Choosing Eternity

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There  was a man, could have been any one, who considered himself a decent sort of person, but who never put much thought into an afterlife.  There were too many things in life which occupied his attention, and which also allowed him to avoid thinking about the inevitable.  Unexpectedly – at least for him – his life dreamily ended.  He found himself in the place where all souls are said to be judged by God.   As it dawned on him about what had happened and where he was, he suddenly was terrified of what awaited him.

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An angel of the Lord approached him.  The angel’s appearance was awesome, and the man cringed and swallowed hard.  His mind was racing for what defense he might offer at his judgment.

The angel spoke in a harmonious voice, asking the man, “Are you now ready to choose your eternal destiny?”

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“Choose?”  The man was astounded at the question, for he had given no real thought to it in his lifetime and he couldn’t believe he had any real choice in the matter at this particular moment, considering where he was.  “Do you mean I even have a choice?”

“Of course you have a choice.” replied the angel  “You have to choose where you will spend your eternity.  Who did you think was going to do that for you?”

The man was at a loss for words, but for the first time in a long time, God came to mind.

The angel led the man to a room which had four doors in one wall.  The angel explained, “Behind one of these doors lies your eternal destiny.  But you have to choose which one you will enter.  Three of these doors open paths to heaven.  Only one of the doors leads to hell.  You have to choose what your fate will be. Choose wisely because whichever door you open is the one you must enter.”

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The man was now becoming concerned again.  “But . . . how do I know what door to choose?  Is it a trick . . .  or is it all left to chance?”

“There is no trick,”  The angel responded, “and it isn’t a matter of chance; it really is choice.  You have to decide which door you want to go through.  I’m even going to tell you a something about what is on the other side of  each of these doors.”

The man didn’t know whether to breathe a sigh of relief or whether this was going to be such a test that he would certainly fail.

“One of these doors leads to martyrdom and suffering for the Gospel, but you will find your way to heaven on that path.  One of these doors leads to people who are suffering terribly and it will require that you spend time to care for them, but it too leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Behind one door are all manners of poor people, beggars, the unwanted – and they will ask you to give them everything you own including the clothes off your back.  But this too is a path to the Kingdom.   Some of the saints thought this door with all the beggars is the easiest path to the kingdom because it requires no suffering – all you have to do is give everything you own away – let them lighten the load for you.  It is the easiest path to the kingdom but that door is the most difficult to choose.”

Then the angel said, “Only one door leads to hell.”

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The man was not a little glad that judgment was not in God’s hands. And in any case choosing heaven was three times more likely then choosing the path to hell.   His mind was whirling with his good fortune as he realized his fate was in his own hands.  He was overjoyed to hear that one door gave him easy access to heaven because he certainly assumed everyone chooses that door.

“How can I tell the doors apart?” the man asked.  “This is the trick . . . isn’t it?”

The angel again assured him that there was no trick.  “Just approach each door and listen carefully to what you hear,” the angel instructed.  The angel handed the man a well stocked backpack.  “You will need this on your journey – it will speed your on your way.”

As the man looked at the backpacks contents he noted medical supplies, analgesics, antiseptics, bandages, food, extra clothing, water, bedding, a tent.  The back pack was very heavy, but the man was feeling buoyant because of the care being shown to him and the provisions given him.  He put the pack on his back, feeling confident that he was now prepared to choose his destiny.

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The man hesitantly moved toward the first door, still fearful that maybe it was a trap.  But as he drew near to the door he could hear terrible screams from people on the other side of the door as if they were being tortured.  They cried out in horrible agony, begging for mercy.  It sounded like their bones were being snapped or as if they were being eaten alive.  Did he smell burning flesh from under the door?  The man was horrified and fearfully backed away from the door lest he somehow fall through it.  A shudder went down his spine as he moved more quickly to the second door.  At first he didn’t hear anything coming from behind the second door.  Carefully,  he put his ear to the door.  The sound on the other side of the door was the most pitiful moaning, people groaning in their suffering.  The piteous sighs of these people struck his heart with a dread – he did not want to find out what was causing their grief, nor did he feel that he wanted to deal with that suffering.   He felt oppressed by the thought of it.

He looked back over his shoulder.  The angel was watching expectantly, and the man felt encouraged.

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As he moved toward the third door, he could hear a loud clamor from the other side of the door before he got near it.   People were pounding on the door begging for help.  The man thought the door itself might burst open because of the crowd pushing against it.  There was a myriad of voices all begging for something to alleviate their need – medicines, clothes, food, water.  Amidst the din, he thought he heard someone shout out a warning  from the other side of the door – “Don’t open the door!  Those people are diseased and dangerous. You’ll unleash them on the world.”  He almost felt as if their arms were reaching through the door trying to pull him in.  His hands tightened their grip on the straps of his backpack.  He leaped back away from the door, thankful that he had escaped being dragged into that mess.

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He then cautiously moved toward the fourth door.  He stopped and listened but didn’t seem to hear anything.  He moved closer to the door.  He tentatively placed his ear against the door.  What he heard seemed so soothing to him.  For the sound was as if a running, bubbling river was passing by on the other side of the door.  There was no other noise.  The man liked the quiet, peaceful babbling.  It was so inviting, very much what he hoped heaven would be like.  He grabbed the door handle and pushed the door open and confidently stepped in.

The sound it turned out was not a river as he imagined it at all.  What was flowing past the door was a rapidly moving stream of sewage of the most foul kind.  There was no other sound because everything was quickly being swept away by the force of the flow.  The man’s back pack dragged him down into the sewage and he was carried directly to the mouth of hell.

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The man had chosen his eternal destiny.

The angel cringing, marveled at the man’s choice.

The man suddenly felt his neck snap, as his eyes popped open and his mind jolted awake as he heard the priest chanting:

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

 

 

The Last Judgment: Don’t Be Surprised

When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory,  all things shall tremble and the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat; the books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed!  Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!  (Hymn of the Last Judgement)

Sounds pretty frightening – and it is meant to be.  The Church in its hymns uses these words to describe the Last Judgment:

Dreaded

Awesome

Fearful

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What most bothers us as 21st Century Christians about the Judgment Day is not the thought that sinners will be condemned to the fires of hell and damned for all eternity – in fact on that point we tend to like retributive justice for sinners because they finally get what they deserve – what actually bothers us is that WE – each of us – You and me – are going to be held accountable for every thing we said and did in this life.  We are OK with others – the sinners – being held accountable, but why should we be judged?  That God might even think about judging you or me based on our behavior, that is hard to swallow – Let Him judge sinners, murderers, perverts, terrorists, criminals, liars and the lazy, and leave the rest of us alone.

Actually many of the Jews in Jesus’ day had a similar thought.  They were anxiously awaiting the Day of the Lord, because they believed on that day God would finally and completely condemn and annihilate all of Israel’s enemies and oppressors.  On that day God would judge and condemn to hell the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Philistines, Canannites.  The Jewish people would finally be avenged!

What these folk’s ignored was that the prophets had been warning that the Day of the Lord was also going to be a day of Judgment for God’s own people, and that God would start the judgment with Israel.   All of us who think God is going to judge “someone else” – we Orthodox or we Americans – also need to take the prophets’ message to heart – judgment begins with us.

And we might begin to feel a little hot under the collar about this.  All the porn we looked, all the times we were drunk, all the times we lied, all the times we were greedy, selfish, angry, enraged, sexually immoral, jealous, envious, bickering and contentious – for all of this we are going to be judged by God.  As St. Paul says all those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.  It’s not just that we are going to have to give account for this behavior, we are going to be condemned for it at the Last Judgment.

Dreaded

Awesome

Fearful

Judgment

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But then the Lord Jesus shocked His followers when He spoke about the Last Judgment.  Jesus did not say that at the Judgment Seat all Jews or that all Christians will be declared righteous and everyone else will be condemned as sinners.

Saint and sinner will be assembled before God, and God will judge us based upon:

Our mercifulness

Our kindness

Our love for others

Our concern for the well being of others.

Jesus says we will be judged in the same way and by the same criteria we judged and criticized others.  If  we thought the poor and needy were not worthy of our time, our attention, our possessions, we will find ourselves so judged by God who will not share His time, attention and possessions – namely His Kingdom – with us.  The Kingdom belongs to Him, not to us.  Just like we think our possessions belong to us and not to some beggar.

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God’s judgment is a judgment of our hearts.  The proper defense before the dread Judgment Seat is loving others, being merciful to others, showing mercy to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

A story from the lives of the saints:

St. Martin of Tours was a Roman Army Officer who was entering a city one cold, wet, wintry day.

1012martinoftoursA beggar asked him for money, but Martin had none with him.  But seeing the man shiver with cold, Martin came down off his horse, took his sword, and cut his soldier’s cloak in half.  His cloak was like a large warm poncho.  He wrapped the beggar in this half portion of his cloak.

That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Christ standing in the wintery cold wearing an old tattered cloak. An angel approached Christ dismayed at how the Lord was dressed.  “Lord,” the angel said, “where did you get that old, torn cloak?”  Jesus responded, “My servant Martin gave it to me.”

Martin thought he gave his cloak to a beggar, but as today’s Gospel teaches us what we give to the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ, we give to the Lord Jesus Himself.

Note:  Martin didn’t give his whole cloak, he shared half of it with the beggar.  He didn’t impoverish himself, but provided for another from his means.

We each have that same chance to share what we can with those in need.  We don’t have to deprive ourselves of everything, but certainly can share some things by ministering to the Lord Himself.

There will be surprises for us on the Judgment Day as we see in the Gospel:

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?

And the wicked will say:  And Lord, when did we see you a stranger and not welcome you, or naked and not clothe you? (Matthew 25:37-41)

Both the blessed and cursed are going to be in for a surprise on Judgment day.  Don’t you be surprised!

 

Christ Alone? No, Christ in the Crowd

“Think of it: Jesus Christ, the Life of all, the Creator of the universe, the only One ever to have been born without sin, was all alone, left in a common grave, outside of Jerusalem. He was alone even among his closest friends, since they never really understood Him, and thus He asked them: Do you not perceive or understand? (Mk. 8.17) Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know Me? (Jn. 14.9). At the time of His passion, His isolation became acute. In the garden of agony, when His sweat became like great drops of blood, His disciples drifted off into sleep (Lk. 22.44). One by one His friends deserted Him. He stood alone before the judgement seat of Pilate, alone on the cross, alone in the grave: everywhere alone. He went alone into Hell. Alone, always alone. Why? So that you might learn that you have to be alone with God in order to become His dwelling place.

Then the Lord will say, at the Last Judgement, to those on His left, whom He will send away into Gehenna, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” (cf. Mt 25:33-41). Do you see? He’s a stranger, somebody who’s alone, who’s ignored: I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was alone in prison and you did not visit me (cf. Mt 25.42-43).

…For many of us, this can be a rude awakening: after beholding Christ in our dreams, we find it annoying to open our eyes on a world filled with other people. Immediately we say: “I wasn’t looking for you I want Christ,” forgetting that the stranger, the poor man, the prisoner, the sinner, and especially my enemy – especially the person who seeks to harm me – is Christ for me.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 244-245, 254)

The Lord is Not Like Us

“No man of himself can know what God’s love is unless he be taught of the Holy Spirit; but God’s love is known in our Church through the Holy Spirit, and so we speak of this love.

The sinful soul which does not know the Lord fears death, thinking that the Lord will not forgive her sins. But this is because the soul does not know the Lord and how greatly He loves us. But if people knew this, then no man would despair, for the Lord not only forgives but rejoices exceedingly at the return of a sinner. Though you be at death’s door, believe firmly that the moment  you ask, you will receive forgiveness.

The Lord is not like us. He is passing meek, and merciful, and good; and when the soul knows Him she marvels greatly, and exclaims: ‘O what a Lord is ours!’

The Holy Spirit gave our Church to know how great is God’s mercy.”

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 363)

How unlike us humans is our God.  Human may never forgive or forget and can keep angry all their lives, but not so with the Lord.  Humans demand retributive justice and often want to treat people as they deserve, or even worse.  On the other hand, God, so the psalmist tells us is not like us.

The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.   (Psalm 103:8-10)

Anger is Another Kind of Drunkenness

Brethren, there is another sort of evil satiety and drunkenness which does not result from indulging in food and drink, but from anger and hatred towards our neighbor, remembrance of wrongs, and the evils that spring from these. On this subject Moses says in his song, “Their wine is the wrath of dragons and the incurable wrath of asps” (Deut. 32:33). So the prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who are drunken, but not with wine” (Isa. 29:9)

This is the drunkenness of hatred which more than anything else causes God to turn away, and the devil attempts to bring it about in those who pray and fast. He prompts them to remember wrongs, directs their thoughts towards harboring malice, and sharpens their tongues for slander.

He prepares them to be like that man who wishes for evil whom David describes with the words, “He deviseth mischief continually, his tongue is like a sharp razor” (Ps. 51:2 Lxx), and from whom he prays God to deliver him, saying, “Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; they have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips” (Ps. 140:1, 3). (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 49 & 50)

The Intercessions of the Theotokos

“The Mother of God, who is also the Mother of all humankind, pleads at the tribunal for universal mercy, not for the forgiveness of sins (which is impossible, for sins must be completely expiated and suffered through) but for mercifulness to sinners. The existence of hell is surrounded not by the cold of an egotistical indifference but by the radiant cloud of the caring love of saved humankind, that is, of the Church which abides for ages of ages in its sobornost as one, holy, and universal. In the Church, the one humankind is not divided into two and is not reconciled with the severing of its parts – hell – but sorrows over this part.”  (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 193-194)

According to Fr. Sergius, the Theotokos intercedes for us all – pleads that God will be merciful to all of us.  She does not ask God to forgive sins, but rather that the God of justice will show as much mercy, leniency and compassion as is possible to everyone who lived on earth.  She does not ask God completely to lay aside judgment, but rather to behave according to His nature – God is love.  If it is necessary that God corrects us or punishes us, may God do it in His love and His mercy, not to destroy us but to bring us to holiness.

Fr. Sergius’ imagery is most interesting, for he doesn’t envision the saints in heaven being self-satisfied as they leer down on sinners in hell.  The saints aren’t rejoicing in the punishment of sinners but rather the saints of God surround hell with their prayers and love.  Saints do not rejoice that any of humanity is punished in hell.  Saints do not rejoice that humanity can be divided between those in heaven and those in hell, but rather those in heaven continue to extend love to their fellow humans by joining the Theotokos in beseeching God: “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy!

Renouncing Satan – Embracing Christ

Kenyan Catechumens renounce Satan.

The following exhortation is found in some Orthodox books preparing catechumens for reception into the Church on Holy Saturday.   These words are said to the catechumens on the evening before their baptisms/chrismations.  They are final instructions to remind the catechumen what they have agreed to live and do as a result of their choosing to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.  As we celebrate All Saints Day in the Orthodox Church, we are reminded that all of us are called and baptized to be saints, God’s holy people.  This requires much from us. 

“This marks the conclusion of your catechesis. The time of your redemption has come. Today, you are about to sign a contract with your faith in Christ. The paper, the ink, and the pen are your conscience, your tongue, and your new habit of life. Therefore, take heed as to how you inscribe your confession. Do not go astray from it, lest you be deceived. They that are about to die put their affairs in order and they designate heirs to their possessions, this one this, and that one that. Well, tomorrow night you are to die to sin. So now put your affairs in order and perform your renunciation as a testament. Assign the devil as heir to sin. Leave to him your sins as his ancestral inheritance. If any of you possesses anything of the devil in his soul, let him cast it at him.

He who dies no longer has authority over his possessions, so let not anyone of you have anything of the devil in his soul. And in so doing, stand and hold out your hands as though being examined by angels.

Let nothing of the devil’s affairs be hidden by you.

Let no one hold on to enmity;

let no one harbor anger;

let no one stand with dissimulation;

let no one listen with hypocrisy.

Cast at the devil all filth and superfluity of evil. You stand here as captives, for such as you does Christ buy back. As each of you sees and hates the devil, so shall each of you blow on him. Enter within your conscience; examine your heart; take heed to what each one has done. If there is anything contrary in you, spit it out with that act of blowing on the devil. Let there not be here any Judas of hypocrisy! Let no one have any doubts about the Mystery. The Word of God examines our hearts, as it is sharper than any two-edged sword. Now the devil has taken his stand in the west, as he grinds his teeth, pulls his hair, wrings his hands, and bites his lips in rage; he laments his loss and loses his faith over your freedom. Now Christ stands before you, over opposite the devil, so that as you renounce him and blow on him, you may take up war against him.

In the west the devil has taken his stand, where is the beginning of darkness. Begin to renounce him and blow on him! Then turn about to the east and align yourselves with Christ. Let no one despise him; stand ye with fear! The present matters are all fearful and awesome. All the powers of heaven stand present here. All the angels and archangels are invisibly writing down your utterances.” (Services of Initiation into the Holy Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church, pp. 150-151)

God’s Love and Judgment

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev shares a theological truth, which he learned from St. Isaac the Syrian. He encountered the teaching while reading the works of Vladimir Lossky.  It was an idea that stood out in Metropolitan Hilarion’s heart and mind.

“I was particularly struck by some words of Isaac, quoted by Lossky, about the suffering of those in hell. According to Isaac those who endure torment in gehenna are chastised, not by divine anger, not by any desire on God’s part to exact retribution – for there is no cruelty or vindictiveness in God – but ‘with the scourge of love’. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart that has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God…But love acts in a double way, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed. Lossky comments:

‘The love of God will be intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.’

Once more, as with Isaac’s description of the compassionate heart, it was as if someone had suddenly opened a window in my mind and flooded my whole interior world with light. Here, I felt, is the only interpretation of judgment and hell that makes any sense. God is love, and his love is inexhaustible; and this inexhaustible love is present everywhere, even in hell. But ‘love acts in a double way.’” (The Spiritual Word of Isaac the Syrian, pp 9-10)

God’s Eternal Mercy, Love and Compassion

“Just as an abundantly flowing fountain is not blocked by a handful of dust, so the Maker’s mercy is not overcome by the wickedness of those whom He has created.[…]

In love did God bring the world into existence;

in love does He guide it during its temporal existence;

in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and

in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things.

In love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally compromised.

Just because the terms ‘wrath’, ‘anger’, ‘hatred’ and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature. Among all God’s actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealings with us.” (St. Isaac in The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh  by Sebastian Brock, pp 18 & 38)

Holy Wednesday (2015)

We know this week – Holy Week – is about our salvation. God does His part of the equation which brings about our salvation. God deals with sin, separation, alienation, isolation, and death, not to mention also dealing with Satan and Hades itself.

“This is what the Scriptures bring (to our attention) and remind us of, as has frequently been shown by us in sound expositions above, namely, that God is not one who requites evil, but He sets aright evil: the former is the characteristic of evil people, while the latter is characteristic of a father. (Scripture) shows Him as if He is bringing good and evil by way of requital, whereas His purpose is not in fact this, but to instill in us love and awe, so that by the latter we might make our conduct chaste, while, by means of love, we might grow in excellency of understanding.

If this were not the case, what resemblance does Christ’s coming have with the deeds of the generations which were prior to it? Does this immense compassion seem to you to be a retribution for those evil deeds? Tell me, if God is someone who requites (evil), and He does what He does by means of requital, what commensurate requital do you see here, O man? Show me.

So let us not attribute to God’s actions and His dealings with us any idea of requital. Rather, (we should speak of) fatherly provision, a wise dispensation, a perfect will which is concerned with our good, and complete love. If it is a case of love, then it is not one of requital, and if it is a case of requital, then it is not one of love. Love, when it operates, is not concerned with the requiting of former things by means of its own good deeds or correction; rather, it looks to what is most advantageous in the future: it examines what is to come, and not things that are past.”   (St. Isaac of Nineveh – 7th Century, THE SECOND PART, p 170)

God’s plan to triumph over evil involves not the destruction of earth, not the death of all sinners, not punishment for all who rebel against His love, but instead involves His own death on the cross. God takes upon Himself the sin of the world for God is love and He continues to act toward us according to His own nature. This is why Holy Week should bring us to compete humility and gratitude, and repentance for rebelling against such a good, merciful and loving Creator.