The Jesus Prayer 8 – The Little Radio

Posted: March 9th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 8 – The Little Radio

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

The Jesus Prayer itself is simple. There is not much to learn intellectually. I like the way Khouria Frederica expresses its simplicity.

1. Pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

2. Repeat.

That’s it. The hard part, though, is to say the words and actually mean them. It’s hard even to say the words and give them your attention. When you can keep your attention on the words, let them sink into the depths of your being, and learn to mean them, it’s possible to begin to sense “the responsive presence of the Lord.

Khouria Frederica points out something I had never really considered. Many of us aren’t really sure it’s possible to sense the presence of God. That’s obviously true,  but it still seems alien to me. I’ve never assumed it was easy to sense God, but I’ve always known it was possible. In some part, though my formation was not really Christian, I think it did help form my understanding of what it means to be receptive. I watch the meditation scene in Eat, Pray, Love and I fully empathize. It’s hard work to calm your thoughts and open yourself — even if you are not specifically trying to be receptive to God in a Christian sense.

The book lightly explores our modern dichotomy of head and heart. We place thoughts in the head and emotions in the heart, but the two are not really separate. Emotions shape thoughts and beliefs and thoughts spur emotions. They are intertwined within our active, cogitating mind. Scripturally, of course, head is never used as a synonym for “reason.” Rather thoughts are said to arise from the heart and strong emotions from the bowels or kidneys or womb — basically your guts.

When we use the term “mind” or “reason” we normally mean our active, rational thoughts. The Greeks had a term for that faculty. However, they also had a word for the receptive and perceptive faculty of our minds for which we do not have a corresponding English word. The Greek word is nous and it’s almost always the word used in Scripture that is often translated in English as mind. It’s the part of our mind in which we understand (if we do), the part that deals directly with life, the part that recognizes truth.

It’s in and through our nous that we can directly encounter God. Khouria Frederica calls the nous our “little radio” that is designed to be tuned to God. I like that imagery. We all have the capacity to hear and encounter God. We can truly experience God.


Funeral Reflections

Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal, Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lately I’ve attended too many funerals and seen too many people in our family’s extended circle of relatives and friends die. You could respond that even one such death is too many and I wouldn’t disagree with you. I’ve recognized death as the enemy from that day long ago when my eight year old self watched my beloved stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to a waiting ambulance and my reconstructed life fell apart again. But as I’ve listened to and read the things people tend to say today when faced with death, I’ve reflected on what I would want said at my funeral.

There are a number of things I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that I don’t want said. I don’t want those who might be grieving for me told that my body is not me, that it’s just a discarded shell. My body is most certainly part and parcel of who I am and is the only part of me with which anyone has directly interacted. No, I do not believe I am merely my body, but I also do not believe that my identity can somehow be extricated or separated from my body. I have believed things like that in the past, when I believed in the transmigration of souls, but that is not what I believe today.

Notably, I am not and have never been a Platonist, which is what too many modern Christians sound like. I forget who told the story, but I remember hearing one about a professor at a prestigious university. He was a thorough-going Platonist and, for example, would not say, “I am going for a walk.” Instead he would say, “I am taking my body for a walk.” When Christians speak of our bodies as vehicles that we discard and trade up for better models, that is exactly the sort of thing they are saying.

I also do not want my loved ones told that death is a natural stage of life, that I am happy now, and basically that it’s their own selfish pain and sense of loss causing them to grieve. Standing outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus not only wept, we are twice told that he was “groaning in his spirit”. He faced death and embodied God’s sorrow and anger at the death of the image-bearer. If anyone has loved me and is grieving, I want them to know that God grieves with them — that this isn’t how things are meant to be. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, but we do still grieve in the face of death.

I want everyone to hear somebody give voice to the story of God’s victory over death. I want Resurrection proclaimed! However, the words alone are not enough today. The uniquely Christian understanding of resurrection has become so distorted and obscured that most people don’t even know what it actually is anymore.

Christian resurrection does not involve trading in our physical body for some spiritual body after death in another realm of existence. That sort of story was common in the pagan world and would have posed no threat to Rome. It would not have been a “scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” It would have just been another story about what happened to you when you died.

No, resurrection means the resurrection of this body in this world. Yes, the body will be transformed (as will the world), but it will be recognizably continuous with the body I have now. After all, the message of Easter is that the tomb was empty, not that Jesus left his old body behind and got a new one in a place called “Heaven”. Although Jesus was certainly different in resurrection and was not always recognized until he willed it, those who had followed him did indeed recognize him. His body still bore the marks of the nails and the spear. And once again, the tomb was empty! It was that same body which had hung on the cross and been buried that was raised and transformed. And the promise of Scripture is that as he was raised, so shall all humanity be raised. In the Resurrection of Jesus death, the last enemy, was forever defeated. The gates of Hades were burst asunder.

Moreover, Christianity does not proclaim some two-story universe with a basement. That’s a variation of some of the old (and new) pagan stories about the nature of reality. No, heaven and earth are overlapping and interlocking aspects of our one reality. Heaven and earth are not intended to be separate, but for our salvation a veil currently stands between the two dimensions of reality. But heaven is never more than a breath away. And in places where worship has been valid, the veil can be thin indeed. In the divine liturgy, the Orthodox would say it has been pierced. One day the veil will be dropped entirely and the glory of the fire of God’s consuming love will be fully revealed as all in all.

As such, “heaven” is emphatically not our final destination. Yes, God sustains us in the interim between our deaths and the final resurrection. Yes, as John 14 says, Jesus has prepared rooms for us. But those are not our permanent homes. The Greek word used is the one for a temporary dwelling place, like a room in an inn. It’s a way station in our journey.

The language of Christian Scripture for death is the language of sleep. Our bodies repose until God awakens us again in resurrection. In the interim, God somehow provides himself to sustain us in lieu of our bodies. But that’s a temporary measure and one that Scripture says very little about. And in the context of the eschaton, the language of Scripture is also as clear as I find any of the Jewish apocalyptic writings. The city of God, the New Jerusalem, is seen coming from heaven to earth. And we have work to do healing and caring for creation. (The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.)

Our permanent home is here, on this earth. And our bodies on this earth will, however transformed, be continuous with our current bodies. Once again, it is this body which is resurrected in this reality. That is the truly and uniquely Christian hope of resurrection. That is what was (and is) foolishness to the Greeks. If that is not true then, as Paul says, my faith has been in vain. I remain Christian because of its promise of resurrection. If there is no true resurrection, then I’ve been wasting my time.

I want Resurrection proclaimed at my funeral. I want everyone to hear about the life after life after death. But I’m not sure there will be anyone available who can or will do it.


On the Incarnation of the Word 50 – Greeks and Resurrection

Posted: November 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 50 – Greeks and Resurrection

In this section, Athanasius continues to refute pagan perspectives. His comment against the sophists is probably difficult to understand without some understanding of their development in ancient and classical Greece. This history is interesting if you want to look it up, but by Athanasius’ time sophists were regarded as teachers of rhetoric rather than actual wisdom. As such, when Athanasius compares the common language with which the Word taught and communicated to us and which his followers largely used to the sophists, he is comparing it to their eloquence and rhetorical ability. And he says the Logos overshadows them all. It’s an interesting way to formulate the idea and I didn’t want anyone to miss it.

However, I want to focus on this excerpt.

Or who else has given men such assurance of immortality, as has the Cross of Christ, and the Resurrection of His Body? For although the Greeks have told all manner of false tales, yet they were not able to feign a Resurrection of their idols,—for it never crossed their mind, whether it be at all possible for the body again to exist after death. And here one would most especially accept their testimony, inasmuch as by this opinion they have exposed the weakness of their own idolatry, while leaving the possibility open to Christ, so that hence also He might be made known among all as Son of God.

This emphasizes a point the N.T. Wright makes in his big book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which a lot of modern people overlook. And it’s this one. Everyone in the ancient world knew what resurrection meant. It meant new bodies after death, a new embodied life of the same person. But other than some of the Jews, no group actually believed that resurrection was possible. The tale of Orpheus is as close as you come in the pagan Greek mythos and the point of the narrative is that resurrection can’t happen.  This was actually one of the problems in the Corinthian Church that Paul was trying to address. They had accepted that Jesus, as the Son of God, had somehow been resurrected, but they didn’t believe that as a result we would be resurrected. A lot of people use Paul’s words today to emphasize the importance of the bodily resurrection of our Lord, and that’s not a bad usage. But Paul was actually taking their acceptance of that truth as a given and from it arguing that we would all one day be resurrected.

Without the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no Christianity and there is no point to our faith. But if he did not defeat death for all humanity in his death, if we also do not rise, then again there is no point in being Christian.


On the Incarnation of the Word 47 – Christ Persuades All

Posted: October 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 47 – Christ Persuades All

As you read this part of Athanasius’ treatise, it helps if you understand something of the divine madness of the Delphic oracle or something both of Greek philosophy and the worship of the Greek gods. I’ll move straight to his conclusion.

But as to Gentile wisdom, and the sounding pretensions of the philosophers, I think none can need our argument, since the wonder is before the eyes of all, that while the wise among the Greeks had written so much, and were unable to persuade even a few from their own neighbourhood, concerning immortality and a virtuous life, Christ alone, by ordinary language, and by men not clever with the tongue, has throughout all the world persuaded whole churches full of men to despise death, and to mind the things of immortality; to overlook what is temporal and to turn their eyes to what is eternal; to think nothing of earthly glory and to strive only for the heavenly.

Even Plato convinced only a very few. Christ, on the other hand, used men who were not clever to persuade churches full of those who despise death.


On the Incarnation of the Word 46 – Defeat of the Pagan Gods

Posted: October 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 46 – Defeat of the Pagan Gods

Athanasius writes about the diminution of the pagan cults, the dying out of the oracles and the schools of magic, and the interference in the power of the demons. Moreover, even the wisdom of the Greeks has become foolish.

And, in a word, at what time has the wisdom of the Greeks become foolish, save when the true Wisdom of God manifested itself on earth? For formerly the whole world and every place was led astray by the worshipping of idols, and men regarded nothing else but the idols as gods. But now, all the world over, men are deserting the superstition of the idols, and taking refuge with Christ; and, worshipping Him as God, are by His means coming to know that Father also Whom they knew not. And, marvellous fact, whereas the objects of worship were various and of vast number, and each place had its own idol, and he who was accounted a god among them had no power to pass over to the neighbouring place, so as to persuade those of neighbouring peoples to worship him, but was barely served even among his own people; for no one else worshipped his neighbour’s god—on the contrary, each man kept to his own idol, thinking it to be lord of all;—Christ alone is worshipped as one and the same among all peoples; and what the weakness of the idols could not do—to persuade, namely, even those dwelling close at hand,—this Christ has done, persuading not only those close at hand, but simply the entire world, to worship one and the same Lord, and through Him God, even His Father.

Gods in the ancient world were gods of a place or of a people. The Word, however, is worshiped by the nations, by people who had once worshiped many disparate gods. Christianity spreads to the entire world in a way unprecedented.