A Way to Look at the World

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The Nativity Fast

“The next time you have a period of fasting, perhaps during this forthcoming fast of the Nativity of Christ, do not think of it as just placing upon yourself some heavy rule about eating.  Concentrate on what you are doing with your tongue and your eyes and this will reveal much to you about the condition of your heart, your conscience.  Are you undertaking any kind of asceticism with your tongue, your eyes?  Are you seriously thinking about how you may hurt somebody else in the brotherhood and sisterhood, in your own community, by saying something or by the way you looked at them?  Are you contemplating how you might heal yourself so you no longer do this?  Are you consciously aware that whenever you wound a brother or a sister in the parish you are actually wounding the Body of Christ just as surely as the soldier who pierced His side with a spear?  These are the most important matters to think about when you start to keep the fast.  Always remember that true asceticism is not so much about avoidance as it is about the encounter.  Above all, think about how you encounter your brother and sisters in every way, for an encounter with another human being is always an encounter with Christ Who created them and Who loves and values them.”

(Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Not By Bread Alone:  Homilies on the Gospel According to St Matthew, pg 68)

Tax Cuts: a Painful Way to Keep Bleeding

The Co-Chairmen of the bipartisan commission to reduce the deficit released a proposal for the commission members and general public to consider as to what is needed to reduce the national debt.  In their comments they bluntly make it clear the reduction can only come with pain to the American people; there is no other way.  Of course Americans have never taken kindly to pain when it comes to economics and thus politicians who vote on policies which affect the nation’s economy tend also not to make the hard decisions in fear of being voted out of office. 

The U.S. Congress is going to take up the issue of making permanent the Bush era tax cuts.  This is being done while simultaneously there are calls to shrink the national debt.  These are the tax cuts that Mike Kimel and Michael Kanell in PRESIMETRICS characterize in this way:

Consider, for instance, that less than two months after taking office GW laid out a plan to aggressively pay down the debt while simultaneously cutting taxes and boosting military spending.  The plan was titled, ‘A Blueprint for New Beginnings: A Responsible Budget for America’s Priorities.’  One can only wonder what an irresponsible budget might have looked like to GW’s advisors. 

According to what I’ve read, making the Bush-era tax cuts permanent will add $4 Trillion (that’s $4,000,000,000,000.00) to the national debt.  One wonders whether any Americans are really fiscally responsible or conservative who can advocate this right now.

Christmas is a time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it.  Deficits are when adults tell government what they want and their kids pay for it. (Richard Lamm)

The push for the tax cuts at this point seem to be the usual American nearsightedness when it comes to fiscal issues: we want immediate gratification and don’t want to be troubled by the fact that what we do today will have  future repercussions.  

“… a president who cuts taxes while at the same time driving up the debt is not really ‘cutting taxes.’  He is merely transferring taxes from now until some later date.”  (Mike Kimel & Michael Kanell, PRESIMETRICS)

A president who cuts the national debt, on the other hand, saves you from having to make interest and principal payments on that debt in the future, and therefore reduces you tax bill later. Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to make the connection between fiscal irresponsibility today and increased taxes later on.  (Mike Kimel & Michael Kanell, PRESIMETRICS)

We would do well to remember how we got into the national fiscal mess we are in and not perpetuate those same mistakes and then magically hope for a different result.  We might consider the words of U.S. founding father James Madison

“… war should not only be declared by the authority of the people, whose toils and treasures are to support its burdens, instead of the government which is to reap its fruits: but that each generation should be made to bear the burden of its own wars, instead of carrying them on, at the expense of other generations.”

It is we the people, or at least we through our elected political leaders, who got US into the current financial mess.  It is the current and past president and the current and past congresses which have made the decisions to  bury us in debt.

Somehow, some keep singing the song to reduce taxes, as if that is the panacea for all that ails the American economy.  Yet the national debt also ails the economy and we are not going to reduce the national debt by reducing taxes,  anymore than someone can reduce their credit card debt by reducing their income.  If we are serious about reducing the national debt, we are going to need a different remedy than reducing taxes to pay down the current debt.

I do not know where the idea that reducing taxes is the best way to grow the economy comes from – but if PRESIMETRICS  measures the data right, then reducing taxes isn’t the panacea needed.  Consider the following based on Kimel and Kanell’s analysis of the data available from 1952-2008 (Presidents Eisenhower to GWBush):

“in recent decades, higher tax burdens have been associated with faster, not slower, economic growth.” (p 120)

“there doesn’t seem to be any evidence here for the proposition that lower taxes result in higher incomes  … lower taxes- at least by themselves- are not the way to increase economic growth.”   (pp 124-125)

“The numbers are pretty compelling.  Lower average tax burdens do not produce faster economic growth, or more jobs, or bring in more tax revenues.  Similarly, tax cuts also do not produce faster economic growth, faster income growth, or more jobs, or bring in more tax revenues.  … Unexamined faith in a principle that is demonstrably false is no way to run a country.”  (pp 129-130)

So, is the idea that tax cuts are beneficial to the economy based upon intuitive assumptions rather than on any statistical analysis?    It seems like it should be true that lowering taxes would benefit tax payers in every way, but the data which PRESIMETRICS studies doesn’t uphold what is a cornerstone of political beliefs for many.

This may be a case where we need to stop believing what we think, and actually examine the data to see what in fact will bring down the national debt and help the economy.  Maybe we actually are going to have to do some of the painful things the bipartisan commission is considering, including both raising taxes and cutting spending.  Ouch!

Or maybe we will continue to pretend there is some magical and painless way to reduce the budget deficit and keep doing all the things we currently are doing. 

Any magic left in these contenders?

In the Harry Potter books and movies, ultimately it is not magic that saves the day and defeats evil, but rather the courage and persistence of its “all too human” heroes to do the right thing despite their weaknesses, even when it is very painful.

Our politicians need to learn a bit of that magic called courage.

Where can I find Salvation?

One thing about heaven is that you don’t have to go some place else to find it or to be there.  For the Kingdom of heaven is within you (Luke 17:21). 

“The ‘divine Ephraim’ says, ‘How can you say that we cannot be saved in the midst of the world?  If you wish I will tell you briefly:  it is not the place that saves, but a heart and will turned towards God.  Adam in paradise, and in great tranquility, drowned, while Lot among the Sodomites, as it were on the waves of the sea, was saved.  Saul in his royal palace lost this life and the next, while Job sitting among the ashes amidst great misfortunes, received the crown of the just.'”     (Ford, David and Mary, Marriage As A Path to Holiness:  Lives of Married Saints, pg xliii)

Christian Love: More Essential than Miracles

1 Corinthians 13:1-7
St. Paul

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

St. John Chrysostom wrote:

St. John Chrysostom

If there is no love, other blessings profit us nothing.  Love is the mark of the Lord’s disciples, it stamps the servents of God, by it we recognize his apostles.  Christ said:  “This is how all will know you for my disciples.”  By what?  Tell me.  Was it by raising the dead or by cleansing lepers or by driving out demons?  No.  Christ passed over all these signs and wonders when he said:  “This is how all will know you for my disciples:  your love for one another.”  This gift of love must also be achieved through man’s own earnestness and zeal.  Christ said, that His disciples are recognized not by miracles but by love.   (St John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church:  On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pgs 52-53)

Training for Spiritual Warfare

Ephesians 6:10-17

Brothers and Sisters:  Finally,be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.  Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

St. Isaac the Syrian wrote:

Remember God, that He too might always remember you; and when He has kept you in His memory and preserved you safe to the end, you will receive every blessing from Him.  Do not forget Him, your mind being distracted with futile concerns, lest He forget you in the time of your warfare.  When you enjoy abundance, be obedient to Him, so that in the time of your afflictions you may have boldness before Him through the heart’s persevering prayer to Him. 

Before the war begins, seek after your ally; before you fall ill, seek out your physician; and before grievous things come upon you, pray, and in the time of your tribulations you will find Him, and he will hearken to you.  Before you stumble, call out and make supplication; and before you make a vow, have ready what things you promise, for they are your provisions afterwards.  The ark of Noah was built in the time of peace, and its timbers were planted by him a hundred years beforehand.  In the time of wrath the iniquitous perish, but the ark became the shelter for the righteous man.           (The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, pgs48-49)

The doors were closed in fear…

In the days after the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the apostles went into hiding, according to John’s Gospel (20:19).   They were afraid of the Jews.  Behind closed doors, Jesus met with those to whom He had entrusted His mission and ministry.  He wished them His peace and then showed them his wounds (20:20).

This cheered the fearful apostles a little (20:20).

But Jesus gave them little time for comfort, for his next words were these: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (20:21).

In other words, he expected His disciples to overcome their fears and secrecy and to leave their hiding place and go into the world as apostles – carry God’s Good News to all humanity – just as He had done through His life, death and resurrection. 

He had just showed them His wounds, His message was clear:  Go into the world, in love as I have done, and love the world.  Suffer and die for the salvation of the world.  Don’t be afraid, this is the way of glory for God’s people.  He wished them peace as He told them to go into the world to suffer as He had suffered for the sins of the world and for its salvation.

Last week, the OCA’s synod of bishops also met behind closed doors, in closed session.  It is possible like the apostles in whose succession they are, they too have fears which is why they close the doors.  They have much to discuss, as they have many problems and issues to deal with.  They seem to have much to fear as well – lawyers, allegations, lawsuits, scandal, the Internet, their flock, declining membership, clergy sexual misconduct, clergy abuse, financial mismanagement, the press, public opinion, secularism, democracy, crises, inadequacies, transparency, the past, the present and the future.  These are “the Jews” whom the successors to the apostles fear today and so stay behind closed doors.  A week after they meet, their deliberations remain locked behind those doors, for fear of their “Jews.”

We can pray that Christ will appear to them the next time they assemble behind closed doors, in closed session.  Perhaps He will give them peace, certainly He will tell them to leave the confines of their hiding place, to open the doors and go into the world to teach all that He commanded.  This time around though I think he needs to show not just the mark of the nails and the place where the spear pierced his side – still open and yet transfigured wounds.  He needs to show that He is still bleeding from these wounds, He needs to show the tears on His cheeks as He weeps for His Church, for its wounded members, for the leadership which imagines it can lead from behind doors which are closed in fear of the …

The only things we really need to fear is God and His judgment, and that we can fail as disciples to be His Church.

Archbishop Seraphim of Canada Arrested

News about the arrest and charging of Archbishop Seraphim of Canada on two counts of child sexual assault circulated widely yesterday (American Thanksgiving Day).  You can read articles: CTV Edmonton, Canada.com, Global Winnipeg,  The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

The arrest means Canadian authorities believe the allegations have sufficient merit to warrant a trial.   The OCA’s Synod of Bishops had in their recent meeting (November 15-18) also approved a commission to look into these allegations.

However painful such a story is for the Church, the Church as an institution was called into existence to deal with sin in the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.  The purpose of the Church is to deal with sin and sinners, and now we will see how the Church, with its very human leaders deals with sin and sins, not only in the world, but in the Church.

While news within the church of allegations of misconduct comes as a shocking surprise and is often met with incredulity, I am much reminded of the Gospel lesson of the Last Supper as recorded in  Mark 14:16-23 (and the parallel account in Matthew 26:19-30):

And the disciples set out and went to the city, and found it as he had told them; and they prepared the passover. And when it was evening he came with the twelve.  And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me.For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.

Images of the last supper resonate with us not only because of Holy Thursday and iconography but more because of Holy Communion which we receive each week.  We understand the event of the Mystical Supper to be one of high points of the liturgical remembrance of Christ during Holy Week – for Communion becomes our real participation in the life of Christ, in His death and resurrection as members of His Body.

In the midst of this Mystical and sacramental participation in Christ, we see the Twelve Disciples one by one verbalizing the fear of their own hearts: “Is it I, Lord?!?”  For Christ informs them around the Eucharistic table that one of them is going to betray Him.   Each disciple does not express the firm conviction and disbelief, “No!  It is not true, don’t say that, Lord.”  They each do not ask, “How can you say that, Lord?”  Rather each one asks aloud, “Is it I, Lord?”   Is it I, chosen apostle, one of the Twelve, who will betray you?  They each knew themselves.

What a scene!  The chosen and holy apostles each is able to vocalize that dreaded fear, “Is it I who will betray you, Lord?”  For each in that moment realized the truth and the depth of his own heart:  for each it was a possibility.  We each need to think about this truth before we rush to judgment or lose all faith in the Apostles or the Apostolic Church.   “Is it I, Lord, who can betray you?”  “Is it I, Lord, who does betray you by my sins?”

We deceive ourselves if we believe that church leaders are sinless for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  All includes priests, bishops, apostles, and saints.   We each stand in church as sinners, perhaps penitents, perhaps seeking forgiveness and mercy, perhaps redeemed by Christ, but sinners nonetheless. 

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.   (1 John 1:8-10)

This is the reality the Church claims to believe.  It is not for nothing that before receiving the Eucharist we recite in the creedal prayer, “Neither like Judas will I give you a kiss.”   The incredible truth about us as disciples is we are human and we are capable of betraying Christ – not only that, but betraying Him by the kiss of peace.   We do contemplate Judas each Holy Week as well, as a reminder of what it is to be human.

The reality of humans, the reality which God so grudgingly acknowledges in Genesis 6:6 and 8:21 in the story of Noah and the great flood, is that there is evil in the heart of humans even from when we are young. 

We are created in God’s image and likeness, capable of bearing God in us, capable of theosis.  We also are beings in whose hearts evil can and does dwell.  Both are the truths about humanity, and both are supposed to be included in how the Church sees itself, its members, and the world.  In the Church we deal with truth, even when it is painful and cuts to the heart.  “Is it I, Lord?”

The Mystery of Thanksgiving on Behalf of All Things and For All Things

“It is no coin-cidence that at the heart of the Church’s sacra-mental life we have the mystery of thanksgiving – eucharistia in Greek, the Eucharist.  If we look at the early Fathers and the oldest eucharistic texts, it is clear that for them, thanksgiving for creation is central to the Divine Liturgy. … Christ instructs humans to offer the Eucharist in order to teach them gratitude, and it is this thank-offering that sacrifices the created world.  This is why the Anaphora prayer, the prayer of eucharistic offering, develops over the centuries into a grand recitation of thanks to God ‘in all things and for all things.’” (Elizabeth Theokritoff, LIVING IN GOD’S CREATION, p 187-188)

“The world was given to man by God as ‘food’ – as means of life; yet life was meant to be communion with God; it had not only its end but its full content in Him … The world and food were thus created as means of communion with God, and only if accepted for God’s sake were to give life …  Thus to eat, to be alive, to know God and be in communion with Him were one and the same thing.  The unfathomable tragedy of Adam was that he ate for its own sake.  More than that, he ate ‘apart’ from God in order to be independent of Him.  And if he did it, it is because he believed that food had life in itself and that he, by partaking of that food, could be like God, i.e. have life in himself.  To put it very simply, he believed in food … World, food, became his gods, the sources and principles of his life.  He became their slave.” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, GREAT LENT, pp 94-95)

Thanksgiving is Prayer

“But there is a more serious difficulty here, namely to describe the different types of prayers.   The apostle (St. Paul) notes four types.  ‘My advice is that first of all supplication should be offered up for everyone, prayers, pleas and thanksgiving’ (1 Tim 2:1).  … So we must first inquire what is meant … by thanksgiving.     ….  Thanksgivings: Unspeakably moved by the memory of God’s past kindnesses, by the vision of what he now grants or by all that He holds out as a future reward to those who love Him, the mind gives thanks.  In this perspective richer prayers are often uttered.  Looking with the purest gaze at the rewards promised to the saints, our spirit is moved by measureless joy to pour out wordless thanksgiving to God.”    (St. John Cassian, CONFERENCES, pp 107-109)