Want to Overcome Evil?

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St. John of Damascus gives the Orthodox definition of evil:

For evil is nothing else than absence of goodness,

just as darkness also is absence of light.

Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc. 735-36)

So, if you want to overcome evil, do good for you will bring goodness to any situation.  Goodness will no longer be absent.  Evil will be overcome.  If you find yourself in the face of evil, do the good so that goodness will be a presence.  Then one will not be far from God.

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[I do realize there is an oversimplification here.  Terrorists, violent criminals, abusers of all kinds will not be changed in any one second or one instance by a brush with goodness and might even mock the goodness before trying to destroy the good.  So one does have to have the wisdom to know when it is time to flee or fight or as Kenny Rogers sings it: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away And know when to run.”  But there are many occasions in life where we could make things better by doing a good thing, making goodness present, choosing the next right thing, lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness.  And especially spiritually, we can come to realize our fear of Satan is misplaced for Satan is ultimately an absence, not a presence.  Doing the good is enough to prevent Satan from entering our hearts or minds, for the goodness is real in a way that Satan is not.]

St Nicholas the Wonderworker

St Nicholas the Wonderworker is commemorated on December 6 each year.  He is one of the most beloved saints of the Church and has a popularity far beyond Orthodoxy.

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I’ve often wondered why or how he became so popular as a saint when in many ways his actions seem to me to be what I would expect of any Christian bishop.  He showed mercy to many, kindness to the poor, and is noted for his charity.  Is it the case that there really were so few bishops who did these things that Nicholas stands out as such an exception?   In the mid-9th Century when St. Methodius wrote a life of St. Nicholas, he noted that hardly anyone had heard of him.  In the 11th Century his popularity is noted through much of Europe.

Since St Nicholas is noted for his acts of love and mercy, here is a portion of a sermon by St Gregory Palamas on love of neighbor, which is an appropriate theme as we honor St Nicholas of Myra.  St Gregory is actually talking about St John the Theologian:

As he [St John] was amongst the foremost apostles, was particularly dear to Christ, and was called the beloved disciple, he speaks to us of the chief virtue, namely love (cf. Gal. 5:14), saying that God Himself is love, and anyone who has love has God, and he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God dwells in him in whom love dwells (cf. 1 John 4:16). He shows that love’s energy within us is twofold, and divides it, without destroying its unity, into love for God and love for our neighbour, teaching that these two depend on one another for their existence, and calling anyone who thinks he has one without the other a liar (1 John 4:20).

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The sign of our love for God, he tells us, is that we keep His word and His commandments (cf. John 8:31, 1 John 5:3), as the Lord Himself taught, saying, “He that loveth me will keep my commandments” (cf. John 14:15, 21). “This is my commandment”, He said, “that ye love one another” (John 15:12), and “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). Do you see how love for God is inseparable from love for each other? That is why the beloved disciple says, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20).      (On the Saints, Kindle Location 830-843)

Pareidolia

Do you see the man in the moon?

Sometime I just love a new word when I encounter it.  Such is the case for the word: pareidolia.  You may never have heard the word, but you know what it names.  Pareidolia is defined as “the tendency to perceive patterns where there are none.” As kids we saw figures in the clouds passing by.  Of course not everyone can see what we each in pareidolia.  I took a photo of a cloud formation in which I clearly see a large man (a monster?) who seems to be moving toward the left in the photo.  He is leaning into his walk.   His head and face are clear to me, and so too his body rising from the bottom of the photo.  His arms seem more like dark smoke. Is he in pursuit of something?

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Pareidolia is the word to describe our ancient ancestors who saw animals in star constellations.  Or those who see faces in random things.  I see a face in the rock formation below.  The mouth is the slight crack, the nose and left eye seem obvious to me.  Many people see things in rock formations and they end up bearing the name of what many people commonly see.

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A friend once told me that people like me who wear glasses (and thus with defective eyesight) see these patterns more often than people who see well without the aid of glasses.  Seems possible to me.  They eyes do play tricks at times while the brain tries to figure out what you are looking at.   You end up imposing on things patterns – a distant dog turns out to be a tree stump when you get closer to it.

Not only a rock formation but even its shadow can cause pariedolia.  Pareidolia also is the word used when we hear arbitrary sounds or noises as a voice or something meaningful.

 

Thankful or Thanksgiving?

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“It is comforting (if not a bit scandalous) that the Bible rarely commands us to be thankful but to give thanks. I don’t know if there is a linguistic reason for that, but it helps to bring thankfulness down to a practical level. Giving thanks is an action rather than a feeling, and actions are often more finite—and easier to muster—than feelings.

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I may not be able to be thankful for all of time and eternity, but I can probably manage to give thanks for a second or two for the apple I’m eating or the comfortable chair I’m sitting in. Or I can take a time-out from my frenetic impatience and say thank you to the bagger at the grocery store or the stranger who held the door open for me.

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Giving thanks—as opposed to merely being thankful within oneself—is inherently relational: you can only give thanks to or for someone or something else. As soon as we offer thanks for anything or anyone, we reach outside ourselves. We connect ourselves to the blessings God has surrounded us with. In doing so, we lay hold of a new, transfigured way of being-in-the-world   (Nicole Roccas , Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life, Kindle Location 1743-1751)

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The point is that you can be full of thanks for what you have or for what is going on, but do you ever actually give thanks?   Thankfulness can be a feeling within, but thanksgiving is activity directed towards those who made us feel gratitude.  There is a great difference between being internally joyful and pleased, and actually giving thanks to others, or to God.   Thanksgiving both the Feast and the activity is actually offering thanks to the Creator or to someone.  It is turning our thankfulness into action and into our relationship with God and others. It is getting out of the self and moving toward the other. It is the difference between self-love and true love which is always directed toward another.  Thanksgiving isn’t supposed to be the feast of satiation or self-satisfaction, but rather of giving credit and thanks to all of those responsible for everything we enjoy.

Friday, November 22

JFK

Whenever November 22 falls on a Friday, my heart is transported to the time of the assassination of President John Kennedy.  I was nine years old in 1963 and due to the events that unfolded always remember that year November 22 fell on a Friday.  I am not a person who has all kinds of vivid memories of childhood, and admit that I don’t remember in detail that day, but I certainly remember the date and the event.  We were sent home from school with the sad knowledge that someone had killed our president.  Because I was nine, I didn’t understand the full implication of what his death meant, but what I didn’t know was that the adults around me were even more uncertain of its meaning because it had a matrix of possible implications to them, many which were dire.

It seemed to me that the adult world stopped and there was a great fear of some unknown impending doom: what is going to happen next?

In those days at school we had drills in case of a nuclear attack by Russia.  We were told how to cover our heads with our hands as if that would have made any difference should a nuclear missile strike our steel producing city.  There was anxiety about whether with the president’s assassination we were moving to the next missile crisis.  But most of these fears were beyond my protected and naive world in which I was far more fearful of being made fun of by friends or being tagged as I walked home from school by someone who came running up from behind and shouted “no tag backs.”  Because then I would be “It” for the entire evening.

I knew my parents both voted for President Kennedy, and he was somehow an emblem of America – youthful, confident, hopeful, forward looking, intelligent, free and independent.  He was very idealized in the world I grew up in – a wonderful father and husband, beautiful family, WWII hero, working to make a better America for all, rich and famous yet caring for the average family.

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There is nothing wrong with young people having heroes – or imagining that a president is the image of what we all hope to be someday.  It would take time – the unfolding of history – for me to learn that he was really a licentious, dissolute prodigal, whose body was diseased.  It took longer to realize he really wasn’t all that effective as a senator or a president.  He came to power because his father was rich and powerful through a system flawed by corruption.  Some of the things he was given credit for – social and racial justice and landing a man on the moon were really much more the accomplishments of his successor.  He was much more image  than substantive in terms of political accomplishment and will not be considered one of the greatest American presidents.   He died in office by an assassin’s bullet which made him an American martyr and larger than life hero, but again that fed the mystique.  We do at times need heroes, statesmen, inspiration.  We also have to be able to recognize the difference between idealization, idolization and reality and come to terms with truth.

On Sunday, November 24, 1963, I asked to be excused from the table of our Sunday  dinner so that I could watch Lee Harvey Oswald being moved from the Dallas jail.  I wanted to see the man who had murdered the president.  I was watching the TV during dinner at a time when our family was not normally glued to the TV.  It was unusual for me to be watching the TV at that hour when Oswald himself was gunned down by Jack Ruby.   New fears like major earthquake after shocks rumbled through the country: what is going to happen next?  And that would continue rippling through the American psyche and history as an endless series of conspiracy theories.  Those have never interested me.

At the time, in my nine year old mind, I wasn’t even sure why Oswald’s death was such a big deal.  Wasn’t he going to get the death penalty anyway?  All the unanswered questions that died with him were not yet on my mind.  And the fears that something larger was afoot in America – a sinister, hidden threat – would cause anxiety in so many corners of the adult world.  I could only observe their uncertainty and feel the sadness, the mourning, the grief.

I did visit Dallas book depository museum in my one trip to that city.   It all seemed more compact than the larger than life images I had of where the assassination happened.  I have also visited the President’s grave in Washington, DC, which seemed so familiar to me from the images I had seen of it.

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Fifty six years later, I feel an emotional sting when I think about the event, even though my knowledge of the man has changed.  And today what really strikes me is how utterly horrified so many were at that time by the the life of one man being cut short by a gun.  Nowadays shootings of children in our schools seem to be a regular part of life these days.  We seem far less horrified today at the murder of our children each month by guns  than we did at the death of a president half a century ago.  Something died in our hearts and minds over the decades and it seems that in America we value and love our guns more than our children.  We seem more concerned about having our guns taken away from us than about having our children taken from us.   At a minimum if we don’t want to sacrifice some of our guns, gun owners should be working hard to figure out how to sacrifice none of our children to guns.  If the price of an unrestricted Second Amendment is that some children must die, is that not too high a price to be paid?

The Feast of Female Taper Bearers

A Blessed Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple!

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Something that stands out to me about many icons of this Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple is the portrayal of women taper bearers.  In the iconography, they are portrayed not as small children like the Virgin Mary but perhaps teenagers as they are portrayed slightly smaller than Joachim and Anna but larger than Mary.  It is amazing to me that so many modern Orthodox have such a strong reaction against girls serving in the altar, when we have a Major Feast which portrays exactly that – young women serving in the temple, carrying candles.  Altar boys are basically taper bearers, carrying candles, which at least in Orthodox iconography girls are permitted to do.

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I have heard numerous times that in fact girls are permitted to serve at the altar in some Orthodox churches in the Patriarch of Antioch.  I have never seen this myself, but have heard it from several witnesses.   Women do serve at the altar in convents as was permitted even by some Orthodox saints.   In some traditions girls do serve as “myrrhbearing women/girls” during liturgical processions such as at Holy Friday.  I remember reading that St John of Kronstadt in 19th Century Russia had girls serve as taper bearers for the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the temple and he used them in a procession to celebrate the Feast.  Seems like a right practice based on the icon of the Feast.

Psalm 148

Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise him in the heights!

Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!

Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
for he commanded and they were created.

He established them forever and ever;
he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!

Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!

Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!

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.

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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.

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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.

Holding Fast to the Faith

“The faith that is in many church attendees is as much American folk religion as Christianity. Their focus tends to be consumerist (“What’s in it for me?”),

moralistic (“Live by the rules!”),

therapeutic (“I want peace of mind and happiness”)

Deism.

As I overhear God’s people talk, Christianity is almost reduced to accepting Christ as your Savior so you can go to heaven when you die, and between now and then you attend church, have a daily devotional, live a clean life, and “let” God meet your needs and attain your goals.

There may be more right than wrong in that reduction of the faith, but it is a form of Christianity with some of the heart removed, more of the mind, and most of the vertebrae. It is not a version of the Christian faith that has a fair chance of changing the world or its devotees. No ancient martyrs would have been fed to the lions if their faith had been reduced to that.

(George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, Kindle Location 1539-1547)