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.]

One Self, Many Selves (I)

Neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey writes on how the “self” emerges in the life of a baby.  Immediately after birth the baby’s brain is receiving stimulation from all of its senses even without an “I’ yet existing to process the information.   Somehow a self emerges which makes sense of the sensory perceptions which are constantly streaming in to the brain.  Humphrey asks, does the baby experience the different sensations at first as many distinct “selfs” each experiencing something but not yet as a whole or unified self?  Humphrey compared this experience to watching an orchestra before a concert as each musician tunes his or her instrument – there are only individual musicians tuning instruments and we watching them cannot make sense of them as a unit, nor do we hear yet the symphony.  The conductor must take the stage to form the unified symphony.

A unified “self” does emerge eventually taking in all information the various senses send to the brain and sorting it out realizing “I” exist.  “I” am distinct from all the sensory perceptions.  “I” not only make sense of them, but can act toward them and upon them for “I” am not a mere object being acted upon, but a subject capable of choice and actions myself.   Time passes, we mature and move into the world  where we come to experience our ‘self’ as many ‘selfs’ again.  I am young, a boy, white, I speak only one language.  I am different from others.   I experience the world through gender, race, nationality, language or member of a clan, family, nation, ethnic group.  Each of these ‘selfs’ make up my one self, and at times one of the ‘selfs’ emerges to the forefront as I relate to others or they relate to me.  This may be the self I consider myself to be or that others think is me.   However, no matter who I think I am, I realize others do not necessarily perceive me as I think of myself.  I may see myself as human, they as black or poor or dangerous or friendly or intelligent or fat.  I become part of other groups and there is my self as military, teammate, loyal fan, Southerner, educated, Democrat, Christian.  I an choose to fit in, blend in to community rather than stick out.  Or, I can become a leader, advocate for one of my many ‘selfs’.

Life becomes a balancing act of these various ‘selfs’ as we realize the selfs we identify with shape our worldview and shape the world’s view of us.  We have to make choices in contexts in which peer pressure is real.  I allow what others think of me to shape my ‘self’.  It is possible for my ‘self’ to be amorphous at times as I cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, ambivalence, opportunity or danger.

For Christians, there is the hope that one self emerges as we grow spiritually and grow in Christ – that believing self which is consistent with the teachings of Christ.  This we understand is part of the healing that comes in Christ.   The many ‘selfs’ are a result of the splintered, broken and fallen world.  A whole self is wholesome.   But, oh, how difficult it is to be consistent in every single circumstance one finds one’s self in.

These are some of the themes that Russian writer Nikolai Leskov  (d. 1895) explores in his short story, “Figura.”  It is a story that has stood out in my mind for decades since I first read it.   It isn’t the best short story I’ve ever read, nor does it resolve all of these issues.  For me, it just helped make clear as a Christian the cutting edge of one’s ‘self’ as well as how individual conscience relates to society, even a society in which conscience is essential such as the church.

The story takes place in 19th Century Russia, Figura is an army officer from nobility in Orthodox Russia.  The story introduces ideas of regionalism (Russian vs Ukrainian, the Cossacks), class and social status (human divisions especially in the context of 19th Century Russia), which play into the many ‘selves’ of Figura.  The story ends up focusing on his Christian identity, which is part of what Leskov wrestles with: individual conscience when one is a member of an institutional church and cultural Christianity.  Figura is an officer over 42 soldiers and 6 cavalry men (who are Cossack’s, another social distinction).  On Pascha night he is feeling his humanity and decides to try to do something nice for his men as he realizes how hard their lives are.  He is struck by what it is to be human and the struggles this brings for each of us.  He spends all the cash he has on hand to buy them tea and sweet treats so they can celebrate the Feast even though they are on guard duty.  He has decided as soon as the “Christ is risen!” is proclaimed after Pascha midnight, he will treat his men.  Unfortunately, the very thing that makes Figura feel compassion for his men – their humanity – will become the thing that confronts his compassion and his ‘self.’  His 6 Cossack soldiers get drunk and just about midnight, in the dark, one of the drunken Cossacks assaults Figura, striking him on the face and tearing the epaulette off his uniform.  The Cossack then passes out.

Figura who had started the night off feeling his shared humanity with his soldiers and wanting to do something special for them because he realized their lot in life was hard, is assaulted by one of them, someone of lower rank than himself and also not from nobility.  For the second time in the story he is struck by the soldiers’ humanity – this time though in a literal and painful way as he is assaulted by the rawness of fallen humanity.  His emotions roil and boil, but then his Christian self comes into the forefront and he has to decide what to do.  The soldiers have witnessed the event and his uniform is torn, so he can’t hide what has happened.  The soldiers know there is dire consequences for a peasant to assault an officer and nobleman.  They are prepared to deliver their fellow soldier over to justice which might include corporate punishment which could result in the offending soldier’s death.

Figura however is overwhelmed by his Christian sense of what to do if someone strikes you on the cheek. He hears Christ saying to turn the other cheek. He knows as nobility he must defend his honor.  He knows as an officer he has to maintain discipline and order in the troops.  He knows he is part of a military hierarchy and so has no choice about what to do.  He is a man, a male, who must defend his personal honor in a society which would admire his willingness to use violence to defend himself.   He feels the pressure that he has to set an example for all the other soldiers standing around him as well as for his fellow officers.  He feels the weight of the expectation that he must defend the prestige of all those of his rank and class.  The issue is not only a personal assault and insult, for he must defend the order of society itself.  All the soldiers around him recognize what Figura ‘must’ do.

Yet, he forgives the soldier recognizing it was his drunkenness not malice that led him to this point.  He is moved by the soldiers tearful begging for mercy and tells all the soldiers to just forget what happened.  He has no heart to see his soldier punished to death for a stupid act.  As Figura says, “I couldn’t remember Jesus and at the same time go against him in the way I treated people.”   Figura’s ‘selfs’ have come in conflict and he has to deal with the cognitive dissonance.

Figura remembers an Orthodox prayer from the First Hour which he begins to recite, “O Christ, You are the True Light, instruct and enlighten every man that comes into the world…”  As the translator notes the Russian word for world and peace is the same and Figura’s mind hears both meanings – “I interpreted this to mean that He would enlighten every one who came from enmity to peace.  And I called out in a still louder voice: ‘May the light of Your countenance shine upon us sinners.’”  Liturgical prayers that he recited all his life suddenly took on meaning in a non-church context, and Figura suddenly desires to live and embody the things he prays.  All his soldiers are moved by his faith and prayers.  They all understand the demands on Figura of social and peer pressure but are moved by his desire to practice his faith.

One self has emerged in Figura as his true self.  This however is not the end of the story.  While Figura comes to peace with God and his neighbor, with the world and himself, he will now be put to the test as his fellow officers and commanders proceed to judge his case.  What he has come to peace with, society still has a say in.  He will again have to weigh his decision.

Next: One Self, Many Selves (II)

 

The Crowded Church

When I think about images of the Church, I often think about the scenes in the Gospel where there is a crowd around Jesus.  These are the people following Him.  But that crowd is a very mixed group for in it are not only disciples but women, political zealots, nationalists, the sick, sinners, the insane, the possessed, the curious, the deformed, the blind, the hopeless and the hopeful, doubters, rebels, the irreligious, the establishment as well as the enemies of Christ.  Just think about two passages in the early part of Mark’s Gospel – Mark 1:23-34 and Mark 2:1-17.

It is the Sabbath Day in the first passage.  Jesus and his disciples have entered a synagogue.  And there in the synagogue is a demon possessed man.  Apparently, synagogues allowed even demoniacs to enter the community, to hear the scripture lessons, to pray and to seek rest from their affliction {that is something parish communities should think about, especially when we feel justified in judging the synagogues in Jesus day!}.  Jesus came to seek and save the lost, the possessed, the sinner.  He wants to be in their presence and wants them to come into His presence.  The man screams: Have you come to destroy us?   But Jesus is there on a peace mission.  He is not there to destroy sinners or the demon possessed.  Rather, He is there to save them.  Jesus commands the demon to be silent.  ‘You don’t know what you are talking about.  I am God but I am not here to destroy life or cast anyone into hell.’ The thief may come to kill and destroy, but Jesus claims, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).   Jesus does not seek a crowd of perfectly well behaved and obedient followers.  He would not be able to accomplish His mission or God’s will if that is all who came to Him.  Really, the righteous, well behaved and those who are healthy don’t even really need Him at all.

Jesus then heals Peter’s mother-in-law at the home of Peter and Andrew.  “That evening,” according to Mark’s Gospel, “at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered together about the door.”   Again, we see a crowd coming to Jesus, not fleeing from him, of people who are variously sick, wretched, needy, insane, maimed, demon possessed.  Jesus ministers to them.  This is His crowd, the Church.  It is not just respectable people or believers, the moral and the pious, priests and monks.

Jesus then travels to Capernaum, to His home.  Again, a crowd assembles where he is.   Four men are desperate to get help for their friend.  Jesus forgives the paralytic’s sins.   But then, look, who is sitting with Jesus?  The scribes! “Now some of the scribes were sitting there…”    Jesus’ rivals and enemies are sitting next to Jesus and criticize Him in His own home for healing someone.  It is the scribes who seem to have the seats of honor in Jesus own home.  They don’t even have to crowd into the room – they get to sit next to Jesus.   Imagine a parish letting the enemies of Christ and the critics of Christianity sit in the front pews, closest to the altar.  That’s what Jesus did!

Jesus then goes to the house of Levi, a hated tax collector.  Mark says: “And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him.”   Table fellowship with sinners!  Jesus doesn’t condemn them and kick them out, rather He sits down with them at table and eats with them.  This of course gets disapproving comments from the scribes, those opponents of Jesus.  If Jesus invited sinners to His table today or sat with sinners at their table, who would be raising their voice in disapproval today?   Probably the same kinds of people as the scribes.  Why in the world would Jesus eat with sinners when there are decent people, upright, godly who would rather sit with Him?  Yet that is what Jesus did.

And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’

The crowd, the church – if it is following Christ – has sinners in it.  In fact, the church should be inviting them in and having table fellowship with them, as Christ did, for these are the very people He seeks and calls.  These are the very people who need to be forgiven and given the spiritual nourishment to be able to follow Christ.

If the Church saw itself as the crowd which followed Christ, it would be a crowded Church.  It’s not the righteous who need Christ, nor did He come to seek and save them.  If churches are losing membership, perhaps they are hanging out with the wrong crowd.

The words and the Word of God

Though for many Christians today “the Word of God” means a book of Scriptures or the Bible, in the Bible itself the Word of God is associated with a spoken word or a word we hear but not a written word.  Or, as early Christians would come to understand it “the Word of God” means the Second Person of the Holy Trinity especially obvious in chapter 1 of John’s Gospel but also in the Old Testament prophets when the Word of the Lord comes too them and speaks to them.  The Word of God has power to act and enact while the written word bears witness to the Word of God which is heard and obeyed.

Just read the Acts of the Apostles to get a sense of this.   The Word of God is spoken (4:31, 13:46), preached (6:2),  received (8:14, 11:1), proclaimed (13:5), sought (13:7), heard (13:44), glorified (13:48) and taught (18:11).  The Word of God both increases (6:7) as well as  grows & multiplies (12:24).  Clearly the Word of God is not a book but something more.  As it says in Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  There is a relationship between the written letters on a page and the Word of God, but the Word of God is living, is a spiritual force.  For Christians the Word of God is Jesus Christ, the God who becomes incarnate as a human (John 1:14).

Look at 2 Chronicles 34:21-

“Go, inquire of the LORD for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

King Josiah sees the writings in the book that the priest reads to him, not as the Word of the Lord but rather the written word in the book is what the Word of the Lord commanded.  Or, perhaps, the written word is simply what needed to be done to show that people listened to the Word of God and obeyed.  But the written word is not equivalent to the Word of God.  Rather the written word bears witness to the Word of God.  We see a similar thing in the New Testament when Jesus says to Satan:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”    (Matthew 4:4)

What is written is not the Word of God but rather only the commandments related to how people should live.  The written word bears witness to the Word of God.   Which is what Jesus teaches in John 5:39-46 –

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.

As Jesus understands Torah, Torah is about Jesus.  Moses in writing the books of the Law was really writing about Jesus.  Moses is a prophet who bears witness to Jesus more than a historian writing the narration of human history.

We see an interesting relationship between the Word of God and a written word in Exodus.  “Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.”  (Exodus 24:3-4)    Moses comes to the people and tells them the words of the Lord – God’s word is spoken and to be heard.  Only after all the people hear the words and agree to obey them does Moses write them down.  They are not put into a written form until the people agree to do them.  The covenant will involve a written agreement, but the Word of God must first be heard and willingly accepted as that which is to be obeyed; Only then is it put into writing.   After this, the written covenant is accepted again this time in ritual worship – it is sanctified as the people once more agree to it: “Then Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”  (Exodus 24:7-8)

It is the same for us today, for in the Liturgy again we have the Blood of Christ and the spoken Word proclaimed and we agree to God’s new covenant.  And interestingly the very next thing that happens in Exodus is a meal eaten before God:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)

It is only after Moses spoke God’s words to the people and the people agreed to obey that the covenant was confirmed in liturgical ritual that involved blood. Only after all of this does God speak about putting His words into writing.  In Exodus 24:12, we read:  The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”  But even then another 40 days will pass before it happens (Exodus 24:18).

Only in Exodus 31 does God finally write the words which Moses proclaimed to the people and wrote down for the people.  But first God tells Moses he must once again proclaim (verbally) these words of the perpetual covenant.  Only then do we read in Exodus 31:18 – And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

In Deuteronomy 9:10-11 we read another version of this same narrative:

And the LORD gave me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And at the end of forty days and forty nights the LORD gave me the two tables of stone, the tables of the covenant.

God’s Word is first spoken, it was written down by God on the stone tablets only after the people agreed to the terms of the covenant.  Moses was to smash God’s written words, the stone tablets,  when the people disobeyed God even before Moses could bring the written word to them.  But even tablets of stone written by  God’s own hand were not permanent and cannot be equated with God’s word.  For as it says in  1 Peter 1:24 -25 – ‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.That word is the good news which was preached to you.”

God’s Word cannot be equated with a written form.  God’s Word is not coterminous with the scriptures for the scriptures bear witness to God’s Word.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ.

Life is Hard

But as you know, everything good in us does not take place easily, but with labor, force, and effort: “The kingdom of heaven is taken by force, and those who exert effort gain it” (Matt. 11:12). Therefore, let us not be discouraged by the difficulty of this feat, but rather let us look for the means to accomplish it.

(St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc 1181-1183)

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)

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)

Salvation

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal SalvationDavid Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved inspired me to reflect a bit on salvation and how Christ’s coming into the world is good news indeed for all humankind.   His book brought to the forefront of my thinking the many reasons I joyfully embrace Christianity as my faith and experience of God.   This is the 5th and final post in this blog series which is looking at ideas from his book which have been an anchor to my faith.  The previous post is: Is Free Will the Curse?

The Gospel is and is meant to be good news for all of us who inhabit planet earth and struggle in life, who have to cope with evil and the effect of sin on our existence here.   And while the good news promises us salvation, it does not promise us life on earth will be easy, without suffering or temptation or death.  We are to be of good cheer because Christ has overcome all of these aspects of the world, and so they are proven to be limited, circumscribed, in their power.

In its dawn, the gospel was a proclamation principally of a divine victory that had been won over death and sin, and over the spiritual powers of rebellion against God that dwell on high, and here below, and under the earth. It announced itself truly as the “good tidings” of a campaign of divine rescue on the part of a loving God, who by the sending of his Son into the world, and even into the kingdom of death, had liberated his creatures from slavery to a false and merciless master, and had opened a way into the Kingdom of Heaven, in which all of creation would be glorified by the direct presence of God.

It was an announcement that came wrapped in all the religious and prophetic and eschatological imagery of its time and place, and armored in the whole metaphorical panoply of late antique religion, but with far less of the background and far fewer of the details filled in than later Christians would have found tolerable. It was, above all, a joyous proclamation, and a call to a lost people to find their true home at last, in their Father’s house. It did not initially make its appeal to human hearts by forcing them to revert to some childish or bestial cruelty latent in their natures; rather, it sought to awaken them to a new form of life, one whose premise was charity. Nor was it a religion offering only a psychological salve for individual anxieties regarding personal salvation. It was a summons to a new and corporate way of life, salvation by entry into a community of love. Hope in heaven and fear of hell were ever present, but also sublimely inchoate, and susceptible of elaboration in any number of conceptual shapes. Nothing as yet was fixed except the certainty that Jesus was now Lord over all things, and would ultimately yield all things up to the Father so that God might be all in all.  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2790-2803)

When the Lord Jesus came eating and drinking with sinners was He not enacting the very thing He proclaimed in His parables – that those invited to the wedding banquet did not wish to attend and so the banquet had been opened to all – undesirable people were invited, even compelled to come in and join the banquet even though they were undesireable?   Did not the Jesus’ own lifestyle and actions, especially His table fellowship, announce that the Kingdom of Heaven had come, that God had reconciled the world to Himself?   Yet, we see already in the New Testament a rejection of this reconciliation between God and God’s creation.  Pharisees, among others, rejected Christ’s message and condemn Him for His table fellowship with sinners.  A concern for judgment of sinners and unbelievers comes to the forefront of thinking as Christians see people not only rejecting the Gospel but also persecuting believers.   Being forgiven by God, reconciled to God, united to divinity was not enough good news for believers – they thirsted for triumph over enemies and retribution for sinners.  Rather than sorrowing that everyone did not embrace salvation, believers began persecuting those who didn’t believe.  The values of the Kingdom of Heaven were replaced by the values of worldly kingdoms.

However, the Church never lost sight of its message.  The Gospel shone through the centuries to those who would hear it.   St. Leo the Great (d. 461AD) writing in the 5th Century about the Nativity of Christ still captures the joyous message of salvation for everyone:

“Our Saviour, dearly beloved, is born today; rejoice!  For it is not fitting that we give any place to sadness when Life is born, the Life which, consuming the fear of death, has filled us with joy because of the eternity He promises.  No one is excluded from this gladness.  One reason for joy is common to all, since Our Lord, the destroyer of sin and death, as he found no one free from sin, came to deliver us all.  The saint is to exult, for he is nearing his palm.  The sinner is to rejoice, for he is invited to forgiveness.  The pagan is to take courage, for he is called to life… 

And so, dearly beloved, we are to give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit, to Him who, in the abundant mercy with which He has loved us, has had pity on us, and ‘when we were dead in our sins, has brought us to life together with Christ’, so that we may be in Him a new creature, a new work.  Let us, then, take off the old man with his works, and become partakers in the generation of Christ, renouncing the works of the flesh.  O Christian, realize your dignity: you are associated with the divine nature, do not turn back to your past base condition by a degenerate way of life. Remember that you have been rescued from the power of darkness, you have been transported into the light and the kingdom of God. By the sacrament of Baptism, you have been made the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Do not make such a guest take flight by perverse actions nor submit yourself again to the devil’s slavery, for you have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, for He will judge you in truth, He who has redeemed you in mercy, He who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.”  (THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT & THE FATHERS by Louis Bouyer, p 530)

St. Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022AD) writing five centuries after St Leo says:

“… He Himself, Who is able to do all things and is beneficent, undertook to accomplish this work through Himself.  For the man whom He had made by His own invisible hands according to His image and likeness He willed to raise up again, not be means of another but by Himself, so that indeed he might the more greatly honor and glorify our race by His being likened to us in every respect and become our equal by taking on our human condition.  O what unspeakable love for mankind!  The goodness of it!  That not only did He not punish us transgressors and sinners, but that He Himself accepted becoming such as we had become by reason of the Fall: corruptible man born of corruptible man, mortal born of a mortal, sin of him who had sinned, He Who is incorruptible and immortal and sinless.  He appeared in the world only in His deified flesh, and not in His naked divinity.  Why?  Because He did not, as He says Himself in His Gospels, wish to judge the world but to save it.”   ( ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE  Vol 1,  pp 144-145)

Christ did not become incarnate in order to condemn humans, but, rather, to save them.  God became human so that we humans might become god.   If He wanted to condemn sinners, He didn’t need to die on the cross.  That death is God’s love and will for humanity – God uniting Himself to humanity, not spurning humanity because it is fallen and sinful.  Why senselessly be tortured for humanity if your goal is punishment for sinners in the first place?  The life, death and resurrection of Christ are God’s continued effort to bring about God’s own plan: to unite heaven and earth, to reconcile humanity to God so that we humans might share in the divine love and life.

Writing 900 years after St Symeon, Archimandrite Sophrony  building upon the words of St Silouan the Athonite discusses the struggle with evil humanity has faced through the centuries:

“The history of the Orthodox Church, past and present, right up to our own day reveals frequent instances of a leaning towards the idea of physical combat against evil, though fortunately confined to individual prelates or ecclesiastical groups.  The Orthodox Church herself has not only declined to bless or to impose these measures but has always followed in the steps of the crucified Christ, Who took upon Himself the burden of the sins of the world.  The Staretz was profoundly and very precisely aware that only good can defeat evil – that using force simply means substituting one sort of violence for another.  We discussed this many a time.  He would remark, ‘The Gospel makes it plain that when the Samaritans did not wish to receive Christ, the disciples James and John wanted to bring down fire from heaven, to consume them, but the Lord rebuked them and said, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of . . . I am come not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them”.’  And we, too, must have this one thought – that all should be saved.”     (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 226)

David Bentley Hart is in good company as he argues the purpose of God’s incarnation in Christ, His death and resurrection all were done for the salvation of the world not for condemning sinners to hell.   As previously noted, a message of universal salvation does not change the struggle which believers face in the world, does not deny that evil is real, does not take away the suffering undergone in this world by innocent people.  It does bring the Gospel to the forefront of the Christian message and says “God is love” is not an idea that can be negotiated or altered.  Rather it becomes the key to interpreting all of Scripture.  God’s purpose in creating the cosmos is to bring all things into communion with God.  This is God’s plan, unaltered by human sinfulness, which is being realized from creation to salvation in Christ to the kingdom of God.  God is both Creator and Savior because God’s will is that we should be united to God.   As Hart says:

… between God’s antecedent and consequent decrees: between, that is, his original will for a creation unmarred by sin (“Plan A,” so to speak) and his will for creation in light of the fall of humanity (“Plan B”). And it has usually been assumed that, whereas the former would have encompassed all of creation in a single good end, the latter merely provides for the rescue of only a tragically or arbitrarily select portion of the race. But why? Perhaps the only difference, really, between these antecedent and consequent divine decrees (assuming that such a distinction is worth making at all) is the manner by which God accomplishes the one thing he intends for creation from everlasting. Theologians and catechists may have concluded that God would ideally have willed only one purpose but must in practical terms now will two; but logic gives us no reason to think so.  Neither does scripture (at least, not when correctly read). After all, “our savior God,” as 1 Timothy 2:4 says, “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth.”  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location

The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs

I found Martin Mosebach’s The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs to be a worthy read.  There is of course that one learns a bit about these 21 Christians, all poor migrant workers, beheaded by ISIS militants on a Libyan beach.  They have been glorified by the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church as martyrs for the faith.  In their lives they seem to have been pious Orthodox Christians who were trying to eke out a living under difficult circumstances.  One also learns a great deal about the life of Coptic Christians in Egypt, an Orthodox Church which considers itself to be “the Church of the martyrs” based on its 2000 year history which has seen centuries of suffering and martyrdom. The Copts continue to be targeted by Muslim extremists and live perpetually in a state of being at risk for persecution, and yet their faith is strong.   Mosebach, a practicing traditionalist Catholic, writes about the Copts with sympathy and understanding.   He is not reluctant to express his skepticism about some of the things he learned.  It is obvious that even modern martyrs’ lives quickly are embellished with legend and miracles, as if their martyrdom itself is not sufficiently miraculous witness to the Lord.  As Mosebach writes it such embellishment is a normal part of Coptic history and faith.  Mosebach also makes it clear that to call these martyrs victims of terrorism is to completely miss the importance of their faith in their lives.  They are not victims of terrorism, but true witnesses to their undying faith in Jesus Christ.  As such they stand as a challenge to American Christian attitudes towards suffering, being in the minority or being in power and what Christ teaches us about martyrdom, enemies, suffering and power.  They have to carry the cross daily in a way American Christians are not willing to do.  As one Coptic priest said, “One cannot simply dismiss Muslims as hostile – regardless of religion, one can still be a good neighbor and express kindness and trust, especially in one’s prayer.”  Who is my neighbor?  The one to whom I can be neighborly as Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Copts have to choose to live the Gospel lessons daily.