Embracing the Sojourner

“You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. …  You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.”  (Exodus 23:21, Exodus 23:9)                           “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.”  (Deuteronomy 27:19)

In the Old Testament, the “sojourner” – a resident alien, or an alien sojourner, the non-Jew who chose to live with the Jews and accept their fate and honor their God – belonged to a special class of people whom the Jews were not only to tolerate but to protect.  The people of God were to love the sojourner because God Himself loved that alien.  They were to have empathy for the alien sojourner because they themselves had once been aliens in the land of Egypt and they knew what it was like to be in that position.  The resident alien, the stranger on earth, the outsider, holds a spiritual status in the eyes of God.  All of God’s people are sojourners – exiled from paradise, from Egypt, from heaven, from Israel.  Biblical scholar Frances Young inbrokenness1 her book BROKENNESS AND BLESSING describes how her own mentally and physically handicapped son taught her the sense in which every human being is an alien, a stranger, sometimes to his or her own family! 

Christians themselves have embraced the theme of being sojourners on earth – in exile not only from the heavenly homeland (1 Peter 1:17), but also in exile from the secular, post-modern society in which we find ourselves. 

“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:11-12)

The notion that Christians should always see themselves as sojourning aliens on earth is sometimes forgotten by American Christians who see themselves first as Americans and who prefer to feel at home in America rather than to see themselves as sojourners on earth.   In some ways they want America to be not only a Christian haven, but more so the Christian heaven – they no longer feel themselves as aliens on earth.  This results in some embracing nationalism in a way unbecoming of Christians.   For in so doing they not only forget the spiritual value of being sojourners, but they abandon the love for other sojourners who come into their churches.  They want to embrace only people like themselves and to treat not as aliens but as enemies those who are differ in race, politics, life style, ethnic background, language or wealth. 

In the 2nd Century EPISTLE TO DIOGNETUS, the author claims of Christians that, “Every foreign land is their fatherland, yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.” 

“Christians are not different because of their country or the language they speak or the way they dress. They do not isolate themselves in their cities nor use a private language; even the life they lead has nothing strange.  …  They live in Greek or in barbarian (foreign) cities, as the case may be, and adapt themselves to local traditions in dress, food and all usage. Yet they testify to a way which, in the opinion of the many, has something extraordinary about it.  They live in their own countries and are strangers. They loyally fulfill their duties as citizens, but are treated as foreigners. … They dwell on earth, but are citizens of heaven.”

mercytochristGod expects us to embrace the role of sojourner for ourselves in our life on earth and also to embrace the sojourner – the other, the alien, the stranger – who joins us as we journey through time towards the Kingdom of Heaven.   Embracing the alien sojourner, the stranger who comes to our parish community is our spiritual task. As Young writes, “we care for them (the stranger, the sojourner) because they reveal to us who we really are-that is how ‘the Other’ matters.”  The stranger/sojourner reveals to us that we are also sojourners on earth and should embrace that status.   And who then is that stranger that we should embrace?  Anyone who comes into our parish community, no matter how strange they may seem to us.  (remember how Jesus answered the question “who is my neighbor” in Luke 10:25-36?  The answer is found in who proves himself to be a neighbor).  If the stranger desires to walk with us and to experience our life in Christ, even while still remaining a stranger, then we are to embrace them as a sojourner blessed by God, as a neighbor, and perhaps one day as a brother or sister in Christ.   Even God does not wait for our conversion before loving us – for while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

woollymammoth2As an Orthodox priest, I am always interested in the question, “what does it mean to be human?”  Science has a particular take on that question, which I find useful for understanding both humans and the universe. 

For example, scientists can with a high degree of accuracy determine the amount of each chemical element that is found the human body.   We learn from these studies that humans are largely composed of the four elements oxygen, carbon hydrogen, and nitrogen (by mass these 4 elements make up almost 97% of a human).   Oxygen by far composes the greatest mass in a human – slightly more than 61% of a human by mass is oxygen.  By contrast the air we breathe is 23% oxygen by mass.   Air is 75% nitrogen, while a human is only 2.6% nitrogen by mass.  A chemical analysis of humans will give us truth about what it means to be human, but it doesn’t give us the full truth for we know that a human is far more than simply chemicals.  The same is true of DNA – we now can describe the human genome and have a very accurate picture of what it means to be human in terms of DNA – or the ACGT bases which are the code defining the various characteristics of every living thing.  From the point of view of genetics it is precisely DNA which makes us human and is what distinguishes us from other animals.  This is all true and tell us something about what it is to be human, yet again, we would not agree that being human can be reduced to studying proteins, for we believe humans are more than simply protein alignments.  No matter how much chemistry and genetics can accurately and truthfully describe a human, we would say to limit our understanding of humanity to elements and proteins would not give a full and complete understanding of what it means to be human.

From my point of view science, biology, genetics or evolution are no threats to my understanding of what it means to be human.  They cannot prove or disprove any of the claims of the Bible, for the Bible is not science but rather offers an understanding of humanity that goes far beyond the reductionist definitions which chemistry or genetics offer about what a human is.  Indeed a merely scientific worldview can devalue humans, reducing them to chemicals, proteins and inert matter, and this can lead to denying that human embryos or fetuses are really human and to other errors in thought.   The understanding of what it means to be human, for Christians is shaped by faith in the revelation of God that humans are in His image and that we are animated material – animated by the Holy Spirit of God.   Humans can be described in terms of materialism, but such a description is neither complete or sufficient for understanding humans.

I write all of this really as an introduction to two thoughts and observations I want to make on comments offered by evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson in the NY TIMES:

  • 1) Judson in ALL HAIL THE APPLE MAGGOT! offers an explanation for why we can more readily observe the extinction of species than the evolution of new species. Basically her argument is that extinction is fairly observable – a last known animal of a species dies – and this has happened in our lifetimes. The emergence of a new species takes place over an extended period of time, and what we can observe is the process but the real emergence of a new species will take much longer than any generation of humans will be on earth. She offers the apple maggot fly as an example of an emerging species. This fly is still part of the hawthorn fly species but according to Judson began in the mid 19th Century to evolve into a separate species with the introduction of apples to North America. You can read her explanation of why she believes the apple maggot fly is a species in formation. The limit to her argument is that while the divergence of the hawthorn fly into an apple fly is in process, speciation still hasn’t occurred. And though given enough time and the right conditions, one can imagine the apple fly evolving into a separate species, it cannot yet be scientifically proven – we will always be able to observe that speciation of the apple fly has not occurred but there will be no time limit in which we would be able to declare that it will not occur. So speciation possibly could occur at some time in the infinite and indefinite future, but there is no point at which it can definitely be declared that it cannot or will not happen. So it is a hypothesis which cannot be disproven, which is very similar to claims of logical fallacy that some atheists make against arguments for the existence of God.
  • 2) In RESURRECTION SCIENCE Judson describes the excitement created in mapping the genome of the Woolly Mammoth from genetic material extracted from frozen bits of mammoths which died 10,000 years ago. What stood out for me in her article is the description of how fraught with failure is the science of cloning. It turns out that it is not as easy as science to create life. Even cloning life turns out to need a tremendous amount of human intelligent design to make it happen. There are implications for why it is reasonable to believe that it would have needed the intentional meddling of a Creator to cause life to exist in the first place. And while Judson can imaginatively be excited about a resurrection of the woolly mammoth, she acknowledges it would take a whole lot more knowledge than we currently have to pull it off. And even at that science would not be thinking about the resurrection as we Christians understand it – bringing a deceased being back to life, but only of reviving the genetic line of an extinct species. That would be a scientific miracle of sorts, but will do little to help us understand what it means to be human.

Christmas and These Troubled Times

While the Christmas season often brings us hope through the news of God’s good will toward all people, this year we are also facing an economically threatening time.   We certainly believe God acted in the past to accomplish His plan for the salvation of the world, but do we have faith in God even in tour current troubled times?  

chrysostom “Chrysostom would be quick to admit that our present situation in the world must also be interpreted in light of God’s ultimate goal and end for human history.  The present must be viewed in light of the end, and premature opinions as to the goodness of providence must be delayed until history itself reaches the conclusion God has set for it.  Because only the end of history will finally clarify God’s actions in history, our present interpretive stance must be one of patience and humility. … Chrysostom comments, ‘that our present knowledge is grossly deficient and that complete knowledge is reserved for the age to come.  Only a very small amount has been given to us at the present time.” (Christopher Hall quoted in ANCIENT & POSTMODERN CHRISTIANITY: PALEO-ORTHODOXY IN THE 21ST CENTURY)

The Incarnation of the Son of God

nativityChristmas is the celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God.

Humility is Divine; it bowed the heavens and came down to earth, took our flesh and became the God-man.”  (CHRIST IN OUR MIDST: LETTERS FROM A RUSSIAN MONK)

Christmas is a revelation of the truth of God.

“Jesus is not the eternal truth who becomes incarnate, for it is only in his becoming man, in his flesh, that he is the truth.”   (Eric Osborn)

Christmas is the beginning of the salvation of humankind.

For St. Ignatius of Antioch, “The incarnation itself took its significance from the fact that what was being planned was nothing short of the abolition of death.”  (N.T. Wright, THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD)

Christmas is preceded by a fasting period in which we contemplate what God revealed to us in the Nativity of His Son, born of the Virgin Mary, and in which we through prayer and fasting enter into the salvation which God offers to the world.

Thanksgiving Day 2008

Thanksgiving is a good day for us to reflect on our relationship with God.  We can look at two past Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations to get some sense of how American leaders understood God and why they saw it as important to give thanks to the Creator of the Universe.

First you can read the entire Thanksgiving Proclamation of George Washington, 3 October 1789 and even see his actual handwritten letter of the proclamation.  I want to quote only part of it:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. … and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– …   To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

In other parts of the proclamation Washington acknowledges the favor God has shown to the people of the United States by the outcome of the Revolutionary War.   Thanksgiving is offered because people understand God’s favor is given freely by God not because we have earned or merited that favor.  Washington acknowledges this by asking God to forgive us our sins.  This part of a Thanksgiving proclamation may seem strange to modern American ears – why mention our sins when we are giving thanks to God?   It has to do with the strong sense of unmerited grace.  God favors and blesses America “while we are still sinners” not because we are righteous.  This is the nature of God’s grace, and why we should be thankful.  If we had earned God’s blessings, we wouldn’t need to be thankful as the blessings would be our just payment for work rendered.

Second, you can read the entire Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day by Abraham Lincoln from  October 3, 1863, but I will quote in part:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.  … No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. …  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens …  to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.   And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

Lincoln like Washington had to acknowledge a war as being part of the nation’s recent experience.   Lincoln like Washington also brings to mind the sins of the nation in his Thanksgiving Proclamation.  He too understood that God shedding His grace on America was not because of America’s righteousness, but because God is favorably disposed to set things right.  It is the sense of one’s sinfulness that makes the experience of God’s blessings so pronounced and which leads to a joyful expression of thanksgiving:  We don’t deserve to live in a blessed land, we are sinners, and yet God has blessed us with abundance.  It is an experience of grace not a story of hard earned payment.

Unfortunately in modern times, we Americans have forgotten about our sins, and see little need to repent and even at times make it to be unpatriotic to refer to our sins or to acknowledge that we Americans individually and as a nation are sinners in need of God’s mercies.  It is however in recognizing our sinfulness and the undeserved favor we have received from God that leads to our Thanksgiving.   We thank God out of our humbleness not in our arrogance.  In arrogance we might think we deserve God’s favor because we are so righteous.  In humility we understand ourselves as sinners, and yet and in spite of our sins, God has showered favor on us.  Thanks be to God.    Thanksgiving certainly is much in line with the spirit of the Nativity Fast and asking God’s forgiveness.  Repentance gives us a greater sense of thanksgiving as we realize how undeserved God’s grace really is, and how special it is to experience the blessings of God despite our sins.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.   (Ephesians 2:4-9)

The God who Submits Himself to Human Will

“The risk-taking or kenosis on God’s part, inaugurated at the creation, came to its full innerkingdom1expression at the Incarnation.  In choosing to become a creature, the divine Creator embraced a situation of complete vulnerability, an entire and unreserved solidarity with us humans in our pain and brokenness.  He willed to effect our salvation, not through any exercise of transcendent power, but through the utter powerlessness of His incarnate state: ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor 12:9).”   (Bishop Kallistos Ware, THE INNER KINGDOM)

It is certainly true that God in creating the world and in giving humans free will took a risk – He created a world which He was determined not to control, not to predestine.  He created a world in which humans could create pain and brokenness – a pain and brokenness that God would in time be willing to take upon Himself!  God took the risk of choosing to submit His love and His will to the free will and choices of His created humans – in fact to their judgment.   He willingly contained and curtailed His power making Himself work with us humans, accepting our free will and choices as well as our weaknesses and sinfulness.   He suffered and grieved because of what He saw in the human heart and what He saw the humans doing (Genesis 6:6).    In His all-powerful love, He submits Himself totally to all that is human in the incarnation.   His power is revealed in weakness, His perfect love revealed in his powerlessness.  Christmas is the revelation of the God whose perfection and power is not limited by human reason or logic.   The God whose heart was grieved became the man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3) in order to heal, restore and redeem the broken heartedness of  human beings (Psalm 147:3, Isaiah 61:1) .

Thanksgiving Meditation and Prayers

St. John Chrysostom writes in HOMILIES ON GENESIS 18-45:

“Accordingly, let us manage the affairs that affect us in such a way, no matter how things work out, that we make it our only concern to thank him (God) constantly and for everything.  This is the reason, after all, that we have been made rational creatures and in this we differ from the irrational, that we should offer to the Creator of everything praise, honor and constant glory.  His purpose in breathing life into us and giving us the power of speech was that we might have an awareness of the favors done us by him, recognize his lordship, demonstrate our gratitude and offer thanks to the Lord according to our ability.  You see, if people who share the same nature as ourselves render us some mean and paltry favor and frequently require thanks for the trouble they have gone to, not for the sake of our gratitude but that they themselves may gain greater recognition from the affair, so much the more ought we show gratitude to a greater extent in the case of the loving God, whose only interest in this being done is our benefit.” 

Henri Nouwen writes in THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL:

“Along with trust there must be gratitude-the opposite of resentment.  Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift.  My resentment tells me that I don’t receive what I deserve.  It always manifests itself as envy.

Gratitude, however, goes beyond  the ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ and claims the truth that all of life is pure gift.  In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline.  The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”    

We’re being challenged by International Orthodox Christian Charities to set an additional place at our Thanksgiving tables for the world’s hungry.  Please consider making a thanksgiving charity donation to the IOCC.   

Orthodox prayers of Thanksgiving:

Before the meal: The poor shall eat and be satisfied. Those who seek the Lord shall find Him. Their hearts shall live forever. 

After the meal: We thank You, O Christ our God, that You have  satisfied us with Your earthly blessings; Do not deprive us of Your heavenly kingdom; But, as You came in the midst of Your   disciples, O savior, and gave them peace, So come to us and save us.

Honesty and Ethics Poll

The 2008 Gallup Annual Honesty and Ethics Poll has been released and once again nurses are given the highest rating by Americans for honesty and ethics – 84% of Americans give nurses the highest ratings for honesty and ethics.   This is the seventh year in a row that nurses occupied that top spot.  In general the medical profession ranks high in American esteem with pharmacists and doctors rated 2nd and 4th respectively.  The only non-medical profession in the top four are high school teachers ranked at number three. 

My profession, clergy was ranked 6th for honesty and integrity.  56% of Americans consider clergy to be of high integrity.  While such a percentage would be enough to win a presidential election, it has to be troubling for a profession whose purpose and message is based in faith, trust, trustworthiness, and integrity.  One-third of Americans see clergy as just of average honesty and integrity – sad for a profession that is supposed to lead by example in moral living.    More embarrassing is that the same percentage – 1/3 of Americans – also see telemarketers as being of average honesty and ethics.  

Interestingly clergy rank almost identically with the police.  So do Americans see clergy not as moral examples but rather as enforcers of the law?  We are not priests or pastors but police in the eyes of many?!?

The same percentage of Americans ranks clergy as very low in honesty and ethics (8-9%) as rank police, funeral directors, and accountants.  About one in every 10-11 Americans think of clergy as being dishonesty and untrustworthy.

Clergy perhaps will get some consolation from the fact that Americans have a higher opinion of clergy than congressmen by almost 5 to 1 (56% to 12%).  So clergy are seen as a better moral compass than politicians.

The study also gives us some idea as to why the scandal in the OCA was so devastating to so many people – a group of men whom 89% of Americans see as average or above average in terms of ethics failed them completely.  The broken trust of church leadership is not taken lightly because people expect them to be at least as honest as the average American.

God Created the World for the Incarnation of the Word

theotok2The Christmas Season manifests itself in different ways in our American culture; and surely it means different things to various subgroups of Americans.  American merchants see this as their best season for making a profit, and hope that Americans will be inspired to go shopping and spend money.  Christmas in this thinking really does end on December 25.  For the Orthodox Christians on the other hand December 25 represents the beginning of the Feast of the Nativity of Christ.  The 40 day season leading up to Christmas is a time to reflect on what God has done for us and why – what is it about the world that caused God to send His Son into the world in order to save it?  What merchants see as THE Christmas season, the Orthodox see as the pre-Christmas Lenten preparation for the Christmas Feast.  Over the next few weeks, I will be posting on this blog some quotes from various people that speak to what Christmas means from the perspective of Orthodox Christianity.

God has created the world precisely for his Incarnation; it is not the world which, through the fall of man, has impelled God to become incarnate.”  (Sergius Bulgakov)

Bulgakov’s point is an important one.  God planned and created the world to be in communion with Him.  It is not human sin which compelled God to become incarnate, to heal the world and to unite humanity to Himself.   God planned creation and salvation, incarnation and eternal life, from the beginning.  It is God’s love which moves God to act in and for His creation (John 3:16).  God always intended for humanity to be united to divinity, and He did whatever it takes to accomplish His gracious Will – even suffering for and because of His creation.   Christmas is the new and surprising thing that God was willing to do to share eternal life with His creatures who lived in time and whose lives is shortened by death.