Friday, December 09, 2016

Indebtedness for them

Indebtedness is something I need to do better with.  Not just being thankful for things people do for me at Christmas or on my birthday or the occassional thoughts of gratitude for my mother on Mother's Day or my father on Father's day.  It needs to go deeper.

If you think about it, we are all indebted to every living person around us.  I am what I am because of them.  From my parents to my siblings to world leaders and even the people halfway around the world who appears to have nothing to do with me right here and right now.

I am indebted even to those who lived before me, even those who lived thousands of years before I was born.  Why?  Because they lived.  Did they directly benefit me?  No, maybe not.  But who knows what effect their actions in their world are having on me right now.  I shouldn't be so presumptuous to believe they have nothing to do with me simply because they are so far away in space or time.

Even the man or woman who retreats into solitude into the dessert must be indebted to others. For their thoughts and struggles have a great deal to do with those that touched their lives.  Even the mythical wild man who had no human contact, if such a person ever existed, would have to be grateful. Their genetic code came from somewhere.  Only God has always been and has no reason to  be indebted for who He is. He always was and is complete and no one was before Him.   We are not God.  We were created into what we are.  We are being created into what we will be.

Even indebted to those who have hurt me directly and for those who hurt me indirectly.  They have helped make me what I am.  They were and will continue to be God's tools, forming this lump of clay into a real human being.  Just the shape mind you.  For it will take the breath of God to truly bring me to life.  A Lifeless shape is just as terrifying as a shapeless life.  Those who God put into my life; past, present and future are shaping me.

A day shouldn't go by where forget to think and sense my indebtedness to them.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Choosing the no-evil option

When did it become a Christian's moral obligation to vote? When has it become a moral obligation to vote regardless of the moral character of the candidates? I've spoken to people who truly think I am sinning against God and my neighbor by not voting for a presidential candidate.  I've heard it said from the pulpit year after year that we must vote our conscience.  But what if voting my conscience is to not vote?  Well, that would just be UnAmerican!  Which, for most people, is a euphemism for UnChristian. How did we ever get here?

I understand that in not voting for any candidate I am, in effect, potentially allowing a vote for the other candidate to count. It isn't, however, true that in not voting for any candidate I am essentially casting a vote for the other candidate. That would be true in a situation where only two candidates are on the ballot.  In this year's election there are more than two candidates.  Therefore I could vote for one of the other candidates who, if we are being serious, none of which is going to come close to winning.  In which case I have not done anything to stop the one candidate I'm being accused of helping by not voting in the first place.

Honestly I think such arguments are only used to ease the conscience of those who insist it is my moral obligation, as a Christian, to vote.  What I mean is I have the follow problems with these candidates:

Clinton:
Supports the unrestricted murder of the unborn.
Does not support homeschooling.
Supports forced insurance coverage (i.e., Obamacare), which in turn supports the murder of children, gender reassignment surgery, euthanasia, and more.
Does not support freedom of speech.

Trump:
Is, by his own admission, a sexual predator,
Has been shown to be a shady businessman,
Has changed his position on numerous issues like calling himself a Christian (please, does anyone actually believe this?), his support of abortion, etc.
Frankly, the guy is off his rocker.  I truly think he is mentally unstable if his interviews and debates are to be any judge.

And I am being told it is my moral obligate to vote for one of these? Really? Even the other candidates have things I cannot support.  Abortion being the main issue for me.   But most believers I talk to have the same problems as I do.  They know it is wrong.  Yet they have the false belief that they must vote and at the same to know that the one they are voting for stands for, even promotes, ideas they know to be morally reprehensible.  Therefore they, like all of us when when we find ourselves in these situations, must come up with arguments to help salve our consciences.

I understand that if every Christian took my position there is a distinct possibility Clinton will get the office and the persecution of Christians, already begun in the current administration, will most certainly gain momentum.  But there are two things to be said concerning that.  First, the persecution is coming.  Putting a mentally unstable sexual predator in office may slow it down, but it is coming. There is simply no way, in the current environment of sexual revolution and moral suicide that the Church can remain the true, biblical church and not suffer persecution.  The Bible and History warns us of this.  The fact that we, in America, have lived in fairly consistent peace for so long is an anomaly and one that, in the opinion of many, has not been very good for the Church.

Second, I am not willing to sacrifice my morals, integrity and conscience in order to stop someone else from taking office.  That would be succumbing to the morally bankrupt philosophy of "The ends justify the means".  Something we know as Christians is wrong not to mention unbiblical.

If we, as Christians, are willing to go that far, why not lie to people in order to get them "Saved"?  Why not blow up abortion mills?  Why not strap bombs to ourselves and blow up school buses full of children and women in the name of God?  It may sound like hyperbole, but that is exactly the logical conclusion such thinking leads to.  I am not saying that people who vote will blow up school buses.  Most Christians are willing to live with an ever growing degree of cognitive dissonance.  But the fact is when it comes to choosing the lesser of two evils we should choose neither evil, not argue about what evil we should choose. The latter is a very slippery slope.

In highschool and college teachers love introducing children to the concept of a "moral dilemma". It is a way to teach the "new morality" which is basically the idea that there was no such thing as absolute morals (Which completely contradicts the Bible.  Which is the point).  They typically start by telling a story that ends in a dilemma and then give the students two choices, both of which break perceived moral standards.  Most of the time the teachers are committing the logical fallacy of a false dilemma, but either way the typical result is to shake the faith of the students in absolute morals (and consequentially the Bible). Even my faith, such as it was, was shaken when I was a lad.

But that was then, this is now.  I am older, smarter and I think a little wiser.  I'm not a kid or college student any more.  I'm an adult and I know better.  Such moral dilemmas rarely exist in a biblical and Christian framework and this voting season is no different.  Voting, contrary to what most Christian leaders are saying, is not an either-or situation.  If determine that all of the candidates stand for things that I, as a Christian, know are sinful and offensive to God as revealed in the Bible then I have a true moral obligation to abstain from voting.

I am sure, if Clinton wins, and more persecution comes I will be told that I am partly to blame.  But I am OK with that.  After all, didn't Jesus say we would suffer for standing up for him?  Aren't we told that all who would live godly in Christ will suffer persecution?  Technically speaking we are all to blame for our persecution.  After all, if we would just compromise a little tiny bit we would be in the clear.  For the earliest believers all they had to do was offer a small pinch of incense to the Emperor or pay a little bit of money for a sacrifice to the gods and they would be left alone and in peace.  But just a little was too much for them.  I'm of the opinion a little should be too much for us too.  So no, I will not vote this year.  I will choose no evil.




Tuesday, October 25, 2016

But in my defense...

We are such a litigious society.  If someone offends us we want revenge.  The movie industry has made a killing playing off this tendency.  Either we go to court or we do whatever we can to make sure everyone knows we are innocent or the victim.  Just read Facebook, follow twitter or peruse the news outlets.  Everyone is a victim it seems.

I wish I could say as Christians we are much different than the world.  I wish I could point my finger at the world, waggle it back and forth, and say, "Not like that! Not like that at all!".  But I can't.  We are prone to strike back whenever someone strikes our cheek.  Just read Facebook or Twitter for a few days and you'll get the idea.

That is why I found it so refreshing when I ran across the following excerpt of the life of an Eastern Orthodox saint at abbamoses.com:
[Macarius] was born around 300 in Egypt and in his youth was a camel driver. While still living in his village, he withdrew to a small cell to devote himself exclusively to ascesis and prayer. When the people there wanted to make him a priest, he fled to another village. There a young woman who was discovered to be pregnant falsely accused Macarius of being the father. Macarius was seized, reviled and beaten, but made no effort to defend himself; instead he took on more work in order to provide for the mother and her child. When his innocence was finally discovered, the townspeople came to ask his forgiveness; but he fled to the desert of Sketis (now called Wadi Natrun). He was then thirty years old, and for the rest of his life he dwelt in the desert.
What would people think of Christians and the Church if we all acted like Macarius?  

Friday, September 02, 2016

Some things I wish I could say to protestant leaders about worship (and they'd listen)


[Note: I've gotten feedback from a few of my friends feeling that I was attacking people. Looking at this post through fresh eyes I can see how they would think that.  It was not my desire to attack anyone.  My desire was two-fold. To articulate a growing frustration both within myself and within a growing number of believers concerning the direction worship in many churches has taken. And second to point out that maybe, just maybe, we need to rethink how we worship God.  Instead of asking, "How do I want to worship God", we should start asking, "How does God want me to worship Him?".   This post was directed at churches in general and not at some specific church.  Nor did I mean to imply that those who worship in a way I am criticizing are necessarily intending something nefarious.  Many really do love God and are trying to figure things out.  I get that.  That all said, I would like to point out, in love, if the shoe fits... 

Finally, those brothers who had the guts to confront me (I love you more than ever for your bravery to dare confront this grumpy old guy), suggested I try writing what I was thinking and feeling without attacking others or their churches.  Fair enough.  I can't promise I'll never go on the offensive, but I do think there is a good opportunity here for me to be a bit less aggressive and yet still share my heart.  Thanks guys, I love you!]

These are just a few things I wish I could tell protestant church leaders.  There are more, but these points are in regard to worship.  Mostly this is just venting my spleen, but maybe some would take time to read and think about it even if I am being a bit snarky.

Stop trying to entertain me.  You don’t do it very well and you certainly don’t do it as well as the world.  They’ve had way more practice with it anyway as it was only in the past few generations that the Protestant church has tried to take on the role as entertainer.  The world has been doing it for millennia.  So please just stop it.   Please!  You are just embarrassing yourself.

I don’t come to church to “fellowship”.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe Christian fellowship is important and needed in the life of the believer.  I have met many brothers and sisters over the years, many of whom I’ve come to call friends and I love seeing them on Sunday.  However, I did not come to fellowship with them.  I’ve come to worship my God together with them.  So when we stop the worship to shake hands or say something goofy in response to a call from the pulpit such as, “Introduce yourself to three people and tell them you are glad they are here today!”, I get just a little peeved.  I’ve been in the world all week.  I’ve been interacting with classmates, workmates, family and strangers. I’ve been pushed, pulled, torn, twisted, pummeled and subjected to every form of drama imaginable.  I’ve fallen, repented and fallen again many times.  I really and truly need this time of pure, unadulterated, other-worldy experience with God together with his people.  So please don’t take that away from me or interrupt it with well intentioned efforts to get us to “fellowship” more.  If you really want to do something useful, have a potluck after worship. Then we can fellowship and eat!

Stop preaching to unbelievers.  I’ve been following Jesus for over thirty years now.  I’m not adverse to hearing the gospel message one more time, but frankly if I’m going to have to sit through forty-five minutes to an hour (or more!) of lecture I’d like it to have substance.  Besides, and many might call me a heretic for even saying this, church is not for unbelievers.  It is called “church” because it is the meeting of the “Church”.  I.e., The body of Christ, God’s people, a royal priesthood, the household of faith, etc.  Stop trying to make church and evangelistic outreach program.  It was never intended to be that.  If you are going to preach to the lowest common denominator you are eventually going to be preaching to a room full of unbelievers or infantile believers.  Talk up to us.  We can handle it.  In fact, most everyone really wants it. What child doesn’t want to grow up and be a big person?

That last one reminds me of another:  stop preaching like you want to get every theological concept crammed into our brains in one sitting.  If you would spend more time reading Scripture and less time telling us what your opinion is you may find people actually getting more out of the sermons.  I think if more pastors kept their sermon to about ten or fifteen minutes but focused on one single point they wanted their parishioners to think about or practice during the week they might see some amazing results.  Instead spend more time in worshipping God in song and the reading of the Psalms or other passages.  After all we aren’t really there for your oratory skills we are there to worship God (see my second point).  And no, calling listening to your sermon for an hour an “act of worship” doesn’t help.  In fact, here’s some shocking news:  most of the people miss most of your sermon.  In fact, I’d go further in saying (from observation) the minority who do stay focused enough to hear all of the sermon without tuning you out misunderstand most of what they heard.

Here’s an interesting idea.  After your sermon approach a few people (the ones you noticed taking notes and actually staying awake) and ask them what they got from the sermon.  You will find they will typically sum it up nicely in just one sentence.  Then, next week, read the main text of your sermon and preach only that one sentence.  Say it a couple of different ways so people get the actual meaning, but keep it basically to that one sentence and then dismiss the people.  Use all that extra time you would have spent hearing yourself preach to worship God.  I’m being a bit facetious here, but you get the point I hope.

Stop breaking up our families.  Oh yes you are!  (in response to your objection).  As soon as we get there to worship God you process our children into separate rooms and tell us to go worship God without them.  I realize we have a “choice” and we don’t have to send our children to Sunday school.  But you’ve created a culture of intolerance so that if our children don’t sit still and keep perfectly quiet people get annoyed and many of them are quite ready to show it or say it.  So, in effect, you’ve poisoned the wells so it is simply much easier to go with the flow and send our children away.  We wonder why our children, when they become adults, leave the church.  Think about it.

Ok, enough griping for now.  But I will be taking this up in later posts.  So stay tuned.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Pain and Suffering

There is hardly a more clear evidence of our fallen state then the pain and suffering we experience each and every day.  Everything from disease and death to lost friendships to the physical pain of aging as well as psychological illness and depression;  the pain evil people heap upon the weak and innocent as well as the pain we bring upon ourselves.

It is easy to point to Adam and blame him and his wife for the pain and suffering in the world today and although in doing so we would be right, it isn't the whole story.  Each and every one of us have actively participated in Adam's sin when we have chosen to ignore God's law and strike out on our own as soon as we are old enough to consciously decide to do so.

There are those who are too young to have participated in this sin but they often become victims of those who have.  Which makes the tragedy of sin in this fallen world all the more unbearable.

But today I read something that I found hopeful and life giving.  A monk, Matthew the Poor, wrote the following:
But Christ abolished sin, and reconciled and brought us to life.  In so doing He broke the fearful link that bound suffering to sin. For suffering is no longer a participation in the sin of Adam, but a participation in the love of Christ. ...If we are in Christ, no matter how much we suffer, and no matter how severe our pain, our suffering is in no way related to whether we deserve that pain.
This idea seems to fit much better with the biblical text than anything else I've heard.  It explains the "suffering with Christ" in Romans 8:17 as something more than simply being persecuted for being a Christian (although it obviously includes that too).  If you want to read more about suffering and following Christ I invite you to read the entire text here. The text starts out talking about fasting, another important and mostly forgotten practice. It is well worth the read.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

The First Church of Entertain Me

There is nothing inherently wrong with a little sweets here and there.  Sometimes "junk food" just hits the right spot.  It lights up those pleasure centers and can make a dark day just a little less dark.  The problem comes in when that same food becomes our everyday diet.  Every meal has a dessert, every snack is a candy bar.  When donuts show up at work, we are the first to grab two or three.  Water with our burger and fries? Blick!  Give me that cola and yes, supersize it!  I remember there was a time when I hated eating vegetables and fruit was actually too sweet for me.  Give me that Snickers bar, instead.

But moderate those things and see what happens.  Stop having dessert after every meal.  Forgot the soda and start drinking more water.  Instead of the burger and fries try some salads and homemade meals.  Your taste buds will begin to adjust.  I've watched children go from junk-food-junkies to actually fighting over the vegetables and fruit, disappointed when they were all gone.  Homemade bread  a treat on par with cake.  Even I have found a new love for fruit.

The human body is funny that way.  Give it enough junk and it will always want that junk.  Take the junk away and it will start to crave what it really needs: nutrition.  I have found something similar happens when it comes to Christianity.  It has been the habit of many over the past few decades to try and entertain people into the kingdom of God.  To, as it were, cover the vegetables in cheese sauce and the fruit in chocolate in hopes the children will get the nutrition in spite of themselves.  Unfortunately all we succeed in doing is to make them more addicted to the junk and when we take the gooey covering away they find they don't really want the stuff they really need.  They want the junk and they will eventually go were they can get that rather than "suffer" through eating what is good for them.

People come into the church expecting to be entertained.  But we are finding out that when we take that entertainment away they really rather not stay.  They find an excuse to head to the nearest source of entertainment.  Even when we keep entertaining them, if we don't keep it new and fresh they get bored and move on. As if every service must start with the announcement, "Now for something completely different".  However, in the end if they can't have their dessert as often as they want and on their own terms they go to where their demands can be met.

Truly there aren't many church goers who think consciously on these terms.  We are so good at fooling ourselves.  "One more doughnut, I'll skip dessert later" (but we don't) or  "I must have the sugar or I feel sick to my stomach" or even "I have low blood sugar" and more.  "This new church has a worship band that is more to my liking", "The preacher is a really good speaker", "This new church has more programs for me and the kids", "The people are very attentive to my needs" and so on.  Notice how none of these last excuses have anything to do with what should be the most important thing to believers: The truth.  They are more about me, me, me.

It amazes me in reading church history how little "entertainment" had anything to do with drawing people to Christ.  In fact, it had nothing to do with it.  They lived and died as witnesses to the faith and they spoke the truth about who Jesus is.  Even the music wasn't written to entertain the people, but rather to worship God.  I often hear people say, "I wish we could have church like the first believers did."  I feel like screaming, "You can!".  However, I would have to warn them that the withdrawal symptoms would be tough and ultimately living like the early Christians could result in great suffering and a premature death.







Thursday, July 14, 2016

Catholics and the Orthodox are going to hell

There are a number of ways to win an argument.  The best way should be by presenting the facts and making a case for why you or some other party is right and the other party wrong.  But the best way for many today is simply to misrepresent the truth.  If you can cast a disparaging light over your "opponent" all the better.  And throw in a few logical fallacies and you are almost assured a victory.

One of the reasons I left Protestantism was their seeming disregard for their own blindness and an inability to present sound arguments as to why their views were correct as compared with those of the Orthodox Church.  Arguments for doctrines like justification by faith alone, sola scriptura, the sovereignty of God as expressed by the system called Calvinism, etc.,  were typically unconvincing.  Most of them had a priori truths that I couldn't submit to in the first place, making the rest of the argument rather a waste of time.  In short, most of what I heard was similar to this article. So when I read statements like the one that appeared on the Pen & Pulpit blog site I find my decision to leave Protestantism once and for all confirmed in spades.

Let me say up front there are some real differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy including their views of the Eucharist.  And so I find it frustrating that he just lumped them both together.  It makes it difficult to respond. So as you read please keep in mind I'm not as familiar with Catholicism as I am with Orthodoxy.  If you have questions please feel free to talk to a priest from either of those two groups. They would be able to explain things better than I.

It isn't that the writer of the article is completely wrong.  I don't know off the top of my head if every claim he makes is wrong.  I certainly don't agree with the Catholics on a number of issues.  But Orthodoxy I do know and the writer makes a couple of false claims (certainly unintentionally, but very commonly made).  For example, to claim that Catholics and Orthodox believers aren't going to heaven because they are idolaters assumes they are worshipping something other than God.  Orthodox believers, and I believe Catholic as well, do not worship holy relics or icons.  They venerate them, which to the outsider may look like worship but is not.  In fact they would consider any worship of inanimate objects or any being other than God blasphemous and would condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

He also makes a very odd statement.  He says:
Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians do not hold to a belief in the final authority of Scripture, rather, Catholics’ authority is in the hierarchical system of priests with the Roman Pontiff at the head, and the Orthodox Church’s authority comes from the seven ecumenical councils. A rejection of biblical authority is a rejection of Christ himself, for the Scriptures say that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.
He then quotes John 1:1-2,14.

I'm not entirely sure how he thought this supported his assertion.  In fact it sounds more like he is saying the Scripture and Jesus (the Word) are one and the same.  If this is true then why not treat your bible like you would the real presence of Jesus?  Why not swap out the Catholic/Orthodox eucharist for your bible?   I don't believe he intended to say this, but it is telling that he did.  The Protestant view of Scripture is such that it quite easily can be swapped in for the true presence of Jesus.  Talking about a potential form of idolatry!

Again, because he thinks Catholics and Orthodox are worshipping these things in place of God and therefore are idolaters, he insists Believers (here he means Protestants, but I'm not sure which Protestants he means) are not to associate with them and that anyone claiming to follow Christ must leave the Catholic and Orthodox church.  All I can think in response is, "But I just got here!"

I also do not understand his assertion that Christians should leave the Catholic or Orthodox church because God is not the God of confusion but of peace (or of order in some translations). In my walk with God I've been a part of various denominations:  baptist, charismatic, anabaptist, non-denominational (whatever that means), and more.  Frankly, the confusion between these various denominations and even in them is staggering.  It was exactly this that helped drive me to the Orthodox Church in the first place!

He makes another statement I find troubling.  He writes, "...bible-believing Christians have always held to the belief that Roman Catholics are unsaved...".  This makes the astounding claim, implicit in such statements, that there were no bible-believing Christians before the Protestant Reformation. What else could it mean?  There is a belief within Protestantism among the more conservative that the Church faltered and fell away for almost fifteen hundred years until the true faith was discovered again by an angry German monk in the sixteenth century.  The writer may not be claiming this, but such statements do make one wonder.  The fact that there was, at least, a thirteen hundred year span of church history where some of the major claims of Protestantism would have been seen as schismatic and even heretical should be worth some amount of consideration.

Considering I've been following the Savior for about thirty years and it has taken me over ten years of studying the Orthodox church and asking lots of questions of both Protestants and Orthodox, I think I'll stick with my Orthodox church a bit longer.  They seem to have much better answers than the Protestants do and quite frankly they make more sense to me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Where I would most rather be

So I have seen  you in the sanctuary,
 and beheld your power and glory.

Psalm 62(63):2

Where would I most rather be?  How about you?  Most people might answer with some tropic paradise, or perhaps a ski vacation, maybe a favorite relative or mountain retreat or perhaps simply, "Anywhere but here!".  Where would I most rather be?  Heaven.  My hope and my home.

I have always felt this way as long as I can remember.  The Apostle Peter's words have always struck a cord with me when he called us "pilgrims and exiles" (1 Peter 2:11).  That is how I've always felt here on this planet.  Perhaps there is something of this feeling in a lot of people.  Maybe this is why people are always buying into vacation clubs, changing jobs, marriages, homes, even countries.  Because we all know, deep down inside, that we don't really belong here.

That is why Sunday is so special to me.  It is that one time of the week were I get to step out of this world and into the other.  I get to see and experience my real home for just a few hours. I few very, very short hours.

There are a couple of things I should clarify here.  Although I have always loved going to church (since becoming a disciple of Jesus), and I have always felt a bit closer to my home while there, it wasn't until I visited (and subsequently started attending) an Eastern Orthodox church that I felt even closer to my home than ever before.  I could say here, as would a true and proper Protestant, that it isn't about the icons, the incense, the candles, the chanting, the liturgy, the vestments, etc. But that wouldn't be true.  It is exactly because of all those "things" that I feel closer.  Maybe it was when I first realized this that I also realized I wasn't a very good Protestant. I had, quietly and without much fanfare, become Orthodox. I had slipped beyond the wicket gate and hadn't realized it. I only know that the homesickness I have always felt churning inside of me was suddenly slackened.

As I said, I have always felt closer at Church.  I here only state that I now feel closer than I did before.  For many reading this article you will have no doubt heard people say, "God's not in a building" and "You can find God anywhere".  This is, in a way, quite true. God is omnipresent, so he is by his very nature everywhere.  But the fact is God is more in some places than in others.  The Bible clearly states that God can vacate one place and fill another.  How can he do this and still remain omnipresent?  I don't know.  I don't really care.  I do know that God chooses places to be and invites us to be with him.  I also know that some places are more special to God.  I don't know why that is either.  It just is.  The idea that I can worship God anywhere I want and it is all the same is really the domain of the deist and not a Christian idea at all.  The problem isn't that God can't be anywhere and everywhere, the problem is I have no right to choose where that will be or to call God to allow me to worship him on my terms.  It just doesn't work that way!

So one day I stopped asking myself how I should worship God and started asking God how he wanted me to worship him.  Through more than a ten year long journey I finally participated in my first Easter Orthodox worship service.  For now you will simply have to believe me when I say that I've never experienced anything like that.  I will eventually write more but the experience was so profound that it would be foolish and dangerous for me to attempt to put it into words now.  It has been almost a year and I am still processing that first experience and the many that followed.  Hopefully I will be ready to write soon.

I remember one time, at the church I was attending (and still do from time to time with my family), an elder suggesting we cancel church one Sunday a month to go and help at a local mission. My heart sank to my feet.  I, an elder at the time, made it clear that this was not a good idea and that I would resist such a move.  Why?  Did I hate poor people and people in need?  No, of course not.  But Sunday was the one day I got to come together with God's children and worship him.  The one day I could leave all the pain and misery behind and step into the throne room of our Creator and Father and worship him, visiting my real home, for just a couple of hours.   The thought of losing that, even one day a month, almost sent me into a panic.

I realize that most people don't think this way.  This is why people skip church all the time for games, birthday parties, trips, sleeping in, etc.  I am not claiming you are sinning by missing church.  I am simply saying that I can't understand how anyone would want to miss it. Yes, some days are harder than others.  Sometimes I have to drag myself out of bed.  But those days are growing fewer and fewer and even on those days I am so eternally grateful I made the effort.

Why do you go to church?  Is it to be with people?  Is it for the worship band?  Is it for the preaching?  Those things can be good reasons to some degree but in the final analysis I found those reasons left me wanting. They left me wanting because they weren't the real reason for going to church.  The real reason was to be with God on his own terms.  When I started looking at it that way everything changed. My whole world reoriented itself!

So...where would you most rather be?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Friends

Having and making friends is risky business.  We pride ourselves on being self-sufficient, do-it-yourself, proud people.  Unfortunately (it would seem) for such people friendship is an affront to all of these qualities in one way or another.  Our pride is what, like the devil himself, separates us form all that is really good.  It separates us from God and friend and bars us from one of the true pleasures in life.

I sometimes find myself jealous when I hear of people who have been friends all of their lives into advanced adulthood.  It doesn't seem to happen often in our society where everything is so mobile, cheap, throw-away and recyclable.  Friendship always comes across as a means to an end and easily dismissed when the need is gone.  But why should this surprise us?  Friendship is work and dangerous work at that.

Another unfortunate aspect of our culture (I speak here specifically of Americans) is that for men deep friendships have been denied for so long because to do so opened one's self to the accusation of being a homosexual. Do not be fooled into thinking this is something old and that we moderns are any better with our philosophy of tolerance and moral freedom. People today make the same mistake people did fifty years ago.  For example, what might be the typical response to the following poem by Israel's King David following the death of his friend Johnathan?

Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
     I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
     your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.  (2 Sam 1:25-26)

For our grandparents they might have said or thought something derogatory about these two men.  Perhaps calling the "fags" or pansies. Today they might point to this as proof that David had homosexual relations with Jonathan proving that such relationships are godly(!).  But both these mindsets in actuality obscure the whole point of the passage and destroy any chance of something beautiful and good.  That is, there is such a thing as a friendship between two men that is loving, caring, fulfilling and deeply affectionate while at the same time having absolutely nothing to do with sex. Such relationships were sometimes difficult in the past because most men did not want to be seen as gay.  Such relationships today have remained difficult for the exact same reason.  Even among men who may have nothing against gay men in general they would rather not be in a relationship that continually is assumed to be homosexual when in fact it is not.  I suspect this is exactly what many women have struggled with when having a purely platonic relationship with a man; a relationship everyone assumed must be more than a friendship when it was not. I'm not saying men cannot push past these social prejudices, but for many men the risk is seen as not being worth the effort.  We are quite wrong in this assessment, but that is just the way it is.  And as a result we miss out on something truly wonderful.

There are many other reasons men go a lifetime with no male relationships deeper than that found among coworkers or the neighbor you ask to borrow a ladder from once in a while.  Laziness, fear of rejection, past experiences, lack of knowledge, etc.  And my point of this post is not to address all of these or even give advice on how to overcome them.  Rather my point in posting this is to say these friendships are, most of the time (I won't say all of the time), well worth the effort and will yield a wonderful harvest if we but provide a little seed and cultivation.  Yes, it is work, but work well worth the rewards.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Theological Agnosticism

Theological and Doctrinal Agnosticism

While attending an Orthodox church, after the liturgy was through and people were preparing lunch, my wife and I got to talking to one of the priests.  During the discussion he said something I’ve heard before but never cease to find a bit shocking.  He said that although there are many christian beliefs out there the Orthodox Church is the true church. He was saying that of all the churches with their collections of doctrines, beliefs and liturgies, the Orthodox Church got it right.  Shocking, yes?

I’m not going to examine the veracity of that claim here but instead want to talk about the appropriateness of making such a claim in the first place.  In our culture making absolute truth claims is frowned upon.  This isn’t always true of course.  If you step out in front of a fast moving car, arguing about truth claims and relativism go right out the door…or under the wheels in this case.  But when we discuss ethics, philosophy and especially religion relativism is the rule and any sort of objective truth claims are quietly dismissed if not boo’d outright.  Unfortunately this tendency has seeped into the church.  We are loathed to admit it but what we have come to expect when it comes to truth claims concerning doctrine specifically and theological claims in general is a kind of theological agnosticism.  We expect people to end each seemingly objective truth claim with a formulation that goes something like, “But that is just me. I could be wrong”.

["Agnosticism" may seem like the wrong word as the person making the claim will insist, at least in their own mind, that they are right.  But here I am using the word qualitatively to refer to appearances and how we are expected to behave in society. Although you are allowed today to have your beliefs, speaking them out loud with any thing resembling conviction when it comes to theological or even moral issues is not encouraged and, in some cases, punished with legal action. So if we at least indicate that we are unsure we are less likely to get ourselves in trouble. Later it will become more clear why this word is appropriate for this phenomenon. ]

Although I would like to say bible-believing churches have a category of theological truth claims they will refuse to be agnostic on, in fact that is becoming less the case these days. Most will not compromise on things like murder, adultery, stealing, etc., even if they will compromise on what these things actually mean in opposition to what they meant.  That said, the number of things of which they will accept theological agnosticism grows with each passing day.  So it shouldn’t be  surprising that in this context that eyebrows go up when someone claims categorically to be right concerning a truth claim or even, in the case of Orthodoxy, an entire category of truth claims.

There are a number of reasons why such claims make us uncomfortable. In the first place, who likes being told they are wrong?  We don’t mind it, or at least tolerate it, when someone tells us we are wrong concerning some facts of science or health such as when the doctor tells us our diet is killing us or we discipline our children for trying to touch a hot stove.  But our religion is a whole other mater.  Telling someone they are wrong, even if we do it by telling them we are right, comes off many times sounding rude.  Why?  Besides the fact that we've become a society of soft-skinned, infantile, offense prone, victimized, drama addicted, self-obsessed hedonists (to put it plainly),  I believe a cause of this is the underlying conviction that we can never really know the truth concerning theological matters (which is the proper definition of agnosticism).  Which is to say certain basics of the Christian faith are, a priori, true but anything beyond the basics is questionable at best.  Of course what are considered the basics is a matter of opinion, but in general this holds true.

However, I would argue that if God is real, and we are able to conclusively claim that the existence of God is true, existing in three persons and that he really did speak to us through the Scriptures, then we should be able to make certain truth claims. In fact, I believe me must.  Additionally, if we are able to make these truth claims then, by extension, opposing or antithetical truth claims are, in point of fact, false.

In short, a claim that “The Orthodox Church is right” means that others are wrong.  Such a claim is admirable in one sense, but it is really the lack of agnostic formulation tacked onto the end we’ve become so accustomed to hearing that really makes us squeamish.  If only the priest had shown some social etiquette by adding, “But we could be wrong”, we would be quite okay with the claim.  Instead he comes off sounding prideful.  Unless, of course, he is actually right.  Then we have another problem to deal with.  I'll talk about this along with the problem of  sources of authority for our claims in future posts.

As a side note, after the priest had made the original claim he did add, "Orthodoxy is the right church given to the wrong people."



Sunday, March 27, 2016

Pray without ceasing



Prayer has always been difficult for me.  Not that I am special in this respect. From what I read the struggle to pray is a common theme throughout history.  Jesus chided his disciples for falling asleep while they were suppose to be praying (Matt. 26:40) and James rebuked the church for praying with selfish motives (James 4:3), just to point to a couple of famous examples.

I cannot count the number of stories I've read of people who have prayed for hours on end, days without number about God knows what.  I remember reading, with a great amount of awe and and even greater portion of jealousy, these accounts.  Many times these accounts preceded "revival" and I would often think, "If I could just pray like these men and women we would certainly see God's Spirit poured out".  But I am not one of them.  My thoughts incessantly wonder or I go through dark nights of the soul that leave my mind blank and any desire for prayer frightfully absent.

There is no lack of books and teachings on how to pray and what to pray for. Just visit any Christian bookstore or search on Amazon where the word "prayer" presents a shopper with over 128,000 choices.  I've even tried a number of them.  I've used prayer lists, gone on prayer walks (before that was vogue), gone on prayer retreats, prayed in my "prayer closet", used centering prayer, yelled, cried, fell asleep, fell into sin and, many times, just gave up.  I've read books on prayer, books about praying people, listened to sermons on prayer and gave sermons on prayer.  And although I believe that struggle will always be a unwanted guest thanks to our fallen nature, struggle became a dominating factor in my prayer life.

This is where, more than any other area in my life, the Eastern Orthodox church has come to the rescue of this one struggling pilgrim in a number of significant ways.  The first (the topic of this post) is in the prayers of the Church.  As it turns out, as I already mentioned, I was not alone in my struggle. Many other men and women struggled with the same things I was struggling with.  People who struggled but, unlike myself, were victorious over the enemies of their souls.  But even better they were inspired to record their prayers for us.  What a treasure trove these prayers provide.  Additionally these prayers have had the benefit of hundreds, even thousands of years of vetting! How did I miss these?

Well, to be honest, I didn't quite miss them as much as, in the zeal of my youth, I came under the mistaken idea that unless one prayers extemporaneously one does not pray.  Not only is this anti-biblical, but it is just plain nonsense.  Jesus was praying Scripture when he cried from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  (Matt. 27:46).  Jesus even gave us a prayer and said to pray it (Luke 11:2.  Juxtaposed, however, with Matt. 6:9 and one gets the idea that Jesus meant the prayer both as a template but also as an actual prayer we were to use in our daily liturgical  lives).

I had been introduced to one of the ancient church's written prayers many users ago through a little book titled, "The Way of a Pilgrim".  Not only was this book an interesting look at the Russian Orthodox church and life in general in the nineteenth century, but it is still credited with almost single handedly introducing the west to a particularly Orthodox prayer:

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me"

Time will not allow for me to talk about that prayer in detail. Indeed, whole volumes have been written about it (Check out this link for more information).  Suffice it to say that the prayer is intended to be repeated continually and without ceasing to the end that eventually one's heart will continue on praying the prayer even when the mind and mouth are not.  This isn't a mechanical recitation, but each word is to be considered as one prays. But all in all it is a prayer that is easy,regular and uncomplicated and at times that is just what I need.

"But doesn't the Matthew 6:7 tell us not to use vain repetition when praying?", you may ask.  That is a good question, but really not relevant in this case.  First, we all repeat things in our prayer.  Count how many times you or someone else repeats the words, "Lord Jesus" or "Father God" in a prayer.  Or how often you end with "In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen".  Second, and more importantly, can the name of "Jesus" ever truly be considered "vain" when said from the heart?

But this isn't the only source of prayer.  The Orthodox Church has a number of prayer books available for people to use.  I'm currently using the one printed by the Holy Trinity monastery in Jordanville, NY.  It includes morning and evening prayers along with a number of prayers for various occasions. My point isn't to advertise for a particular book or tradition here but rather to offer another resource to help in your prayer life.  Having prayers already written down that the church has deemed worthy of prayer and theologically correct (again, this will depend upon your tradition) was for me a godsend.  At first I felt as though I was somehow cheating because I wasn't coming up with stuff on my own.  That is, for the most part, a fairly American thing. We like to think we are clever and resourceful, not beholding to anyone, and prayer is no exception.  But sometimes it is good for us to come to the full realization that we can't do it on our own and that there may be someone else out there who is more qualified than ourselves. After all, this is exactly what the Scriptures teach us:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.

(Ephesians 4:11-14 ESV)

These prayers can help us at times when we really can't or shouldn't be helping ourselves.  This doesn't mean that prayer isn't a struggle. I still have to get up early or go to bed early and discipline myself to pray, even if it is with the aid of a prayer book. But when those times come when I cannot think of a single thing to say to God, I believe without a doubt that he sees the intent of my heart and hears the prayers I am reciting as if they were my own.  And that has helped me more then you can possible imagine.

As days go on I hope to share more information about my journey with God and particularly Eastern Orthodoxy.  So stay tuned!





Tuesday, January 19, 2016

All of my being

I once was at a church service and the band was playing and people were really into the music.  In front of my was a mentally ill woman (I knew her personally).  She was singing with all her might, right hand raised to heaven in worship and her left hand...holding a book she was actively reading. Yes, she was reading some book while she was singing during the worship service of the charismatic church I attended. The book, if I recall correctly, was a religious book and not some romance novel or something. I remember at the time thinking, "What they heck?!"

That image has always stuck with me mostly as an object lesson of what I didn't want people to see when they saw me worshiping God. I have a few of these "object lessons" in my repertoire and I pull them out every once in a while to judge others or to prevent me from going over some imagined "edge".  If you are thinking that I am a very sad person, I would agree.

But today I had a different thought. I am not saying I would recommend reading during worship, but I do know what it is like to want to worship God with everything I have.  My heart, mind, soul and strength.  There has been a few occasions where I found myself worshiping God during the church service and wanting to jump up and down and clap and read some psalm that just popped into my head and call someone on the phone and tell them what a Great and Wonderful God I am worshiping. But then the image of the crazy worshiping lady comes to my mind and I keep my hands down and keep my Bible closed, I lower my voice and I put my phone on vibrate.  Because no one worships that way or people will talk.

Before you say anything let me say that I believe there is an order to things and just because we want to do something doesn't mean we should. The Bible is full of examples where God said to do 1, 2 and 3 and exactly in that order when worshiping him. So there is nothing wrong with insisting an order be followed when worshiping God both publicly and privately.  BUT sometimes worshiping the living, loving, all powerful, all knowing, scary God of the Universe who sent his Son to live, die and arise in my place induces a desire to involve the whole being in worship.  And there is nothing wrong with that, is there?

Maybe I'll start looking upon that mental image of the crazy worshiping lady with a bit of fondness. What she was doing may not have been "proper" but, for her, it couldn't be helped, and I certainly can understand why.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Christmas eve x 2

Like most Christians I celebrated Christmas with our traditional Christmas eve service.  At the end of the service we all lit candles representing the light of the gospel in each one of us.  This is intended to show us how although one candle makes very little difference, many candles light the entire room even when all the lights are out.  It is a powerful message of hope in a very dark time in our nations history.

But for me Christmas didn't end on the twenty-fifth.  You see, for many Christians in the world today Christmas is celebrated on January 7th as well.  I'm speaking here of the Orthodox Christians.  Not all Orthodox celebrate on this day (although most do celebrated on the 25th), but for those who follow the old Julian calendar the 7th provides an extra Christmas day celebration.

I've been studying the Orthodox church for over thirteen years now and lately have gotten serious enough (or perhaps "curious" is a better word) about what I've learned to attend a few services.  I decided it would be a great time to see what their Christmas eve looks like.

There were actually two services.  The first was the liturgy of St. Basil.  The prayers in the Orthodox church are sung or chanted.  There are also a lot of Scripture passages read (chanted) and all told the entire service lasts almost two hours.  This service ends with Communion (The Lord's Supper).  Unlike a lot of Protestant denominations, if you are not Orthodox you are not allowed to participate.  Some might find this offensive but I find it encouraging that the Orthodox take it so seriously.  I feel we are way too flippant at times when it comes to the Lord's supper.  I've heard jokes made and even once heard the Lord's Supper equated to the giving of a toast!  So I'm perfectly fine sitting this one out and simply enjoying the sights and sounds and worshiping with my presence.

And don't forget the incense.  O! the incense!  It is everywhere and if you've never been a part of a service that uses it, it can be overwhelming at first.  But once you get use to it having the sense of smell engaged in worship can be a wonderful experience.  It is not an understatement to say that Orthodox worship truly is a multimedia experience. The incense mainly represents the prayers of the saints and we find its use all the way back to the Old Testament in our Bibles.  I have also read that frankincense is typically used in the censors and so it can also serve as a reminder of the nativity when one of the "kings" gave a gift of frankincense to Jesus and the Blessed Mother of our Lord.

The next service is called a Vigil and includes even more prayers and scripture, chanting and singing.  During parts of the service the lights are dimmed and then when speaking or singing of the coming of the Christ child the lights are turned all the way up.  This cycle of light and dark happens several
times.  At one point in the celebration there is the ringing of bells, which are passed out to many of the children, and the priest grabs the chandelier in the middle of the church and starts swinging it around in wide circles. I'll be honest I don't yet know why they do this.  I haven't had time to talk to the priest yet but I believe it may serve a similar purpose as the lighting of the candles in the Protestant church I attended.  Whatever the reason but the effects are amazing.  The light shines all over the place, dancing off the walls, ceiling and worshipers.  This coupled with the bells and the vibrant singing of everyone around me I can honestly say I was overwhelmed.  So overwhelmed, in fact, I was still feeling the effects two days later!

I'm not going to stoop to pitting one church against another here.  The Orthodox service was new to me and that newness gives it an unfair advantage over the service I've attended for the past ten years.  But I must admit that I am looking forward to Easter in the Orthodox church this year!

[As time goes on I plan on sharing more about my adventures in Orthodoxy. So stay tuned!]