are not arbitrary rules and restrictions, but road signs that lead us to a truly human life. Being God’s children means following Jesus out of our subhuman existence and into the truly human life God intended and that Jesus embodied. It’s not an optional life, but one that is expected of all of God’s children.

To return to Jesus’ parable in Luke 17, the disciples requested a greater quantity of faith. Jesus redirected them to a greater quality of faith. And that quality is humble faithfulness, letting Jesus lead and train us into an obedient and truly human life. This is the mustard seed that can move mountains.

And like servants and apprentices of old, our constant attitude must be, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” This is what it means to be God’s sons and daughters.

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.

Humility

“A truly humble person never behaves like a teacher; he will listen, and, whenever his opinion is requested, he responds humbly. In other words, he replies like a student. He who believes that he is capable of correcting others is filled with egotism.” Elder Paisios the Athonite (via Eclectic Orthodoxy)

The above quote really struck me when I read it this morning. When I was a pastor in my previous life, I felt it was my responsibility to always be teaching people. In fact, that was the primary reason I was a pastor. I thought I had a “gift of teaching.” I believed God has prepared me through my experience and education to share my wisdom with people. I dreamt of speaking at conferences and writing books that would illuminate others to grow deeply in their faith. And the Christian culture in which I was immersed encouraged this.

And one of my favorite modes was to shock and clarify. In order to make a point, I would sometimes make an overstatement for impact and then explain what I actually meant.

While I think my intentions were good, what I lacked was true spiritual discernment and the humility to wield it properly. What I failed to realize is that knowledge is power and power corrupts. And that corruption occurs slowly and most times without notice. In hindsight, I can see where pride crept in and easily found a haven in my heart.

Now I’m not saying teachers or pastors are bad. Nor am I saying that their knowledge shouldn’t be shared. I am saying that the mark of a “good” teacher isn’t his or her knowledge or presentation skills. It’s humility. It’s knowing what is appropriate for what context. It’s discerning what is actually needed. And many times, knowledge isn’t the primary need. And at least in my life, if my first impulse is “I need to teach this” rather than “I need to listen and learn,” then it’s an indicator that humility may not be at work in that moment.

 

Storytellers

Saving Mr. BanksOver the holidays, our family saw Saving Mr. Banks. Some have criticized it as “a Disney movie about a Disney movie.” However, we thoroughly enjoyed “the story behind the story” of one of our favorite movies, Mary Poppins.

While there are some rather emotional scenes in Saving Mr. Banks, the one moment that put my heart in my throat was during a dialogue between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers. Disney states, “That’s what we storytellers do. We instill hope again, and again, and again.”

I’ve written about this aspect of the Christian faith in the past. We human beings live in the midst of an amazing Story filled with unpredictable twists in plot that evoke passion, misery, and joy. This Story is epic in every sense of the word, enveloping the entire cosmos. And it also contains as many subplots as there are individual lives throughout history.

The Case For The PsalmsAt its core, the Story in which we all live instills hope again, and again, and again. Saving Mr. Banks rekindled this in my imagination. And then immediately reading N.T. Wright’s, The Case for the Psalms, further fanned it into flames. In his book, Wright explains how Israel’s ancient poems tell an ongoing story of humans living at the convergence of our time, space and matter and God’s time, space and matter. It’s upon this knife’s edge that our stories make sense within the larger cosmic Story.

So, we not only live within this astonishing Story, but like Israel’s poets, we must learn to become its storytellers too so our words, deeds and lives can instill hope again, and again, and again.

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!

Stop Generalizing

prophet_muhammad_charter_of_privileges_to_christians_ad628The blog, “On Behalf Of All,” has posted a letter written by Muhammad, the founder of Islam, eternally vowing to protect all Christians. I found the post to be very interesting. I haven’t had time to verify its authenticity, but it’s a good reminder for all those who claim to follow Jesus. It is time for us to stop generalizing about various groups of people. Whether they are Republicans, Democrats, Muslims, Mormons, Catholics, Protestants or any other group, we must remember firstly that all people are made in God’s image and secondly, every group has members with a variety of values, beliefs and agendas.

I think many genuine Christians loathe the unjust stereotype of being hypocritical, unthinking people. Similarly, I would think many genuine Muslims hate the unjust stereotype of being fanatical terrorists.

But here’s my personal conviction: I think the fear-mongering regarding Obama, Democrats in general, and Muslims in entirety practiced by many Christians in the wider network of relationship to which I belong is just plain evil and opposes anything Jesus practiced or taught. Jesus’ apprentices are called to embody, demonstrate and announce a radical love for all people, even those who would consider us as enemies.

I’m not saying that we turn a blind eye to what is truly happening in the world. There are current governments in our world aimed at destroying Christianity. Some are Muslim, some are not. But the call to love everyone requires a reasoned and inspired response.

Imaginary God

Self-reflection“The inner conflict produced by life in the world is easily projected onto the screen of the universe, yielding an imaginary God. Only true stillness can allow the projection to dissipate.” Fr Stephen Freeman, “Unspeakably Speaking”

How true. A cursory, yet honest glance inward provides ample demonstration of this statement’s validity. A period of ministerial burnout and I recast spirituality as strictly an individual inner journey. A sense of betrayal by church leadership and disillusionment and suspicion of leadership reshape my ecclesiology into a non-hierarchical structure. Frustration at fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible reforge a personal hermeneutic of authority and obedience. And the list can go on.

The common theme in the list is that my inner conflict generates ideas about God, usually a God of my own imagination. Yet they are only ideas. They are like thin transparencies lit by a projector of my own inner turmoil. I look toward God and see a slight reflection of my own image. And that should be the warning that I travel in treacherous territory.

The answer isn’t new or different ideas. True theology isn’t about rational ideas. It’s about God. And his invitation is, “Be still and know that I am God.”

What Is To Come

GlimpsesDuring my first years of marriage over two decades ago, I was a selfish young man. Surely to the best of my abilities, I committed my life to Debbie. Yet, I viewed marriage as the environment where my needs, agendas and dreams were to be met. When they were met, I was happy. And when they weren’t met, I was miserable.

I’ve grown up a bit in the last twenty-something years (or at least I hope so). My view of my marriage is now shaped by the future; not what what I hope to get out of the marriage, but what we anticipate our lives will be together. We both dream of growing old together, wrinkled hands entwined, thoroughly enjoying each other. We dream of doing hobbies together, working on the house together, eating out together, serving together. Truly best friends.

That future shapes our present. It’s not just something for which we hope. Rather, in some ways that future comes rushing into our present and determines how we speak and act toward each other now. The vision of that future reality sets the trajectory of our present reality so we will eventually land in that future. In theological terms, we’re experiencing “inaugurated eschatology.”

As Christ’s apprentices, that’s how we should always live our lives on an even grander scale. Through his resurrection, Jesus has released his Father’s New Creation within this present creation. St Paul states that if anyone is in Christ, the person is the New Creation (2Cor 5:17). And in another passage, he states that what truly matters is the New Creation (Gal 6:15). Finally, St John describes the ultimate future reality as the first heaven and earth giving way to the New Heaven and New Earth (Rev 21:1).

Through Scripture, we’re given glimpses of what God’s New Creation will be like. It will be the answer to Jesus’ prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s justice will roll like a mighty river as he sets everything right. Evil will finally be vanquished and God will dwell with his people and truly be their King. Creation will be restored and God’s glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the seas. God’s humanity will be resurrected and ready to live in this new environment as modeled by Jesus’ own resurrection.

One can only imagine how God’s restored Creation will impact society, technology, politics, economics, business, domestic and foreign policies, environmental issues, medicine, law, education, relationships and all other facets of society.

As we view signposts in Scripture pointing toward God’s New Creation, we are challenged and compelled to embrace “inaugurated eschatology.” As the New Creation in human form, we are to let even the vaguest imaginations of God’s restored future shape our present.

While the myriad applications exceed the purpose of this post, I would like to offer one application with which I’ve been challenged. In his commentary, Hebrews for Everyone, NT Wright states:

“True gratitude both for the present world and for the world to come is the deepest and truest form of worship… When you bow down before the living God and thank him from the bottom of your heart for what he’s done and for what he will do, it is as though you are a priest in the Temple, offering the purest, most unblemished sacrifice. Only much, much more so. That is the privilege of the being a follower of Jesus the Messiah. That is the life to which our fiery God now calls us.”

Not only am I to thank God for what he’s done and is doing, but what he will do. As a I’m being restored by Christ into a Eucharistic being, my gratitude must expand to encompass what God will do. And as I learn to be genuinely thankful for God’s future, even when my personal brokenness prevents me from being ready for it myself, I’m discovering that it’s shaping me and altering my current trajectory. In other words, being thankful for what is to come is making want to be ready for what is to come and more willing to cooperate with Jesus’ transformation in my life.

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.

Googly Eye

Googly

As I was leaving home for work this morning, I was greeted by a sight that made me pause. On a little shelf near our front door sat one small googly eye. You know the kind. The little white plastic eye with a black disc that you find on stuffed toys.

I have no idea from which toy this eye originated or how long it’s been quietly watching my family’s comings and goings. But for the slightest of moments, with my briefcase and lunchbox in one hand and door keys in the other, I paused… and was bathed with the sensation of thankfulness.

It’s difficult to explain how a simple plastic thing like that would carry such meaning other than to say that it reminded me that my home is filled with abundant LIFE and JOY. Every day I look forward to returning home from work to be greeted by the sights and sounds of my beautiful wife and four awesome kids and two rambunctious puppies. I love walking into our kitchen knowing that our nourishment and refreshment is lovingly prepared by our hands. I love walking into our living room and seeing our icon corner with images of Christ, his Mother, the cross and several saints, reminding me that we are truly surrounded and supported by a cloud of witnesses. I love sitting at our dining room table and sharing a nightly meal filled with talk and laughter with the ones I adore or having conversations over coffee in the morning. I love walking into our backyard and playing with our puppies.

In moments like these you almost expect to hear the social networking cliche, “Life is good!” But life is ALWAYS good, whether one is experiencing chaos or calmness. This isn’t a “Look at how good life is for me” post. Rather, it’s a reminder that I’m being restored as a Eucharistic being. Eucharist is thanksgiving. Christ’s life in me is restoring my core being as a person filled and living with thanksgiving toward God. And this is expressed in the minutest daily moments and in love for those all around me.

Now don’t you go rolling your googly eye at me. 🙂

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

Why I Love Her

Happy New Year! Wow! It’s 2013.

So, yesterday turned into an interesting day. Debbie and I ended up spending four hours in the emergency room. It wasn’t life-threatening. Urgent care was closed and the ER was our only option.

“What happened?” you ask. Deb and Chris were out walking our puppies around the block. Deb was walking fast and her foot caught a raised part of the sidewalk. She partially slowed her fall with her knee and wrist, but her chin and mouth hit the sidewalk. The impact tore two deep gashes in her bottom lip and chipped one of her front teeth.

Four hours in ER and she left with two stitches on her lip. She vows she will be hiring a stunt double for the remainder of her stunts.

But here’s the reason for this post’s title. While in ER experiencing a lot of pain herself, Deb saw an older lady who was sitting alone and obviously struggling with intense pain. So with a cold and bloody compress applied to her gashed lip, Deb limped over to the lady, put her arm around her and engaged her in conversation to comfort her.

And that, my friends, is why I love this woman who has chosen to share her life with me. I get to see and experience this unique woman everyday. And 23 years of marriage have only deepened my love and respect for her.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think about the emergency room unless I have to go to one. Through most of my life, I forget they even exist. By their very nature, they are places of pain, misery, and fear. Yesterday reminded me that on holidays, when most people are with family and friends, emergency rooms are filled with people who are afraid, sometimes alone, and in agony.

During our four hours, I heard an infant screaming in pain for our entire visit. As we were preparing to leave, I watched his young parents hovering over him with worry as he was hooked up to tubes and wires and wheeled away on a gurney to another location in the hospital. I watched an older man who had fallen and was writhing in pain from something broken inside his body. And there were dozens more who were sick and suffering.

And all of us can be mere moments from being in the same place. Our day was spent fulfilling our busy plans. Walking the puppies is a normal activity we do a couple times a day. It was a simple way to spend five minutes before we moved onto our next activity. But a misplaced step on a crack less than an inch high suddenly causes life to spiral in a completely different direction.

Yet despite our day’s new trajectory and through her own pain, Deb showed compassion to a lonely and suffering lady, connecting a bit of heaven to a broken earth in the ER. And that’s why I love her.

Fleeting Beauty

Bentley's SnowflakeI was listening to Radiolab this morning. (BTW, Radiolab has to be my favorite podcast!) They were talking about Wilson Bentley. Bentley was the first person to actually photograph snowflakes.

Bentley’s interest in snowflakes began as a teenager. At the age of 15, he would peer at snowflakes through a microscope and attempt to draw the complex images before they melted. By the age of 20, he had attached a camera to the microscope and spent the rest of his life capturing and photographing what he called “tiny miracles of beauty.” Mind you, this was 1885 and way before our modern era of digital photography.

Tragically, Bentley died of pneumonia after walking six miles in a blizzard in order to photograph more snowflakes.

Bentley’s life made me think about beauty. First, here’s a man who spent his entire life enraptured by a beauty that most would rarely ever notice. And he was not only enraptured, but dedicated to endure the hardships necessary to document this beauty. It has made me pause and reflect about what beauty has captured my attention and allegiance.

Second, beauty is not everlasting. Bentley’s snowflakes are the perfect example. Within minutes these “tiny miracles of beauty” evaporate and vanish forever. The vibrancy of a sunset quickly darkens as the sun slips below the horizon. The gleam in a lover’s eye dims with age or sickness.

Third, considering the gazillion unseen snowflakes that have fallen to earth through the ages, there is beauty that will always go unseen by any human eye. There are flowers on a mountain somewhere that will bloom and die, unwitnessed by any terrestrial being. And then I think of the untold beauty throughout our cosmos. Images from the Hubble Telescope can only hint at the beauty that lies far beyond our reach.

Our world has been intentionally infused with beauty, everything from a snowflake, a flower, a sunset to a smile and a caring hand. It makes me grateful that our Creator loves his world so much that he sent his Son. God came into our world to save it and renew it. And this makes me long for that ultimate Day of Renewal when Heaven and Earth will fully merge, all things will be made right and beauty will no longer be fleeting.

Quiet Love

“You love me more than I am able to love you.”

That line appears in one of Met Philaret of Moscow’s prayers. And it makes me pause every time I pray it.

On The CouchIn my previous youthful zeal and optimism, it was so easy to proclaim my love of God as though it were a grand thing. My worship was a spiritual facsimile of Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch. But the older I become, the more I realize that the truth quoted above is woven into the very fabric of reality. And it has tempered my immature exuberance with what I hope is humility. For my love for God is not something that needs to be proudly proclaimed in public but humbly practiced in silence.

God is love and perhaps the greatest expression of his love was the Incarnation. It was THE event of divine love that would heal humanity and creation and yet it was shrouded in quietude, humility and mystery.

Jesus taught that the greatest command is to love God with everything we have. Again, love is not proclaimed but practiced. But how? The Incarnation whispers an answer for those quiet enough to hear. “God became like us so we could become like him.”

God, who is love, became like us so we could become love like him.

St Paul encourages us to pursue love. This means far more than giving and receiving love, although  this would be a great start for many of us. Rather it’s pursuing Christ’s likeness, who embodied divine love as a real flesh-and-blood human being. We quietly love God by daily becoming the same kind of person he is.

The Incarnation isn’t just a historical event that we memorialize once a year. It’s a daily reality for those who love God. Just as God quietly and humbly slipped into his creation on that mysterious day, he still slips into his creation through our lives as we pursue love and become a little more like him.

Tradition & Reality

open-windowMany people believe tradition to be a dead thing. Movies portraying a young man or woman kicking over the traces have become cliche. Tradition is depicted as the tool of the old or entrenched trying to retain social or political power over the young or disenfranchised.

So Fr Stephen’s definition of Tradition is like stepping out of a stuffy room into a crisp winter morning. It jolts the idea with fresh vitality.

Tradition is not the tyranny of the past over the present: Tradition is the adherence to the same eternal reality throughout all time.

Behind Tradition is the eternal reality of an amazing God. He’s a Creating God, giving life abundant expression under his care. He’s an Incarnational God, loving his creation so he becomes part of it in order to renew it from the inside-out. He’s an Apocalyptic God, embodying the ultimate union of heaven and earth so creation is restored and redefined. He’s a Loving God, sharing his life with ours in order that we may be continually reformed into his life and likeness.

So Tradition is the temporal expression of this eternal reality. Tradition is alive, rich, relevant, interactive, invigorating, rejuvenating, renewing, energetic, dynamic and vibrant.

Reading Scripture. Praying prayers. Making the sign of the cross. Honoring the Saints. Receiving the Eucharist. Confessing our sins. All open the windows to the brisk breeze of eternity, shocking us back to what is truly real.

Can You Promise That I Will Come Back?

Hobbit-MTII’ve seen about every trailer and clip for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And yet I’ve remained a bit skeptical of the entire project. I loved The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But the thought of turning The Hobbit into another trilogy smacked of corporate greed more than artistic vision.

Then I saw THIS CLIP. I think this 1-minute clip is filled with same ethos that I love in the LOTR movies. What draws me to the LOTR movies are not the special effects, the fantasy, or the violence. It’s those startling moments when the curtain of reality is pulled back and we get a glimpse of true Reality. Moments of purpose, companionship, loyalty, and sacrifice that make sense of the pain and struggles we endure.

Those moments in LOTR continually move me to tears. And the last few sentences of the dialogue between Gandalf and Bilbo in this clip created a severe lump in my throat.

Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell of your own when you come back.

Bilbo: Can you promise that I will come back?

Gandalf: No… And if you do, you will not be the same.

There are moments in life when I can only shake my head in confusion and disbelief. And asking “Why?” provides no adequate answers. But it’s not those moments that are truly real or defining, despite how real they seem. It’s what, or better yet, Who awaits us at the End that is the True Reality and Purpose for everything.

I think it’s in our nature to want to make sense of what’s happening to us. Why am I sick? Why did I lose my loved one? Why am I lonely? But the meaning can’t be found in the moment. In many ways, it’s only after our life’s journey is complete that we will be able to look back with clear hindsight. But by then it’s too late. The paint on our life will have dried.

So the task in the moment is not to figure out Why but to be crafted through those moments into an ever-increasing image of Who. Because the only promise that awaits us is not that we’ll safely return from the journey, but that we’ll never be the same after the journey.

Small Things Matter

It’s been quite some time since I’ve scattered any words upon this digital parchment. Life has been full. And I absolutely love it. The first half of 2012 was filled with a lot of anxiety and fear.  Perhaps it was too many changes in too short a time. Or maybe it was simply the state of my own inner world taking its toll. Either way, things took a dark tone for awhile.

But through the help of various sources, I’ve been experiencing a significant turnaround. Perhaps the most notable is a sense of thanksgiving and gratitude I have for life, both the good and bad. I find myself thanking God each day for not only the perceived good in my life, but the potential challenges and struggles that I’m currently encountering and will potentially experience through the day

This change is subtle, yet alters the landscape of my perception. The crises that always seemed to loom before me don’t seem to be so “life-threatening” anymore. In turn, this has allowed me to focus on what God actually sets before me each day. You know, the “small” daily things like loving my wife and kids, performing with integrity and compassion at work, driving on southern California roads with patience and peace toward those around me

More and more I’m learning the myriad of small moments are what actually make up the fabric of real life. And how I live in those moments determines both who I am becoming inwardly and the “impact” I have upon my little portion in God’s world

In that light,  I want to share a couple of wonderful articles that paint portraits of genuine life far more beautiful than I can manage with my limited skills with words. The first is the blog post, “The Invisible Christian,” by Fr Stephen Freeman. And the second is “Pursuing God through the Small Things,” by Joel Miller. I would encourage you to spend a few moments reading these articles and allowing them to reframe your perception of what is important and valuable in life.

Why I’m Smiling

This morning’s epistle reading was Romans 16:1-16. I have to admit that my reaction to this passage surprised me. I discovered a huge smile spreading across my face as I read through Paul’s personal greetings to various individuals and families in the Roman Church.

The Epistle to the Romans is viewed as Paul’s theological masterpiece. NT Wright states in his commentary on Romans that while many will disagree on how to approach and interpret Romans, “What nobody doubts is that we are here dealing with a work of massive substance, presenting a formidable intellectual challenge while offering a breathtaking theological and spiritual vision.”

Yet, here at the end of Paul’s theological magnum opus, we find a small window into the genuine street-level embodiment of his theology — love. He greets people by name. He calls a few “beloved.” He proclaims with exuberance those who have risked much and served well. These are his genuine friends. These are loved ones for whom he prays. These dear ones of whom he thinks frequently.

Who knows how all of their lives first intersected. Who knows who introduced one person to another? Who knows who invited one person to dinner to meet another? And Paul is part of this intricate web of friendships. Yes, he’s an apostle. Yes, he’s a recognized leader. But most importantly, he’s their friend and co-worker in Christ. They have rejoiced together, cried together, prayed together, learned together, shared their lives together. Somehow in his wisdom, God brought all of them together into a loving and prayerful community of his Good News for the life of the world.

And that made me smile this morning.

Then it made me think about everyone whom God has brought into my life over the years.

And now I can’t stop smiling.

We Always Live In The Resurrection

Lately, I’ve been reminded that even though Pascha has passed on the Church’s calendar, we continually live in the Reality of Christ’s resurrection. It’s easy for the deterioration, brokenness, and tragedy of our present world to eclipse the startling Truth that God’s New Heaven and Earth have been inaugurated into our time and space. But God’s mission to renew His Creation, launched at Jesus’ resurrection and deployed by Jesus’ people, is on track and moving forward. To cement the point, here’s St John Chrysostom Paschal homily to refocus our vision on what is truly Real:

“Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.”

AMEN!!!

And now with St John’s word still echoing, read St Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 3:

“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory… Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

Cathy’s Graduation

Today is a significant milestone for my family. My second child, Catherine, graduates from high school.

I cannot say enough how much I enjoy being her dad. She is such a creative, energetic, joyful, intelligent, gorgeous young woman. A little over 18 years ago, Debbie and I brought her home as a tiny little baby. Watching her grow from an infant into a young adult has been a wondrous experience filled with laughter, tears, prayers, delight and regrets. I love the person she has become and look forward to watching God use her in his world. She easily fills any room with her abundant exuberance. I cannot imagine a day without her smile and presence in our lives.

But Catherine’s graduation, as with Michael’s graduation two years ago, forces me to reflect on the ongoing changes occurring in my family. In five short years, all four of my children will have graduated high school.

I remember when my children were very young. Their adulthood seemed so far in the future that I rarely thought about it. And now in what seems like a flash, that future is here. My cherished babies are gone, replaced by equally cherished emerging adults.

I’m amazed at how fast this part of our family’s life has gone. Yet, more startling than the quickness of time’s passage is the permanence. It’s gone. My babies turned into toddlers, went to school, grew up and are sprinting toward their adult lives. Each day brings Debbie and me closer to when we have to say “Good-bye” to each one as their hearts transition from our family and home to begin their own.

Over the past few years, if I could have been granted one wish, I would have asked for time to stop so that my family could be suspended as is. I would have given virtually anything to spend the rest of my life with my family. But then after having such a thought, I would immediately realize how selfish such a wish is. My children need to grow and become who God created them to be, even if that means I had to let them go. In fact, it requires that I do let them go. And I absolutely hate it.

In several hours, my daughter will step over this threshold into adulthood. And I will sit in the stands and cheer for her. Afterwards, I will hug and kiss her and celebrate her entrance into this new phase of life with unspeakable pride and joy.

But right now, in the shadow of this looming moment, I miss my little girl. In my heart and memories, I hold my little baby in my arms. I feel her tiny hand wrap around my finger. I feel her curl on my lap to watch TV with me. I watch her play with her dolls and dress up as a princess. I see her twirl and dance and sing. I hear her say, “I love you, Daddy.”

I love you too, Sweetie. I love you too. I don’t want to let you go. But I will.

Present In The Mundane

“The holiness to which the Church is called is not a matter of escape from the mundane course of human events, from time, or from everything that is not explicitly Christian. The Eucharist is an incarnational meal in which the risen Lord becomes present in the rude stuff of this life, even as he became present in human history through the womb of the Theotokos. The line between the mundane and the holy is here erased because it is precisely as the ordinary, whether a baby or bread and wine, that the Son of God comes to us. The connection to moral theology should be obvious. God claims the physical and mundane things of life as His own in the incarnation. The mystery of the Incarnate Word as fully God and fully human shows that every bit of human nature has been claimed by God in Jesus Christ. A continued participation in that process of claiming occurs when Christ becomes present to us in the Eucharist, when we sacramentally take His body and blood into our body and blood.” (Philip LeMasters PhD, Towards a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage & Sex)

The above quote was posted this morning by Fr Ted. It is so good that I think it bears reposting. God makes himself known through the fabric of daily life. He can be found in the mundane and even the monotonous and thus transforms it into the holy. This is how I want to live life.

All Men Want Peace

“All men want peace; but they do not know how to attain it. Paissy the Great, having lost his temper, begged the Lord to deliver him from irritability. The Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Paissy, if thou dost not wish to get angry, desire nothing, neither criticize nor hate any man, and thou wilt have no anger.’ Thus every one who renounces his own will before God and other people will always be at peace in his soul; but the man who likes to have his own way will never know peace. The soul that has surrendered herself to the will of God bears every affliction and every ill with ease, because in times of sickness she prays and contemplates God, saying: ‘O Lord, Thou seest my sickness; Thou knowest how weak and sinful I am. Help me to endure my sufferings and to thank Thee for Thy goodness.’ And the Lord relieves her pain, and the soul feels God’s help and is glad in the sight of God, and gives thanks. If some misfortune befalls you, reflect in this wise: ‘The Lord sees my heart, and if this is His will all will be well, both for me and for others.’ And thus your soul will always be at peace. But if a man murmurs against his fate he will never have peace in his soul, even though he fast and spend much time in prayer. The Apostles were deeply attached to the will of God. In this manner is peace preserved. All the great Saints likewise bore with every affliction, submitting themselves to the will of God.” Staretz Silouan, Wisdom from Mount Athos

Heaven & Hell Are Not Places

“We are made whole (healed) by the grace of God, and brought into a relationship with Him that is our true inheritance. Heaven and hell are not places created by God for those who were good, or bad, but rather about relationship. The Fire of God is heaven for those who have responded to God’s love, and hell for those who have remained in the darkness of sin (sickness), and whose ego has shut out God, for self. Heaven and hell are not places, but all about relationship.” Abbot Tryphon

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth revisiting. Our culture’s understanding of heaven and hell is severely distorted. Too often, heaven and hell are viewed as future destinations either to reward the good or punish the bad.

However, as Fr Stephen Freeman is fond of saying, “Jesus did not come to make bad men good, but dead men alive.” What is at stake is the transformation of human nature, which is so fractured, distorted and sick that it’s dead. And in this dead state, we shut out God. That is hell. In our brokenness, we constantly live in hell.

So the issue isn’t ethics or morality. You can’t tell a corpse to behave better. The only hope is Resurrection. For the Resurrection is the inauguration of God’s Renewed Creation. And the power of the Resurrection brings life to all of us who are dead. This is the point of Ezekiel 37 and Jesus’ retelling of that vision in the Story of the Prodigal Son. The son wasn’t restored because he “got his act together” or because he apologized to the Father. He experienced Resurrection. He returned from exile and back into relationship with his father and his household.

When a person experiences the Resurrection, the process of transformation begins. And this is heaven. Heaven is being loved by God and being able to love him back, regardless of circumstance. Heaven is loving and living God’s will regardless of the pain or sacrifice one experiences. Heaven is being transformed into Christ’s likeness from the inside-out.

As Jesus hung upon the cross absorbing the world’s sin and evil upon himself, he was in heaven. In the midst of hell, he was in heaven.

So heaven and hell are descriptions primarily of our relationship with God. But are there future destinations of heaven and hell? I believe so. It’s called the New Creation. One day, God will renew his Creation. He will set all things right. Jesus’ prayer will fully be answered as heaven and earth finally overlap and God’s reign will be on earth (the human realm) as it is in heaven (God’s realm). And in the New Creation, God’s glory will cover the earth as the water covers the seas. This will be the ultimate and eternal experience of heaven and hell.

And on that day when God renews his Creation and drenches it with his undiminished glory, his very love and presence will be like an eternal inextinguishable lake of fire for those who shut him out. And that same love and presence will be indescribable joy for those who have been transformed into his likeness and live only for his will.

So heaven and hell begin now. Each of us is on that journey every day.

Dad, When I Grow Up…

“Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a pastor and a hockey player.” That’s what my oldest son told me when he was in elementary school years ago. I’m not sure where the hockey player reference came from. But telling me that he wanted to be a pastor was his small expression of love for me and desire to be like me.

That moment fills my mind when I read Ephesians 5:1-2:

“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

I’ve been reflecting on this passage for the last couple of weeks. But every time I try to write something, it feels like I’m pinning this Scripture to a laboratory table. This is one of those portions of Scripture in which we must fully immerse ourselves rather than dissect with an expositor’s words.

So perhaps the only thing worth saying is, “Father, when I grow up, I want to love just like you.”

Resurrection of the Prodigal

The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is one of my favorite parables. Not only does it contain levels of interpretation and application, but it depicts our Heavenly Father in such an intimate way. He is the Father who graciously concedes to his younger son’s outrageous request for his portion of the inheritance. And rather than holding a grudge against his son or even maintaining the cultural detachment of a patriarch, he sees his returning son from a distance, runs to greet him, and compassionately restores him.

I am moved virtually every time I reflect on this parable. It strikes a deep and unspoken place within me.

This parable has meant even more to me as I’ve come to realize that this is a resurrection passage. Twice the Father says, “For this son of mine/brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” You can almost hear the faint echoes of Ezekiel 37.

In Ezekiel 37, the prophet receives a vision of Israel’s return from exile. Israel is depicted as a valley of bones. God tells Ezekiel that he will open their graves and bring them back to the land of Israel (Ezek 37:12). This is the first primary image of resurrection in the Old Testament and it represents Israel’s return from exile. They were dead and are alive.

In the time of Jesus, while Israel had returned geographically to the land, they had not spiritually returned from their long exile. Through this parable, Jesus is putting an intimate face on Ezekiel 37. Israel is the younger son, dead and lost in exile. But by simply returning to the Father’s house, Israel meets the compassionate and intimate Father, who is quick to restore. They are resurrected, alive once again.

As a parable of salvation, the prodigal son enforces the fact that our “problem” is not a legal, moral or ethical breaking of some abstract code or law. In other words, the prodigal son didn’t do something wrong or bad and then needed to be expunged of the guilt of his crime. Rather, the son was dead. Life and hope were gone. An apology like he had planned would not solve the problem. He needed to be resurrected and restored.

And this resurrection takes place in relationship with the Father. The son simply hoped for a place as a servant in his Father’s house. But the life he needed was in the restored relationship with his Father. The Father states, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again.”

And the resurrectional relationship isn’t just a “God and me” thing. The Father tells the embittered elder son, “Everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.” The older brother also has a role in the resurrection of his brother. Everything in the Father’s house belongs to the older brother. While he views the resources of the Father’s house as potential personal blessings, the Father implies something more in the statement “Everything I have is yours.” These resources should not only flow to the older brother, but through the older brother. The older brother should use these resources as the Father uses them. So the Father encourages him to celebrate and in so doing, the resources of restoration will flow to the younger brother. The Father is inviting the older son into the “ministry of reconciliation,” to practice resurrection and thus to be a blessing rather than expecting only to receive a blessing.

In other words, blessings are not intended to simply flow to a person but through a person to others.

But Jesus leaves the parable hanging. In some ways the fate of the older brother is more at stake than his younger sibling’s who is now alive and restored. And we realize that the older brother, despite never having left his Father’s house, is like Israel currently occupying the Land. He too is still in exile. He is also dead and in need of resurrection.

Abbot Tryphon & “The ER for the Soul”

Abbot Tryphon posts a great summary on how the Orthodox Church functions like a hospital in the therapeutic process of salvation. His opening paragraph is a good reminder that simply joining the Orthodox Church does not guarantee that we have entered the healing process. We must engage in the life of the Church in order to enter into communion with God and thus “work out our salvation” (Phil 2:12) and “train ourselves to be godly” (1Tim 4:7).

“Orthodoxy offers a very precise way in which to enter into communion with God. It is a way that must be learned, for simply “becoming Orthodox” will not lead the seeker into an inner life that will transform, and enlighten. Membership in the Church is simply not enough, for the Church is not about beautiful services, icons, or mystical theology. As a hospital for the soul, the Church is a place wherein we can receive healing for that which ails us. It is the place where we can be cured, and made whole.”

Read the rest HERE.

Fr Stephen & “All Dogs Go To Heaven”

Fr Stephen Freeman recently adopted a puppy, which has compelled him to post a wonderful reflection about creation, fallenness, prayer, and human nature. Wow!

Here’s an excerpt:

“Do dogs pray (does creation pray)? Absolutely! “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6). But how do they pray? Their very existence is prayer. Every created nature is made to live in communion with God. Human nature itself lives in communion with God. Our fall does not consist in becoming something other than human – we have yet to become truly human.”

You can read the rest HERE.

Sin Can’t Sing

 

“All is blessed by the hand of God, and all things are the ‘songs’ of God’s glory: even things that humans find odd, and perhaps disgusting. Ugly insects are as much part of the song of glory as graceful trees. Sin alone is not part of the song of glory. Alone in the creation it cannot sing at all.”

John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church

I enjoy watching The Voice and The Sing-Off. Yet, I can’t stand American Idol. One reason is that I absolutely hate the initial auditions. The cringe-factor is too high for me. It seems too many people think they can sing, get furious when confronted with the actual reality by professionals, and then have their delusions broadcasted for all to see.

McGuckin’s quote reminds me of those awkward American Idol moments. Sin believes it can sing. Yet try as it might, it only screeches and shrieks. Painfully. Agonizingly. Sadly, sin compounds itself, forming a choir of clamorous voices, and very quickly, it can become the dominant voice in our ears.

But we don’t have to yield to sin’s delusions. If we listen carefully, we can hear the harmonies of God’s creation, resonating with the melody of God’s glory. And since the song is in the key of Incarnation, all of us can easily find our parts and join in the chorus.

Although sin can’t sing, we can!

All Health Broke Loose

Sunday’s Gospel reading contained this passage from John 20, “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'”

Shortly after Jesus inaugurated his Father’s New Creation by his resurrection, he commissioned his disciples to continue what he has started. Jesus instructs them to participate in the missio dei with, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” I truly believe this statement forms the core of any missional engagement. The New Creation is implemented by continuing Jesus’ incarnation of God’s Presence and Life into the world.

So that there is no mistake, Jesus summarizes the essential components of an incarnational mission. They must receive the Holy Spirit and they must forgive sins. They cannot engage in this daunting task solely relying on their own strength and strategies. Human participation in the missio dei requires Christ’s likeness and God’s divine energies. This is especially apparent when one reflects on what is involved in forgiving sins.

Jesus means far more than simply declaring to a person forgiven from personal sins. To Jesus’ contemporaries, the forgiveness of sins meant the return from exile. Based on their covenant with God, Israel’s sins had sent them into exile and it would be God’s forgiveness of their sins that would initiate their return. But Jesus offered more than a geographical relocation or deliverance from foreign rule. When Jesus offered the forgiveness of sin, he was offering a new world order from the desolation of death into the eschatological kingdom of God.

And that is our ongoing role in God’s mission. To borrow a phrase from my priest, “All health broke loose” at Jesus’ resurrection. I really like that. At the resurrection, the renewal of God’s creation is launched. As we are sent as Jesus was sent, as we forgive sins and offer the return from exile, as we embody God’s kingdom, all health should break loose in us and around us.

Truth & Love

I’ve been thinking a bit more about Truth. This isn’t a new thought, but more of a slight restatement of a thought from yesterday’s post. Jesus is The Truth. Truth is a person. Therefore, we know The Truth through sharing lives (koinonia, communion) with Him. And since this deep life-sharing relationship is the primary way to know The Truth, then the same kind of deep life-sharing relationships with others is the environment through which we share The Truth. We know The Truth through Love and we share The Truth through Love.

Truth is incarnated through Love. Truth is known through Love. Truth is shared through Love.

A Good Lesson For Photography… And Life

I’m an amateur photographer, so I don’t have much by which to judge someone as a great photographer. But I’ve noticed that while most photographers make beautiful photos, there are those exceptional ones that transcend making beautiful photos and actually capture life’s beauty. In my opinion, Zeb Andrews is one of those kind of photographers.

I’ve posted before about how inspiring Zeb is to me. He makes photography (and I cringe at how cheesy this sounds) magical. His images aren’t “perfect.” Nor do they look like something you’d find on a magazine cover. He doesn’t use fancy processing techniques. From what I gather from his comments on his Flickr Photostream and website, he carries a variety of cameras and film wherever he goes and intentionally looks. He has honed the art of observation. And he’s honed the art of photography to capture the beauty in what he sees. He states, “I enjoy the process of photography much more than the results.” And it shows. I think the results are pretty phenomenal. But what I love most about Zeb are the insights he shares about the process. Sometimes, I wonder if he’s sharing more about the “process” of living than photography.

Here’s some advice he gave recently that captured my attention:

“And another helpful piece of advice, don’t forget that there are many more ways than one to photograph anything. Or put another way, don’t settle with photographing anything one way. There is really an infinite number of ways to photograph everything. And this seems obvious, but trust me, it is easy to forget. Just look at Multnomah Falls. How many photographers avoid that waterfall because they think it has all been done? The same with the Eiffel Tower. Sure, there are lots of photos out there of both of these and many of these photos tend to look really similar. It is easy to make the first photo one finds and then move on to other things.

“Don’t do this. Stop. Look around. Keep looking. Move. Look some more. Wait. Then find a second and a third and a fourth different way to photograph your subject. Trust me, the perspectives are out there, it is just a matter of finding them, if you can. And sometimes you cannot. Sometimes you don’t have the equipment, or the experience or technical prowess. Sometimes you just don’t have the vision. But just because you cannot find those additional ways does not mean they don’t exist, which also means that you shouldn’t not look for them. Give it a try.”

I know firsthand how easy it is to get locked into only one perspective — in photography and especially in life. In the zealousness of my youth, it was so easy to accept what I was taught as “The Truth” and appoint myself as a spokesperson for “The Truth.” That meant I was right and everyone else who disagreed with me was wrong. I had to learn over time that what I believed to be “The Truth” was usually an opinion, a perspective. It took me years to learn that one of the beautiful aspects of life is that there is a wide variety of perspective.

I’m not saying that there isn’t absolute Truth. Nor am I saying that Truth is subjective. I’m saying that what most people proclaim as “The Truth” is usually just an opinion and all of us would benefit if we would put away our prophet’s mantle and learn to listen and appreciate the variety of perspectives that exist. To paraphrase Zeb a bit:

“It is easy to make the first opinion one forms to be the only opinion and then call it “The Truth” and then move on to other things. Don’t do this. Stop. Look around. Keep looking. Move. Look some more. Wait. Then find a second and a third and a fourth different way to understand your subject.”

Here’s something that always gives me pause. Jesus called himself “The Truth.” Truth is a person, not an abstract idea. Jesus embodied Truth in loving, gracious, life-producing relationships. That’s Truth in human form. Therefore, Truth is both known and expressed primarily in relationship, not proclamation.

What shames me is that my life is in such stark contrast to Jesus. Sometimes, my first reaction to a person with a perspective different than mine is to feel angry or threatened. That last thing on my mind is relationship. Why? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Any negative reaction I experience is caused by something within me. So I need to ask, “What is inside of me that is angered or threatened by a different perspective?” What causes this “fight or flight” mechanism in me?

I don’t have an answer for that yet. But I do know this: If Truth is embodied in loving, gracious relationship and if my reaction to a different perspective is anger or defense, then I probably don’t really know the Truth.

There is a popular saying in the Orthodox Church credited to the fourth-century monk, Evagrius the Solitary, “The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays.” To me, an implication of this saying is that a person is only capable of knowing the Truth if he or she is in deep fellowship with the One who is The Truth. And a corollary to this saying is that a person can only embody the Truth to others through deep fellowship.

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.

Clearing My Throat, Finding My Voice

Reviving my blog after a couple of years has me feeling like a singer preparing for a performance after a long hiatus. I need to cough and clear my throat as well as do some vocal exercises. So please forgive the phlegm as I try to warm up. 😉

So what am I hoping to accomplish now that I’m blogging again? Like I said last time, I want this blog simply to reflect my life as I live. Important aspects of my life are my family, theology, writing, reading, movies, music and photography. So I hope all of those things will find their way into my posts.

Here are some general “bloggy” things I’ve learned as I anticipate future posts.

Keep it short. A lot of blogs I read are long and tedious. And I too have been very guilty of being tedious. I’m trying to learn the art of brevity. One blog I read is The Morning Offering by Abbot Tryphon. He provides the most nourishing spiritual nuggets in small portions. Granted, his wisdom flows from a life of devoted, ascetical life to Christ. But he shares his profundity with great concision, something I desire to learn.

Keep it kind. I also find many blogs to be angry. Differences and disagreements provide ample fodder for blog posts. Being critical of others is just too easy. Yet, God is merciful to all. So I want to avoid rants and critiques and find beauty, grace and truth.

Keep it humble. I’m not here to convince anyone of anything. Honestly. I’m not a pastoral or prophetic voice. I hold no leadership position. I have no secret message that the world needs to hear. I’m just a man. If I had to describe myself, I guess I would say I’m striving to be Jesus’ apprentice as both a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a collaborator with God’s restorative mission in the world. So the majority of my posts will probably reflect this as I ponder life and other things.

Reviving My Blog

First of all, Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

And next, Hello again!

This is weird. I walked away from this blog almost two years ago. I said my farewells and had no intention of ever returning. And yet I could never bring myself to remove this blog’s presence from the Internet. Now I wonder if part of me secretly hoped for or even planned for a return. Who knows?

The time away has been good. I didn’t have any major theological insights or spiritual breakthroughs. Nor did I accomplish some monumental earth-shaking task. I’ve simply endeavored to become what I’ve mentioned in my blog for years — I’ve tried to be a good man.

So why return to blogging? I’m stilling piecing that one together. But here’s what I know.

Two years ago, I was becoming increasingly aware that my voice was only contributing to the narcissistic noise that defines our culture. I wanted to be heard and therefore I knew I needed to be silent.

Now, I just want to live. And for me, an essential part of living is reflecting and writing. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

So I’m back. I’m grateful for what has been. I’m content with what is. And I’m excited about what is to be.

Space: 2099

Back in the 1970s, during my youth, I used to love a British SciFi series called Space: 1999. The premise was that on September 13, 1999, the nuclear waste being stored on the moon exploded, knocking the moon out of its orbit, hurtling it and the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha into outer space.

I loved everything about the show — the flared-leg costumes, the Eagle Transporters, the transportation tubes, the stun guns, even the cheesy 1970s theme music.

So imagine my delight when I learned of Space: 2099! No, it’s not a remake like J.J. Abram’s Star Trek or SciFi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica. Rather, Eric Bernard has rebooted Space: 1999 by condensing each original episode of Space: 1999 into a 2-3 minute episode. He’s also added more special effects and edited the dialogue so that all of the original characters say “2099” instead of “1999.” You can watch all of the new episodes HERE.

It’s the “perfect storm” convergence of my nostalgia and geekiness. Memories of my brother and I playing with the Moonbase Alpha Adventure Playset cascaded my mind. That Adventure Playset was pure awesomeness! The entire set, including cast and aliens, was assembled out of punchout fiberboard and occupied hours of imaginative playtime. I also remember playing with my Space: 1999 Stun Gun Water Gun. That was one fun summer!

But soon nostalgia gave way to reflection. As a SciFi geek, I’m fascinated with the various visions of the future that the genre offers, especially since many of the visions are really attempts to address contemporary social and political issues. Lately, I’ve been wondering about what is generating so many horrific post-apocalyptic visions of the future in recent months — Terminator: Salvation, 9, Daybreakers, 2012, Avatar, and The Book of Eli. As a culture, have we become so cynical that we can only envision a devastated future? In the new movie, Legion, even the ever-patient, all-loving God is now depicted as the ultimate cynic, completely giving up on humanity and sending his demonic-looking angels to wipe us out.

Frankly, I’m getting tired of watching visions of the future that are either inhabited by zombies, vampires or killer automatons or filled with images of natural disasters and post-apocalyptic devastation. It’s boring.

I’m not necessarily looking for movies that depict an utopian vision. It’s just that global hopelessness is becoming too cliche for the genre.

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.

Could Bad Theology Get Any Worse?

I just watched a preview for a new movie called, Legion. Here’s the synopsis from the website:

In the supernatural action thriller Legion, an out-of-the-way diner becomes the unlikely battleground for the survival of the human race. When God loses faith in Mankind, he sends his legion of angels to bring on the Apocalypse. Humanity’s only hope lies in a group of strangers trapped in a desert diner and the Archangel Michael.

Ooookay…

So God gets fed up with humanity and sends his angels, who are led by the Archangel Gabriel and who all look pretty demonic, to exterminate us. But thank God (or perhaps not) the Archangel Michael likes us more than God enough to rebel against Him to save our collective butts.

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one.