Racism and the Church

I was at the Cincinnati Art Museum and saw their exhibit Women Breaking Boundaries.  In the exhibit I saw a sculpture of Phillis Wheatley  (1753-1784) who was the first Black poet published in America.  She was captured as a young girl in Africa and brought to America as a slave.  She eventually attained her manumission.   I do not remember ever learning about her, so decided to read her poetry.  It amazes me that someone can master a foreign language so well as to become a poet in that language  – and she really did excel in the King’s English.  More amazing she was able to do this despite spending much of her life as a slave and then dying at age 31.  She must have had great language skills.   She does not excessively focus on her experience as a slave, but did become a fierce defender of Christian Trinitarian theology, even though it was Christian people who enslaved her.  She had to remind her white Christian fellow believers that Blacks are humans, that Christ died for them as well because Black lives matter to the Savior.  In Christ God became human so that humans might become god – that is a Christian truth for every human being.

48991154428_f4940af0d2_w

Here is a poem she wrote at about age 16:

“On Being Brought from Africa to America”

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their color is a diabolic die.”

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join the angelic train.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A good reminder to all of us to see beyond the color of the skin to see the image of God in each person.

I was struck in her poetry how little she identified herself as a slave or African and how she did identify herself as a member of His Majesty’s colonies – she was a loyalist who became an American as our country was born and she embraced the ideals of freedom.  She lived through 1776 and the American revolution.

Some might feel that she somehow fails to take up the Black cause.  But I think what is true of her is that she saw herself first and foremost as a human being, not as an African or African American or Negro or Black or slave or former slave.  She was human forcibly brought to an English colony which became the United States of America.  Her identity was not the color of her skin or place of origin but her humanity.  She  was African, British or American – it was of no matter because it was her humanity which she shared with those around her which was her self understanding.   That is how she was able to so readily identify with her fellow humans and was not separated from them by slavery, by race or nationality.

Each of us is created in God’s image and likeness.  She was able to see beyond the externals right to the heart of the matter.  One needs eyes to see what was obvious to her, despite how other treated her.

Life

According to PlatoSocrates at the end of his life said, “The unexamined life is not worth living” (Ancient Greekὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτς ἀνθρώπῳ).   Or perhaps his statement can be translated as the unexamined life is not a fully human life, for we humans have been gifted with wisdom, consciousness and conscience.  To not use these gifts to look at one’s life is to fail to be human.    But what constitutes life?  For the modern American it is consumerism and the accumulation of wealth and things.  American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar who grew up American in a different age and experienced that time as a Black American also saw that life could be quite simple and yet still valued, valued enough to be examined which he did in his poetry.

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar kitchen table

He wrote in his poem “LIFE” –

A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in,

A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,

A pint of joy to a peck of trouble,

And never a laugh but the moans come double;

And that is life!

 

Paul Laurence Dunbar bedroom

A crust and a corner that love makes precious,

With a smile to warm and the tears to refresh us;

And joy seems sweeter when cares come after,

And a moan is the finest of foils for laughter;

And that is life!

(The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Kindle Location 877-883)

Life lived and experienced is more precious than things accumulated.  Joy and love are invaluable commodities that do not use up the earth’s resources.   As one old friend once said to me, “In the old days, it used to be that we loved people and used things, now in the modern world we love things and use people.”  How do we rekindle our humanity?

As Jesus warned:

For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.  (Matthew 16:26-27)

What Does God Ask of us?

This is the 6th and final post in this blog series meditating on Psalm 51 and the nature of repentance.  The previous post is The Prayer of Manasseh .

So, what repentance looks like is for humans to be what God intended for us from the beginning.  It is not so much remorse and contrition or thinking of one’s self as a worm wallowing in mire.   Rather, it is recognizing God as Lord, and giving thanks for that truth to God.  The change of heart and mind in repentance is making the effort to be the human that God wants us to be.  We are to accept that God is the Lord, which means I am not.  It means accepting my role and place in God’s creation, rather than trying to establish my role as I see fit.  It means being a creature of thanksgiving for blessings received.

There is another prayer of repentance frequently used in Orthodoxy which expresses this same sense that what is asked of us is to stand before God and acknowledge who God and who we are.  That prayer begins:

Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us;
for laying aside all excuse, we sinners offer to You,
as to our Master, this supplication: have mercy on us.

It is a prayer which makes it clear that we understand God is merciful and for this reason alone we approach God in prayer seeking God’s mercy.  We acknowledge our sins and sinfulness and take full responsibility for them.  We don’t give excuse for our sinfulness – bad genes, bad parents, poverty, the fallen world, suffering, lack of education, poor opportunities, fears, peers, enemies, abuse, mistakes, misfortune.  We lay all that aside and admit we do sin.  And we own our sin because we also know God is love, God is merciful, and we trust God to be God.  The prayer then goes on:

O Lord, have mercy on us, for in You have we put our trust.
Do not be angry with us, nor remember our iniquities,
but look down on us even now, since You are compassionate,
and deliver us from our enemies. For You are our God,
and we are Your people; we are all the work of Your hands,
and we call upon Your Name.

It is much in the spirit of Psalm 51.  We recognize we need God to be God for that is our only hope in God’s creation.  It is a mystical vision which all humans are capable of having.

In this mystical vision of humanity, it turns out we humans are the place where God dwells on earth.  The mystical vision is not looking for heaven out there or trying to figure out how to get to heaven.   We ourselves are to be the “holy of holies” for God to dwell in so that the rest of the cosmos can also have its proper relationship to God.  God created the cosmos to be God’s temple, but created humans to be the place within the temple where God completely interfaces with creation.  God became human so that we humans might become god.   God’s plan is and always was to abide in us.  God is not trying to establish something outside the human to dwell in – a temple, a bible, a shrine.  Those things are merely shadows of God’s intention which is to dwell in us.   We are the ones who create all these religious sites to keep God at a distance.

And this vision of being human is for everyone, not just for monks, mystics or ascetics.  It is for moms and dads and grandparents and children, friends and neighbors.  No need to go to a monastery to find it, nor on a pilgrimage to a holy place, for the Kingdom of heaven is within each of us.  The Lord Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”  (Luke 17:20-21).

We all are to live up to our God-given potential as beings created by God to be in God’s image and likeness.  We do find this simple vision in the Bible, for example in Deuteronomy 10:12-22, which some consider a summary of Torah –

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I command you this day for your good?”

Repentance means getting back to doing this very thing that God commanded.  It requires humility – recognition that God is the Lord and we are God’s creatures and servants.  Repentance isn’t sorrowing for our failures, but deciding to live up to what God wants for us and from us.  It is the way that Christ describes to us:  “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”  (Matthew 11:28-30).   We can uncomplicate our lives by following the way of repentance.   It is the notion of “what you see is what you get” – no lies, deception, hiding, excuses, blaming.  It is the freedom of being able to stand in God’s presence knowing who I am and who God is.  The Deuteronomist continues:

“Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it; yet the LORD set his heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples, as at this day.”

However vast and grand heaven is, God still sets His heart upon people.  Heaven may be where God’s will is done, yet God still favors human beings and God’s intent is to dwell in humanity.  We are to become God’s heaven and we see this already accomplished in the Theotokos who is more glorious than heaven.  Heaven is where God dwells and God desires to dwell in us.  God created us to be heaven.

Repentance is thus nothing  more than our being human:

“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as the stars of heaven for multitude.”

Repentance leads us to giving thanks to God and praising God, because in repentance we recognize God’s lordship in our life and what we are to be.  We realize God’s will.  Repentance leads us to the Liturgy where we give thanksgiving to God for all that God intends for us, does for us, gives to us, and accomplishes with, in and for us.  Repentance leads to our showing mercy to all those around us including the stranger.  Repentance means we:

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.   (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Blessed Matrimony

40238888540_69d8ccf70b

St. John Chrysostom writing on marriage says that marriage when it functions as it is designed to do restores humans to a paradisaical state.  Chrysostom seems to understand that the first humans were made complete, having both a male and female nature:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  (Genesis 1:27)

Among the divisions and separations caused by the fall were the separating out of male and female.  In marriage, where the two become one flesh, we have the ‘recreation’ of a whole human being – a human who is created male and female.  In Genesis 2 God creates the female out of the male but shows in this their interdependency – the two were created out of one flesh (Adam’s).   Marriage thus heals one of the wounds caused by sin.  Marriage is God joining together or reuniting the male and female which had become separated through the fall.   Chrysostom writes:

This love [eros] is deeply implanted within our inmost being. Unnoticed by us, it attracts the bodies of men and women to each other, because in the beginning woman came forth from man, and from man and woman other men and women proceed. Can you see now how close this union is, and how God providentially created it from a single nature? . . . He made the one man Adam to be the origin of all mankind, both male and female, and made it impossible for men and women to be self-sufficient. (Sermon 20, on Ephesians 5:22–33)

CreationAdamEve

The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together. (Sermon 20, on Ephesians 5:22–33)

Chrysostom believes marriage is based in love.  No partner in marriage should live in fear of the other for it is love that binds them together.  If either spouse tries to dominate the other and make them afraid through threats or abuse, it is sinful and not Christian marriage.

What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of her husband? (Sermon 20, on Ephesians 5:22–33)

How difficult it is to have harmony when husband and wife are not bound together by the power of love! Fear is no substitute for this. (Sermon 20, on Ephesians 5:22–33)

How foolish are those who belittle marriage! If marriage were something to be condemned, Paul would never call Christ a Bridegroom and the Church a bride. (Sermon 20, on Ephesians 5:22–33).”

(A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 4682-90)

22074965406_b69e939312

In the end Chrysostom argues that the very reason St Paul can use marriage as a metaphor or image  of the the relationship between Christ and the Church is because marriage is supposed to reflect perfect love.  Marriage becomes a means for us to live godlike love which is self sacrificing and works always for the good of the other.  Marriage is the right metaphor for the Christian’s relationship with Christ because we become one flesh with Christ in the Church through baptism and the eucharist, becoming one body in the Church.

The Human, The Male, The Theotokos

Man is called not to the implementation of rules but to the miracle of life. Family is a miracle. Creative work is a miracle. The Kingdom of God is a miracle. 

The Mother of God does not “fit” into any rules. But in Her, and not in canons, is the truth about the Church.

Inasmuch as a man is only a man, he is, above all, boring, full of principles, virile, decent, logical, cold-blooded, useful; he becomes interesting only when he outgrows his rather humorous virility. A man is interesting as a boy or an old man, and is almost scary as an adult; at the top of his manhood, of his male power.

A man’s holiness and a man’s creativity are, above all, the refusal, the denial of the specifically “male” in him.

In holiness, man is least of all a male. 

Christ is the boy, the only-begotten Son, the Child of Mary. In Him is absent the main emphasis, the main idol of the man – his autonomy. The icon of the infant Christ on His Mother’s lap is not simply the icon of the Incarnation. It is the icon of the essence of Christ. 

One must know and feel all this when discussing the issue of women in the Church. The Church rejects man in his self-sufficiency, strength, self-assertion. Christ proclaims: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, p. 272)

Overcoming Addiction

Repeated sins and compensations sought out in order to avoid being present, when repeated enough, become deeply rooted to the point that they take the heart captive so you cannot not do them. As we become aware of this condition and begin to struggle, it causes a lament to build in the heart like St. Paul: “The good I would do I do not and the evil I would not do that I do! Who will free me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:19). Fortunately, God’s love is just the reverse of addiction. God refuses to take captive our freedom to resist him. God is without compulsion. At its most extreme, captivity to a passion seems all powerful and God utterly helpless, abandoning. Unavailable. We are alone with our suffering and the sea of human misery.

Freedom, on the other hand, is found in the mystery of Christ freely assuming human nature and the cross and when he seemed most vulnerable, most overpowered, he was actually opening up the possibility of humanity freely responding to God’s love. Choosing to turn and let ourselves be loved by God in the abandoned places and at the moments we feel most compulsively unable to and most unworthy of love is paradoxically the first step toward freedom to love. According to St. Isaac the Syrian, “nothing is stronger than despair, for it is then that we discover God’s strength and grace, not in comfort.”

(Stephen Muse, When Hearts Become Flame, p. 240)

Freedom: To Love as God Loves

A man is truly free when he exists as God exists; and this way of being is relational. In the words of Metropolitan John Zizioulas, it “is a way of relationship with the Word, with other people and with God, an event of communion, and that is why it cannot be realized as this achievement of an individual, but only as an ecclesial fact.” Communion makes beings “be” and freedom constitutes true being. True freedom does not lie in our ability to make choices – this only manifests the dilemma of necessity – but in our ability, by grace, to love as God does unconditionally, to overcome the fears, anxieties and limitations of our mortal biological existence, and to conquer death. (Alkiviadis C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy, p. 78)

Vacation and Recreation

One might get the impression from the monastic tradition of the Church that the life of a Christian is all work and no play.  Yet, the monastic tradition is nothing if not brutally honest about what it means to be human – our limits, our foibles, our weaknesses.  So, it shouldn’t be surprising that even in the strict spiritual tradition of the desert fathers we find a story (in several variations) of the human need for rest and relaxation.  The stories of the desert fathers often contain humor in them, or the humor is obvious in the story.  Here is one story where Abba Antony realizes he and the monks are being observed by a layman who is scandalized to see the Abbot jesting with the monks.  The Abbot realizes he needs to soothe the ruffled feathers of the scandalized layman.

There was somebody in the desert hunting wild animals and he saw Abba Antony jesting with the brothers. The elder wanted to convince the hunter that he had to come down to the level  the brothers from time to time. He said to him: “Put an arrow to your bow and draw it.” He did so. He said to him: “Draw again,” and he drew. Again he said: “Draw.” The hunter said to him: “If I draw beyond its capacity my bow will break.”

Said the elder to him: “So is it too with the work of God. If we draw on the brothers beyond their capacity, they will quickly break. So it is necessary to come down to the level of the brothers from time to time.” The hunter was conscience-stricken when he heard this and went his way greatly benefitted by the elder. The brothers withdrew to their place strengthened. (Give Me a Word, pp. 33-34)

While we enter into our summer vacation season, we can appreciate the gift that God gives us to enjoy life, to recreate our hearts and minds.  While it is true we are to continue practicing our faith in every circumstance, we also are to pray, give thanks and rejoice as part of our Christian life (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).  It is true that we cannot take a vacation from God, we still can take a vacation to renew our gratitude to our Creator.

Pentecost: The Fullness of the Feast of Feasts

34358291504_beaf717427_nIn the Creed which we recite at every Liturgy, we confess our belief that Jesus Christ became incarnate… for us [humans] and for our salvation.”  The Creed professes a belief that all that Christ did was for the salvation of all humans, not just for Christians or for the Orthodox.  We repeat this same line on feast days in the Orthodox Church  when at the final dismissal the priest blesses the congregation saying, “may He who for us (humans) and our salvation, Christ our true God…”   Orthodoxy is very clear that Christ Jesus did everything for the life of the world, for the salvation of all humans – for all who are created in God’s image and likeness, whether everyone believes that  or not.

This sense that everything is moving us toward this salvation is also clear in the Church’s celebration of PaschaAscensionPentecost.  All three events are for our salvation and necessary for our salvation.  In the resurrection, Christ unites even the dead to God, filling all things with Himself, even the place of the dead.  Christ raises the dead with Himself, and then ascends bodily into heaven, bringing our created nature into the Kingdom, into God’s presence.  Then Christ sends the Holy Spirit upon all flesh at Pentecost, restoring the Holy Spirit to humanity.  We are thus not saved just by the death of Christ on the cross, but by the continuous work of Christ who lifts us from Hades to Heaven.  Both the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit restore humanity’s union with divinity.   We sing about all of this throughout the Pascha-Pentecost cycle of services.  On the Monday of the Holy Spirit, one hymn proclaims:

COME, O FAITHFUL, LET US CELEBRATE THE FEAST OF THE FIFTIETH DAY,
THE DAY WHICH CONCLUDES THE FEAST OF FEASTS;
THE DAY ON WHICH THE PRE-ORDAINED PROMISE IS FULFILLED!
THE DAY WHEN THE COMFORTER DESCENDS UPON THE EARTH IN TONGUES OF FIRE;
THE DAY OF THE DISCIPLES’ ENLIGHTENMENT!
THEY ARE REVEALED AS INITIATES OF HEAVENLY MYSTERIES,
FOR TRULY THE LIGHT OF THE COMFORTER HAS ILLUMINED THE WORLD!

4587898584_d0c96a04dc

Salvation, the restoration of human communion with God, fully occurs in all of the events of Pascha-Ascension-Pentecost and as we participate in these events through life in the Church, especially through baptism and the Eucharist.  In Christ, we are saved from sin and death and by the Holy Spirit we are enlivened and enlightened.  We are thus saved – restored to being fully human – by both the work of the Son/Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

With Pentecost we see a full restoration of what was lost by our sins.  In Genesis 6:3, the grieving Creator says of us humans, the focal point of His creation:

“My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for he is flesh, but his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.”

God withdrew the Divine and Holy Spirit from us, and with this separation from God’s Spirit, death became part of our condition on earth.

With the coming of Christ, this ‘curse’ is lifted from us as John the Baptist bears witness:

The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John bore witness, “I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”  (John 1:29-35)

34358295044_9bdb96aea2

In the incarnate Word of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit also remains on a human, which was the sign for John the Baptist that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  At Pentecost, that Spirit which came to dwell in Jesus and remain on Him, comes to dwell on all humanity.  The curse from Genesis 6:3 is lifted, and humanity is restored to full communion with God.  The salvation of us humans is brought to completion in this complete cycle of incarnation, resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit to humanity.

8187081594_3f99fde7fb

 

 

 

 

The Salvation of the Body

This glory of the body, however, does not belong only to the End but is foreshadowed at various moments throughout salvation history. Before the fall the bodies of Adam and Eve shone with light in Paradise , and they were “covered with God’s glory in place of clothing” (Homilies 12:8).

Once they had fallen into sin, this robe of glory was taken away from them and they were left naked (cf. Genesis 3:7). Then at Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, after the giving of the Law, the final restoration of our bodily glory was briefly anticipated when his face shone so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil (cf. Exodus 34:29–35): “He went up as a mere man; he descended, carrying God with him….The Word of God was his food and he had a glory shining on his countenance” (H. 12:14). A far more significant foretaste of the eschatological glory came at Christ’s own transfiguration: “As the body of the Lord was glorified when he climbed the mount and was transfigured into the divine glory and into infinite light, so also the bodies of the saints are glorified and shine like lightning” (H. 15:38). What happened then to the Savior will happen to all true Christians in the age to come.

In so far as anyone, through faith and zeal, has been deemed worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, to that degree his body also will be glorified in that day. What the soul now stores up within shall then be revealed as a treasure and displayed externally in the body…. The glory of the Holy Spirit rises up from within, covering and warming the bodies of the saints. This is the glory they interiorly had before, hidden in their souls. For what they now have, that same then pours out externally into the body (H. 5:8–9).

(Kallistos Ware, from Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, p. XVI-XV)