Health Care in the US – A Post Mortem

Posted: June 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

I do have a few thoughts about the state of health care in the US as a sort of post mortem following my wife’s recent health crisis. I’ve been paying attention to the insurance statements and bills as they have arrived and the results have been eye-opening even for me.

The amount billed by the various providers and hospital totaled over $50,000. If we did not have insurance, a fact of life for over 40 million Americans, that’s how much we would owe. There was nothing optional about it. If my wife did not receive the care she received, she would have died. Even with all the medical care she received, there were some frightening moments. Sepsis can be fatal despite quick medical intervention.

That’s the fundamental reason “market forces” (the voodoo doll of many modern conservatives) don’t work in health care. There is no point where you can say, “I don’t want that,” and walk away. It doesn’t matter how much it costs. In an emergency, you won’t even fully understand everything that’s happening, nor will you have time to research it on your own. Instead, you listen to the medical providers, and make the best decisions you can. But there is no price that is too much to save the life of someone you love.

However, the problem does not stop with the uninsured in our country. Millions more are under-insured or poorly insured. They have policies that don’t negotiate procedure prices with providers and whose coverage is more limited. While someone with such a policy might not have had to pay $50k, they could have easily been on the hook for anything from $5,000 to $25,000. And after the insurance company paid the claim (if they paid it), someone with such a policy either would have been faced with exorbitant premium increases or had their policy canceled outright.

Fortunately, we have a good insurance policy with a large group. The negotiated, allowed amount from all the procedures and care in our case was less than $5,000. (That’s another problem with our current system, of course. If you have decent insurance, you won’t actually know the “secret” negotiated amount your insurer has negotiated with the provider until after the fact. It’s another ancillary reason the magical “market forces” don’t work.) Out of that amount, we paid $500 or so ourselves with the insurance company paying the other roughly $4,500.

While I’m glad my family has decent health insurance, fewer and fewer Americans do. (If the Republicans get their way with Medicare and repealing rather than improving elements of the Affordable Care Act, that number will spike tremendously. Hopefully my countrymen are not stupid, delusional, and self-destructive enough to take that path, but that’s not yet clear.) Since my two youngest children both also have celiac disease, I’m grateful for the extra time the ACA bought us by allowing them to remain on our coverage until they 26. By then, hopefully, the remaining provisions of the law will be fully in place and they will be able to obtain the coverage they need at an affordable price.

I’m not thrilled by the ACA. Given that Medicare operates at a 98% medical loss and has a great deal of negotiating strength (at least where Congress hasn’t stripped that power as they did in the prescription drug extension to Medicare), I would vastly prefer that we simply extend Medicare to all Americans. However, Republicans and Democrats have been fighting that battle fruitlessly for four decades. I agree that it was better for the Democrats to concede and pass the long-standing Republican health care reform plan than continue to do nothing. (The Republican response, of course, proved that if they had ever been serious about health care reform, they aren’t anymore. The Democrats passed the Republican plan and the Republicans threw a hissy fit and launched a massive propaganda campaign in response. It would almost be amusing if it weren’t so disgusting.) Hopefully we can continue to improve the ACA, which will, by reforming the overall health care sector, also save Medicare. We don’t have a Medicare problem. We have a health care problem.

I guess it remains to be seen if a majority of Americans grasp reality or if a majority of us are mired in delusion. That’s really what it comes down to.


The Jesus Prayer 24 – Spiritual Pride

Posted: April 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica answers a number of questions in her book that explore the differences between the practice of the Jesus Prayer and some of the practices and goals of Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. I think many people might find those sections helpful. They are, in my estimation, as well done as everything else in the book. I’m skipping past them in my own personal reflections, though, because I’m reasonably familiar with those religions and that perspective, and don’t really suffer any confusion. The differences between those religions and, once I began to understand it, Christianity, have always been apparent to me.

Can someone fall into delusion, even though trying sincerely to practice the Jesus Prayer?

That’s a serious question and the short answer is telling.

Only if spiritual pride seeps in, so be on guard against it.

Pride is subtle, though, and we easily deceive ourselves. Are we seeking Jesus or are we seeking spiritual power? I never assume the former is true. After all these years, I know myself better than that. Khouria Frederica shares an excellent quote from St. Macarius of Egypt.

This is the mark of Christianity: however much a man toils, and however many acts of righteousness he performs, to feel that he has done nothing; in fasting to say, “This is not fasting,” and in praying, “This is not prayer,” and in perseverance at prayer, “I have shown no perseverance; I am only just beginning to practice and to take pains”; and even if he is righteous before God, he should say, “I am not righteous, not I; I do not take pains, but only make a beginning every day.”

Humility, though, doesn’t really fit in our culture. We carry within us the image of the self-sufficient and self-made American. We are bombarded with images and messages that promote pride. Even when we’re embarrassed, it’s often pride that shows up as anger or hurt feelings.

The kind of person Christ will make of you is the kind of person our culture does not even notice, much less admire.

Love for enemies is one of the main tests for true humility. Quoting St. Silouan:

The Lord is meek and humble, and loves his creatures. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is humble love for enemies and prayer for the whole world.

If a spiritual manifestation or encounter produces anything else, I would question whether or not it is the Holy Spirit.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 28

Posted: March 31st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 28

60. With the help of hope, faith perfects our love for God. By making us keep the commandments, a clear conscience gives substance to our love for our neighbor. For a clear conscience cannot be charged with the breaking of a commandment. Only those who seek true salvation believe in their hearts in these three things, faith, hope and love.

When I read this text, I immediately think, “And the greatest of these is love.” But love does not stand in a vacuum. Indeed, love is perhaps the hardest thing to do. Jesus says that if we love him, we obey his commands. And what is his command? Love. If it’s to be anything more than a mental exercise, Christianity must be a life lived. The Orthodox speak of our life in Christ for anything else is delusion. And when we are indeed in Christ, we will act from self-sacrificing love, for how could we do any different? Our problem is often that we seek to find our life everywhere it is not.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 22

Posted: March 3rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

53. By a single infinitely powerful act of will God in His goodness will gather all together, angels and men, the good and the evil. But, although God pervades all things absolutely, not all will participate in Him equally: they will participate in Him according to what they are.

In this text, St. Maximos begins to draw the threads of his answer to the proceedings questions together. Yes, God draws all creation to himself. God fills all things. But angels and men participate in God according to what we are.

If that thought does not give you pause, I don’t know what will. It’s hard for us to be honest with ourselves, but I have some inkling of the sort of person I am. Do I love God? I don’t know that I would be so bold. Most of the time, I believe I want to love God. I’ve reached a point in my life where I am confident he loves me, for I know there is no-one he does not love.

But do I love God?

Can I even answer that question honestly and without delusion?

I see how little I love my enemies and I realize, if that is indeed a measure, then I don’t love God very much at all. To what extent can a man who does not love his enemies participate in a God who loved and forgave the men who mocked, tortured, and unjustly killed him?

I think so many of us today are reluctant to ask for mercy because we cannot see ourselves as we truly are.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.


The Jesus Prayer 2 – Prayer of the Heart

Posted: February 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 2 – Prayer of the Heart

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

If you read or listen to almost anything about the Jesus Prayer, you will also often encounter the phrase, prayer of the heart. They sometimes seem to be used almost interchangeably, but they are not actually the same thing. I like the approach Khouria Frederica takes in distinguishing them.

The Jesus Prayer refers to the actual words of the prayer. By an act of volition or will, we choose to say those words. It can be somewhat mechanistic at first. The Jesus Prayer is a distinct discipline marked by act of repeating those words and it can be used to discuss the history of that specific discipline.

Prayer of the heart refers to the action of the Prayer, something that may occur, by God’s grace, within a person who diligently practices the Prayer.

The prayer “descends into heart” when, instead of simple mental repetition as an act of will, the prayer becomes effortless and spontaneous, flowing from your innermost being.

You discover that the Holy Spirit has been there, praying, all along. Then heart and soul, body and mind, memory and will, the very breath of life itself, everything that you have and are unites in gratitude and joy, tuned like a violin string to the name of Jesus.

Prayer of the heart is gift of the Spirit, not something we can control or force. I hesitate to say that I have experienced it, though I have experienced moments that sound similar to some of the descriptions. I’m a poor practitioner, though, and am well aware of my own capacity for self-delusion. I would never present myself as an example for anyone else to follow.

I do, however, have no doubts about the Jesus Prayer itself. In part, I think, that’s because it came to me before I had any intellectual understanding or knowledge of it. I discovered the Jesus Prayer was an ancient and enduring prayer tradition long after I discovered the Jesus Prayer. Unlike any other practice or discipline I have developed or tried over the years, this is not one I developed first in my intellect.

When I accepted the idea of breath prayers as a general concept from Bro. Lawrence and determined to attempt this discipline, this specific prayer immediately welled up from within me. It almost demanded that I pray it. I would try other prayers and find myself praying this one. And it never felt like something new. I’m not sure I can explain it, but it has always felt like the Jesus Prayer was consciously expressing the prayer within me of which I had not previously been consciously aware.

I suppose I would say the Jesus Prayer can unite our mind and heart, our intellect and nous, together in the Spirit. It’s a gift of God for our salvation.


Do You Love Me?

Posted: February 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »
 






Musicals were part of the air I breathed growing up. Stage, television, movies — and the albums from musicals often playing at home. I still remember the songs. They punctuate my life and my perception of the world around me. Fiddler on the Roof captures many of the things that make us human. Even when I was no more than 7 or 8 years old, I remember the song above was one of my favorites.

Do you love me?

Is that not the question we all ask? Is that not the deep yearning of our heart? We want to love and we want to be loved, but what does love look like? Oh, for a season it can look and feel like the following.

The feelings in those moments can be overwhelming — almost like a drug. Sometimes, when I see so many people leaping from one relationship to another, I wonder if they have become addicted to that feeling and are constantly chasing a new rush. Love does not use another to meet your own needs, so if that is so then what they are feeling is no longer love. It’s the natural emotions of love twisted into a passion.

The love Tevye and Golde describe grows over time through shared lives. You don’t really see it happening as you struggle to survive and fight your way through the crises life throws your way. One day you look at this other person and you realize they have become the story of your life. Two separate lives have become one shared life. Oh, there are still individual strands and unique threads, but the core around which they are all woven has become one.

And when you do perceive that reality, you see that love is not ultimately the grand drama of Romeo & Juliet. Rather, love is that text on a weekend morning.

Coffee on please. Thx.

Love is not the violent wind that tears down mountains — though it does knock down our delusions of self-sufficiency.

Love is not the earthquake that knocks us off our feet — it’s the stable ground on which we learn how to stand.

Love is not the raging fire destroying life — it’s the fire of the hearth.

Love is the still, small voice.

May we have ears to hear.


Thirsting for God 11 – Just Jesus and Me

Posted: January 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 11 – Just Jesus and Me

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

I intuitively grasp this section of Matthew’s book, but I find it hard to translate into words. Let’s start with some basic elements of our common human nature. We want to direct and control our lives and the world around us. The extent of the drive and the way in which it manifests vary hugely, but in one way or another it is common to us all. In pursuit of that goal, we often try to keep our options open and choose the path that appears most changeable, even though we’ve objectively proven that those paths and choices in reality simply produce more stress and tend to lead to undesirable outcomes. We actually function best (and tend to be happiest) when things are settled and when we know what to expect with some certainty. In our effort to shape the world around us, and in the ways we are influenced by those around us who are themselves doing the same thing, we develop particular interpretive grids. We believe that someone said something or that a particular idea can be found in a text, but it’s really our own thoughts read back into whatever we heard or read. We also lie to ourselves in a wide variety of ways. We minimize our actions while maximizing the actions of others. We project onto others. We deny a truth about ourselves that we cannot, for whatever reason, face. And in the process, we not only shape our interpretation of everything around us, we even shape and reinterpret our memories. We all do this. It’s so automatic it’s often like breathing to us. We aren’t even aware that it is happening.

Many of the “theological” thoughts I’ve posted here are ones I’ve long held. As I mentioned I turned to the early writings of the Church pretty early in my quest to understand this thing called Christianity and this God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. And those writings are permeated with many of the things I’ve shared. But five or ten years ago, I never would have expressed some of these ideas publicly because I was hard-pressed to find confirmation of them in any tradition of Christianity. I knew my own interpretations were as suspect as any other and though I thought my thoughts were confirmed in the writings of the ancient church, the truth is those cultures are as separated from me by language, time, and culture as the texts of Scripture.  I was as likely to misinterpret the Fathers as I was the Holy Scriptures. And I was just trying to understand this faith. I’ve never been the sort of person who, at least in these sorts of matters, wanted to convince people. And I was leery of even unintentionally leading people in the wrong direction.

That was the immediate source of relief and freedom I found when I first stumbled across and began exploring Orthodoxy.  A Christian tradition not only confirmed many of my thoughts and beliefs, but it could credibly trace that line of interpretation back to the very people in the ancient world I had been reading. That’s why I now feel free to share those thoughts publicly. I’m still not particularly interested in trying to convince anyone. Instead I write because it helps me work through things. I also can’t not write, whether I publish something or not. That’s always been true. So I’ve seen this blog as a good place to work through some things. If you’re reading and you disagree with something, that’s fine. I would ask that you consider why you disagree and from what source that disagreement arises. If your answer begins with either “That’s what the Bible says!” or (more honestly) “I believe that’s what the Bible says,” that’s fine. Just recognize, whether I express it or not, the question running through my head will be, “OK. Why do you believe that’s what it says?”

I say that to discuss the thought that lies at the core of this part of the book. By and large, Protestants want to determine how they worship God. It’s like trying to flip positions between the Creator and the Created. I don’t think most even realize how strange it is for the worshiper to tell the object of their worship how they are going to go about the act of worship. When you try to reduce the practice of your faith to your own preferences and make your own decisions about proper worship, when you try to make it just between you and God, it inevitably becomes just you. I’m deeply aware of the way that works. It’s a path of delusion.

Matthew tries to express that thought in a variety of ways.

You see, I at last understood that despite all the sincerity I had poured into my worship during the years I was a Protestant, God, out of His love for me, could not fully reveal Himself in the worship I offered him.

Why?

After all, God could not have been on the “throne of my life” when I was the one directing how He and I would relate to each other. When I picked the time, the place, and the method of worship, who was in charge — God or me? If God had accepted such worship, He would have been establishing me in my self-centeredness. That He would not do.

I don’t see any possible way for those in the Protestant tradition to ever be one with each other, much less one with God, as long as one of their central sacred tenets is that each individual person gets to choose how they want to worship God. But I also don’t see any way for Protestantism to ever be anything different. That’s pretty close to its core. If you look at the history of Protestantism, you see a steady and pretty much continuous progression along those lines. Protestantism today is very little like the Protestantism of five hundred or even two hundred years ago, but the continuous thread of the focus on individual interpretation and belief and even practice is pretty much continuous over these past few centuries.

Curiously, I heard a podcast recently that shed new light on that process for me. We’ve all heard the phrase, I’m sure, “outside the Church there is no salvation,” and the endless debates and discussions surrounding it. This podcast offered a perspective I had never considered, but which rings true to me, especially as it has bounced around my head a while. I’m not actually a huge fan of the Faith & Philosophy podcast, but I listen to it because it’s not long or overly frequent and there are sometimes gems like this podcast.


Reality

Posted: November 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reality

Sometimes it seems to me that a great many Christians in our present culture and age have surrendered the reality of our faith. That manifests in a host of different ways and crosses both the modern “liberal” and “conservative” Christian divides. I’ll try to explore some of those ways in this post, but I’m not trying to be comprehensive. Rather, I’m trying to peel back the layers and at least make an effort to reveal what lies underneath.

Some ways this happens are obvious. For instance, there are many who deny the historical reality of our faith. They reject the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other facets of our faith yet often want to maintain some connection or identification with it. While our faith is not merely historical, it collapses if God did not in fact become one of us — fully and in every way — confronting the powers and ultimately defeating them. An euvangelion is a particular sort of “good news.” It’s the good news of a victorious king who has defeated the enemies that assail his people, and who has thereby made his people safe. Either that’s what Jesus accomplished or as far as I can tell, there’s no reason to be Christian.

Perhaps I see the demarcation more clearly than some who have been raised and formed within some sort of Christian context. I have been other things and I have worshiped other gods. Whatever similarities you can find between them, they say fundamentally different things about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being. That’s why in some contexts (ancient and modern) Christianity is said to be the end of religion. God has intruded into history and in Jesus, the eternal Son and Word became one of us in every way. Jesus makes God known to us. Jesus reveals God to us. And Jesus provides the path through which we can know God and be one with God. If Christianity is true, we aren’t guessing about reality any more. But that’s only the case if Jesus of Nazareth truly forms the center of human history.

Sometimes this disconnect from reality happens in other ways. For instance, I’ve never been able to grasp what Christians who assert that the cosmos are only a few thousand years old are trying to achieve. That’s so clearly and demonstrably false across virtually every discipline of knowledge that it comes across more as a denial of reality than anything else.

It is true that as Christians we do not share the same understanding of reality as materialists who hold there is nothing beyond the sensible realm (though things like quantum mechanics stretch what we mean by sensible realm). But we should not deny the clear evidence of our senses. Where a materialist, for example, would perceive nothing but the physical mechanics of, for instance, the processes of evolution, a Christian would (or at least should) see a process infused by the particular sort of God who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. But the evidence for that view is in the Incarnation, not in anything we can learn through our study of nature.

How do you perceive a God who is sustaining and filling everything from moment to moment? How do you see the God who is maintaining the existence of both the observer and the observed? If we had the capacity to know God on our own, the Incarnation would not have been necessary. Everything we learn or know has the capacity to draw us to God or away from God. The result is really up to us. But we aren’t going to be able to somehow distill and separate God from his creation. Yes, God certainly transcends creation. That’s why he had to become human — to empty himself — in order for us to know him. But he’s not a separate aspect or element in creation. The smallest particle, the least bit of energy, the smallest fragment of a wave are all sustained moment by moment in and through Christ. There is nothing that has any independent existence. Only God is self-existent and eternal. Everything else is created and depends on God. Fortunately our God does not begrudge existence to any of his creation. It would be a frightening thing for existence to depend on the whim of the capricious God so many imagine.

Reality itself is thus fundamentally sacramental or a mystery of God. And our role within it is to act as priests — to minister God to creation and offer creation back as thanksgiving to God. If you can perceive reality through that lens, it makes a mockery of Zwingli’s musings. His idea that anything could merely represent God or, as is often said today, could be purely symbolic could only be true if there were, in fact, some sort of division between God and creation. His ideas require two thing that are altogether missing in the Christian perspective of reality — distance and self-existence. If water is never merely water then how can it become merely water when it is used sacramentally? It can, perhaps, become even more truly water, but it cannot become less. The same is true of oil and incense and bread and wine. They become even more real, not less.

I’m also confused about how modern Christians perceive reality when I see how many of them treat variation in Christian belief and practice almost as matters of personal taste and preference. Even after fifteen years, it makes no sense to me and it seems to be a pretty modern occurrence. As recently as two hundred years ago, though there were many differences among Christians, they all believed those differences really and truly mattered. Now? Not so much. But our perception of God defines our understanding of reality. If, for instance, Calvin accurately described God, then reality is very different than it would be if, for contrast, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s description is more correct. One of them could be right. They could both be wrong. But they cannot both be right. They offer divergent and often completely contradictory images of God. Athanasius and Anselm both wrote on the Incarnation and they do not say the same thing. God is the fundamental ground of reality and how we understand him is vitally important, not a secondary concern. To the extent we misapprehend God, we misapprehend reality.

While we do have some limited capacity to shape reality within the sphere of our personal power and will, to a large degree reality is simply what it is and lies beyond our ability to mold. And we certainly can’t change God just by imagining him to be a certain way. There is a name for that space between reality and our perception of it. It’s called delusion. Personally, I would prefer to be as free from delusion as I can be. I know I can’t do that on my own. Christianity proclaims that I don’t have to. The Word became flesh and gives us the grace, which is to say himself, to know God. Christianity tells us that, if we are willing, we can see reality as it is.


America’s Four Gods

Posted: October 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on America’s Four Gods

Two Baylor professors have published a book that is gaining a fair amount of attention. Baylor has been conducting a different sort of survey of religion over the last few years. These surveys go beyond the basic sorts of questions about affiliation and attendance and probe attitudes and specific practices. This sort of approach is more valuable and useful in our richly pluralistic nation.

In America’s Four Gods,  the authors note that across the spectrum of religious belief, Americans tend to divide into four different groups with very different basic images of the God they worship. On their site, they have a brief little quiz to identify the God in which you believe and compare you to your demographic. (I’m in a minority in mine — well below 20% in all demographics. But I knew that already.) And they also have a little test of your response to images. Both are a fun little diversion. America’s Four Gods has also gained some media attention on ABC News and in USA Today.

Of course, that’s not a new idea to me. My formation was more pluralistic than most, so I’ve always found it natural to listen to how someone describes their God, try to understand that God, and decide if their God was a God I was willing to worship or follow. I did that when exploring all sorts of religions and religious practices. I didn’t stop doing it as I’ve become Christian. Nor did I have a foundational assumption — as many seem to have — that “Christians” all worshiped the same God. Instead, I looked at everything they said about God and made the same sort of decision about the God they described.

That’s why I phrase things the way I do. When I say, for instance, that Calvin’s God repulses me and I would be something other than Christian if I believed his God was really the Christian God, I’m judging the God he describes and deciding whether or not I am willing to worship that God. In the case of Calvin’s God, it’s as clear as such things can be. There’s nothing about that God that I find the slightest bit attractive or worthy of worship. As a result, I tend to use Calvinism as an example when I write about this process.

However, I also recognize that however I try to mediate or qualify my statement, those who do worship Calvin’s God will hear me saying that they are not Christian. And that’s not really my intent. It’s my own personal judgment about the sort of God in which I am or am not willing to believe. In fact, if God is as I believe him to be, then I know that he is at work trying to heal and renew and restore all of us. Our image of him can certainly hinder our ability to cooperate with his efforts. And if we choose to wrap ourselves in delusion and reject healing God will not force himself upon us. God is not willing that any should perish, but he is also not a tyrant. The God we worship matters. But it doesn’t change God or in any way control his activity. I just don’t happen to believe that Calvin’s God, Brahman, or any of a host of ways of describing the ultimate reality of our universe actually exist.

The Four Gods that the authors identify are divided into four general quadrants: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant. These are broad categories, but the professors found they are also predictive of attitudes and behaviors across a spectrum of areas. In other words, the general sort of God in which you believe shapes the way you live and act. I suppose that’s not surprising. As I’ve heard Bishop N.T. Wright say, “We become like what we worship.”

I wasn’t surprised that the Distant God, which is essentially the same sort of God that the Deist founders of our nation worshiped, is still widely followed. Roughly a quarter of the population, across all religions, believe in this sort of God. This is the God who starts the universe running and then mostly stays out of it.

I was, however, discouraged that so few Americans believe in a Benevolent God. Now, that does not mean that those who believe in a different sort of God don’t believe that God can be kind, merciful, and loving. They often do. It does mean, though, that they do not believe that love defines his essence. Most people do not truly believe that God is a good God who loves mankind. It’s hard to find an Orthodox prayer or liturgy that does not somewhere declare God’s goodness and love for the whole of humanity.

That does not mean that God is a God of enlightenment toleration. He’s not the good God who tolerates anyone and any behavior at a respectable distance. No, he is the God who seeks to heal us and who desires union with us. And sometimes the prescription for healing is painful. But he is the God who has suffered with us, who brings himself to us by becoming one of us in every way.

The deepest problem with Protestantism is that it makes it even easier for us to define God any way we please. If we don’t like one picture of God, we’re free to invent another. That’s always been a problem for Christianity, so the issue itself isn’t new. We have a desire to remake God in our image. But Protestantism, in which every person decides for themselves (or at least has the authority to decide for themselves) what sort of God they worship, exacerbates that tendency in us all. I think the deeper studies like this one simply reveal that underlying weakness. Yes, the majority of the people in this nation are Christian, but we can hardly claim to all worship the same God.

Lord have mercy.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 12 – Forever?

Posted: July 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

It seems appropriate to end this series with the question of the unending nature of “hell.” The question for me is and has always been different than the one that I most often hear asked in my particular circle. I don’t believe in the concentration camp, so I’m not concerned about whether or not people will be tortured forever for finite transgressions. I don’t believe hell is a “place” where people are put and from which they can later be released.

Rather, hell is our experience of the unveiled love of God when we don’t want him, but cannot escape him. Hell is being consumed by our passions when we can no longer express them outwardly in a renewed creation. In many ways, we create our own hell. So the question becomes one of whether or not we will still be able to change. Will we be trapped deeper and deeper in our delusion and rejection of God? Is there no longer any hope for us at all?

The overall consensus of the Church is that it is possible for human beings to so twist themselves that they can never be whole. Bishop Tom Wright describes it as a point where we strive so hard to become an ex-human being that God tells us that if that’s what we truly want, so be it. I recognize and appreciate the warning inherent in that consensus.

But I have been touched by the love of Christ when I was not seeking it. As such, it is hard for me to imagine any creature so twisted that the love of God cannot ever warm his heart. I cannot imagine any delusion so complete that the light of God cannot eventually illumine and dispel it. And so I tend to gravitate to voices like that of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian, who also could not believe that the love of God would not win out in the end.

It’s not the sort of universalism that’s common today, which presents either a passive God who accepts anything or a coercive God who forces people into “heaven” whether or not that’s what they want. Rather, having felt the least shadow of the reality of God, I’m incredulous that there’s any heart that cannot eventually be touched and changed by his unveiled love. I once saw a video of an aged monk (from Romania, I think). In it he said something that has stuck in my mind ever since. He said, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I find it difficult to put into words, but that perception of reality struck a deep chord in me. If there’s hope for me, there’s hope for anyone.