Love of Enemies

Posted: June 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Love of Enemies

Like many, I was disturbed by the gleeful celebration of so many Americans at the death of Osama bin Laden. Was his death necessary? Perhaps. Fortunately, I was not the one who had to make that decision or act upon it. But as Christians, we worship the God of life who joined his nature to ours that we might live. Our God was betrayed, mocked, tortured, unjustly convicted, and executed while forgiving all of those who wronged him.

And he commands us to do the same.

Love of enemies is a hard thing. I’m not particularly good at it. I don’t feel any particular sorrow at bin Laden’s demise.

But …

I recognize that my God does.

And at least in some small measure, I long to be like him.

I think the best thing I heard on the topic was a podcast by Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Hard Reality of the Kingdom of God. It’s only about ten minutes long. I invite everyone to pause a few moments and listen to it. It’s well worth the time.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

Posted: June 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 1 – Introduction

I participate in (or sometimes just read) a number of different blogs as well as being active on twitter. It seems to me that there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the Christian perspective on reality. I’ve decided to go ahead and record my present thoughts in a series. I doubt I will say anything better than others have already said elsewhere, but I will probably express it a little differently. Or perhaps somebody will read what I write who wouldn’t otherwise read or hear anything that has shaped my understanding of what Christianity teaches.

I don’t intend to include anything that is a novel idea in this series. If anything I write appears to be a new idea to anyone reading, there will thus be two general possibilities. It may be that I have misunderstood or failed to properly express something in my particular synthesis of traditional Christian interpretation. Or it may be that what I write expresses a traditional Christian perspective that some of those raised within modern Christianity have never heard before. Or it could be some combination of both.

I could claim that I am writing to express the “scriptural” perspective, but that would be disingenuous of me. It’s a given that anyone who calls themselves a Christian believes and expresses an interpretation that they believe to be consistent with the Scriptures of Christian faith. So I am writing in order to try to express the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures on matters of ultimate reality. The sources that feed my understanding are many and varied, ranging from ancient Christians like St. Athanasius the Great, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Isaac the Syrian to modern voices such as C.S. Lewis, Bishop N.T. Wright, Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dallas Willard, and Fr. Stephen Freeman. It’s not that they all say exactly the same thing. They don’t. But on key elements all those voices and many more through the ages are more similar to each other than not. And those elements are often different than those found in many popular modern interpretations of Scripture.

I originally thought I would simply do a series on “Hell,” but as I considered it, I realized I couldn’t do that without writing about “Heaven”. And then I realized I couldn’t possibly speak about Heaven and Hell without discussing “Earth”. The specific format I chose for the series title has a meaning that should become apparent as we progress through the series.

Obviously, it’s not possible for me to cover every facet of this topic. As such, I will have to pick and choose the topics I cover and what I choose to write about each one. If you’re reading this series and have a particular question or issue I don’t address, or a particular text from scripture that troubles you, let me know and I’ll address it to the best of my poor ability.


Original Sin 15 – What is the Gospel?

Posted: March 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

I have been struggling over how I would write this part of the series since I started it. I know what I want to say, but I’ve discovered over the years that this is a place where the fact that I was not culturally shaped within the context of American Christianity creates a disconnect that is difficult to bridge. I don’t really grasp the inner experience and automatic assumptions of those who were shaped within that context and so it is often like navigating a minefield. I tend to express myself in ways that produce reactions I did not intend. I’ve never been known for a reluctance to “stir the pot” in any situation if that’s what I feel is necessary. However, I don’t have the sense that anything I want to say on this topic should be controversial for any Christian. It’s not only deeply embedded in the Scriptures, but consistently in the interpretation of those Scriptures throughout the first centuries of the Church. So I ask that if you react negatively to something I write in this post, take  a moment to explain your reaction to me and I’ll see if I can find better words.

I’ve been writing this series from the perspective of my own personal journey into and with Christian faith, so I’ll continue in that vein. It seems to me that most American Christians today don’t realize that in order to proclaim their story of “good news“, they must first either make a person feel bad about themselves or convince them that there is a powerful deity out there who will torment them forever if they don’t do as he requires. When you boil them down, most of the common “gospels” require you to first induce fear, guilt, or shame in the hearer before the rest of the proclamation (which is basically deliverance from the very shame, guilt, or fear you’ve worked so hard to instill) makes any sense at all.

Stop here and think for a minute about how you would explain to someone why they should consider being Christian. Am I wrong? Now, if someone is already consumed to some degree by shame, guilt, or fear, then it’s an easy sell, I suppose. But if a person is not, then unless you can manipulate them into feeling guilty or fearful about their status before this deity, most modern “gospel” proclamations have nothing to offer. And it seems to me that as soon as we fall into manipulation, we are acting in ways that God does not act. If I am trying to manipulate you, then I am treating you not like a person, but like an object instead. I cannot love you and use you at the same time. If that’s not “sin“, I don’t know what is.

I did not come into Christianity because I feared what this deity might do to me. I was living within non-Christian frameworks and was largely content with them. There was no ground in which fear of this Christian God could take root. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hand of the Lord, but you have to be Christian or shaped by a Christian culture before you begin to understand the deep truth of that statement. And by then you should understand that it is fearful due to the all-consuming fire of his love.

Similarly, I did not become Christian because I felt guilt or shame before the Christian God for my “sin“. Oh, I had and have guilt and even shame, but largely for the way things I’ve done have hurt other people or for failing to be the person I desired to be. (Some of it also probably flows from childhood experiences, but that’s a different topic altogether.) I had no sense of guilt toward the Christian God. In fact, I would still say that I am just discovering what sin actually means in a Christian context and how deeply that thread is interwoven in my life. Sin is also something that can truly be understood only from within a Christian framework.

If those aren’t the “gospel”, what then is the “good news” of Christianity? And why is it good news?

Christianity proclaims a good God who loves mankind. Christianity tells the story of a God who is about the business of rescuing mankind and all creation. The Christian God is not some distant, transcendent deity. No, the Christian God is the one who comes near, the one who enters his creation as a part of it, who empties himself. And by doing so, the Christian God is the one who destroys death and heals mankind’s nature, making communion with God possible for us all.

Here’s a question for you. If mankind had never sinned, if we had remained faithful, would the Son of God still have become Incarnate? The ancient Christian answer to that question is yes. Jesus would not have had to die if that were the case. It was through the Cross that he was able to destroy death in the Resurrection. But it was always God’s purpose (see Ephesians) for mankind to be joined in full communion with God. And that was only ever possible through the action of God. We could never have joined ourselves to God unless he first joined his nature to ours.

When I think about the Gospel, I like a phrase of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s. “Jesus did not come to make bad men good. He came to make dead men live.” I think that captures a significant and central part of it.

I realize that this post is getting long and I’ve still not reached the point that I originally intended to make. So I’ll wrap this up here and continue the discussion tomorrow.


For the Life of the World 4

Posted: October 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 4

In this week’s podcast, Deacon Michael Hyatt covers sections 5-8 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. This chapter walks through the whole of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, so there is a lot in it. First, the link to the next podcast in this series.

The next step in the liturgy is the entrance, sometimes called the little entrance, in which the celebrant comes to the altar.  This involves a procession with the Gospels. Father Schmemann notes that though the act has been given many symbolical explanations, it is not itself a symbol.

It is the very movement of the Church as passage from the old into the new, from “this world” into the “world to come” and, as such, it is the essential movement of the liturgical “journey.” In “this world” there is no altar and the temple has been destroyed. For the only altar is Christ Himself, His humanity which He has assumed and deified and made the temple of God, the altar of His presence. And Christ ascended into heaven. The altar thus is the sign that in Christ we have been given access to heaven, that the Church is the “passage” to heaven, the entrance into the heavenly sanctuary, and that only by “entering,” by ascending to heaven does the Church fulfill herself, become what she is. And so the entrance at the Eucharist, this approach of the celebrant — and in him, of the whole Church — to the altar is not a symbol. It is the crucial and decisive act in which the true dimensions of the sacrament are revealed and established. It is not “grace” that comes down; it is the Church that enters into “grace,” and grace means the new being, the Kingdom, the world to come.

There is something to the way N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham, describes the Eucharist as a point where past, present, and future come together transcendentally in Christ. As we participate together, we are not remembering the past, living in the present, or looking toward the future Kingdom. It is, as the above passage says, a place and a time when we enter into the world to come.

I’ve been familiar, in Western liturgy, with the division between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. As we will see, there is not the same sharp distinction between Word and Eucharist in the East. The entire Divine Liturgy is the Eucharistic liturgy and it is instead divided into the Liturgy of the Catechumens and the Liturgy of the Faithful. It’s an interesting division because it means that the parts we have retained in the so-called “non-liturgical” churches (the reading of Scripture and the homily or sermon — though we often omit the formal reading of Scripture these days) were the parts that were, in significant measure, directed toward the education and teaching of those who were interested, but not yet Christian. In the ancient Church the catechumens left after the Liturgy of the Catechumens was complete. Though those who are not among the Orthodox faithful no longer physically leave, the Divine Liturgy remains marked by that distinction. I think there is much to ponder here. Has the majority of the Protestant tradition virtually abandoned that part of the liturgy intended to sustain the faithful?

As the celebrant enters, the Church sings the Trisagion, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal one, have mercy on us!” It’s the song of the angels before the throne of God.

“Holy” is the real name of God, of the God “not of scholars and philosophers,” but of the living God of faith. The knowledge about God results in definitions and distinctions. The knowledge of God leads to this on, incomprehensible, yet obvious and inescapable word: holy. And in this one word we express both that God is the Absolutely Other, the One about whom we know nothing, and that He is the end of all our hunger, all our desires, the inaccessible One who mobilizes our wills, the mysterious treasure that attracts us, and there is really nothing to know but Him. “Holy” is the word, the song, the “reaction” of the Church as it enters into heaven, as it stands before the heavenly glory of God.

Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent post on The Knowledge of God which fits in excellently at this point and says better what it means to know God than anything I could write. I recommend you take a moment to read it. Holy. It’s a word that has little actual meaning as anything but a name for God.

Next the celebrant turns and faces the people for the first time in this journey. The Church has ascended.

And the priest whose liturgy, whose unique function and obedience in the Church is to re-present, to make present the priesthood of Christ Himself, says to the people: “Peace be with you.” In Christ man returns to God and in Christ God comes to man. As the new Adam, as the perfect man He leads us to God; as God incarnate He reveals the Father to us and reconciles us with God. He is our peace — the reconciliation with God, divine forgiveness, communion. And the peace that the priest announces and bestows upon us is the peace Christ established between God and His world and into which we, the Church, have entered.

It is not a gesture or a symbol. The celebrant proclaims peace and the gathered Church receives the peace of Christ — “which passes all understanding.” Father Schmemman next makes the point I alluded to above.

Western Christians are so accustomed to distinguish the Word from the sacrament that it may be difficult for them to understand that in the Orthodox perspective the liturgy of the Word is as sacramental as the sacrament is “evangelical.” The sacrament is a manifestation of the Word. And unless the false dichotomy between Word and sacrament is overcome, the true meaning of both Word and sacrament, and especially the true meaning of Christian “sacramentalism” cannot be grasped in all their wonderful implications. The proclamation of the Word is a sacramental act par excellence because it is a transforming act. It transforms the human words of the Gospel into the Word of God and manifestation of the Kingdom. And it transforms the man who hears the Word into a receptacle of the Word and a temple of the Spirit.

I wonder if those who have been conditioned to hear and read “Word of God” essentially as referring to the Holy Scriptures in every usage will catch the nuance above. Think about what the phrase “Word of God” means in Scripture itself and then re-read the above. You might find yourself reading it in a different light.

This is why the reading and the preaching of the Gospel in the Orthodox Church is a liturgical act, an integral and essential part of the sacrament. It is heard as the Word of God, and it is received in the Spirit — that is, in the Church, which is the life of the Word and its “growth” in the world.

As I did last week, I’ll continue with the next two sections that were covered in Deacon Michael’s podcast tomorrow.


Mercy and Justice

Posted: June 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Father Stephen Freeman wrote two fantastic interrelated posts today. Take a moment to read them both before reading my feeble thoughts on them.

St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice

More on the “Justice” of God

I had read a fair amount of St. Isaac the Syrian and others like him even before I had heard of Orthodoxy. It’s probably one of the things that always made me such a poor evangelical (and frankly, a poor Western Christian). But I was thirsty to know more about this God I had encountered and couldn’t shake. I read Scripture, but the more modern voices I encountered mostly did not match the things I saw in the Holy Scriptures or the God who had met me. The ancient authors I read more often did. I have not read Abba Ammonas before, but the short snippet makes me want to track down more by him.

I echo what Father Stephen says in his opening paragraph. I’ve often said that Western Christianity attributes a problem with forgiveness to God. The way he puts it might be better. Western Christianity speaks as though God’s justice constrains God. I’ve never understood how anyone could immerse themselves in the story of God and walk away with anything other than a picture of a God overflowing with mercy, forgiveness, and love. Even Jonah understood that much about God. It pissed him off royally. He didn’t like it one bit. But he understood God. It’s a struggle in the West to find voices that even seem to know God at all.

God doesn’t achieve justice by punishing the evildoer. He achieves justice by bringing good from the evil, by ultimately undoing the wrong, and, if at possible, by saving both the victim and the evildoer through his boundless mercy and love. St. Isaac could not imagine that any human being could become so hardened that they could resist the love of God forever. I am perhaps a bit more pessimistic. I fear that human beings can so distort themselves that they can trap themselves in a state unable to ever experience the light and love of God as anything but searing fire. But I hope St. Isaac is right.

In some ways I’m reminded of the scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? where Mrs. Prentice tells Matt Drayton this.

I believe that men grow old. And when the — when sexual things no longer matter to them, they forget it all. Forget what true passion is. If you ever felt what my son feels for your daughter, you’ve forgotten everything about it.

My husband too.

You knew once, but that was a long time ago. Now the two of you don’t know.

And the strange thing, for your wife and me, is that you don’t even remember.

If you did how could you do what you are doing?

That’s what Western Christianity feels like to me these days. They knew about the love and mercy of God once upon a time. But now they don’t even remember. If they did, how could they do and say the things they do — about God and about other human beings? Eastern Christianity is like the wives. It remembers. It has never forgotten.

I strongly agree with Father Stephen’s closing statement in the first post. When somebody can show me where God’s mercy ends, I’ll be willing to consider where something else — anything else — begins. Until then, let’s talk about his mercy, pray for his mercy, live within his mercy, and live out his mercy to others.

If anything, Father Stephen’s followup post strikes even closer to home. Those who know me at all well know that I and those I love have experienced “injustice” — even evil. Ultimately, the cry for “justice”, where it is not merely a code word for revenge, is a deep cry from the depth of my being for the evil to have never happened. That is the only true justice.

But we desire justice only for others. For ourselves, if we are honest, we desire mercy. We not believe we will receive mercy, but it is what we desire. If God is willing to have mercy on us, how we can possibly believe his mercy toward anyone else is limited in any way? We are all hypocrites of the worst sort. We are the whitewashed tombs.

And yet God loves us.

That is the mystery at the center of reality.


The Didache 4 – Have No Enemies

Posted: June 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 4 – Have No Enemies

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.

The way of Jesus, the way of life, is the way of love. We should not find that surprising for as St. John tells us, “God is love.” Nevertheless, we do not want to love every other human being we meet. We believe we ought to be able to pick and choose whom to love. Some people, after all, are not worthy of our love. Is that not so?

No, the way of life is about perceiving reality and acting accordingly. We are to love even those who actively hate us because we perceive their reality as a beloved eikon of God and as our brother or sister.

I see dimly how this is true. Jesus had no enemies. Those who plotted his betrayal and death were not his enemies, though I’m sure they saw themselves as such. They were his brothers. The Romans who crucified him were not his enemies. He forgave them their actions done in ignorance. Judas was not his enemy. Jesus loved him.

Each time I read this part of the Didache these days, I am reminded of two posts by Father Stephen Freeman about a monk in the Holy Land who has no enemies, On the Edge of Heaven and A Single Monk. I invite you to read his posts. Father Stephen expresses what I would say better than I possibly could.

In the face of the God of love and those human beings who truly love, I can only exclaim, “Lord have mercy!” If we love those who hate us, we can have no enemies. Instead, we too often choose to live in delusion surrounded if not by perceived enemies then by those we keep at arm’s length because they might be our enemy. In fear, we push them away rather than embracing them.

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


Beyond Justification 1 or How did I come up with a new series already?

Posted: May 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Justification | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Justification 1 or How did I come up with a new series already?

Earlier this week I was discussing with a friend the difficulty of actual communicating anything meaningful about sex or sexuality in our cultural context without first exploring the question of what it means to be a human being created in the image of God. I think a lot of American cultural Christians, especially those often labeled ‘evangelicals’, seem to assume they already know, but I’m not convinced that’s the case. Having been thoroughly formed and shaped by what has effectively become the predominant American culture, I do know that its answer to that question is very different from what we find in the Christian story. However, the mainstream American Christian perspective has become so dualistic that I’m not sure it places the human being or even the creation within which we live in the proper context in the story anymore. (Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent series on that topic he has consolidated into a single post for those interested in exploring that aspect: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.)

Scot McKnight has been running a series on N. T. Wright’s book which was itself spurred by a need to respond to Piper’s critique of what is called in academic circles the “New Perspective on Paul”. (I’m not sure I’m convinced that it’s actually new, per se, but it is different than the Protestant Reformation perspective.) I was reading and trying to respond to a  recent post in that Justification and New Perspective series when I realized that much of what I’ve been struggling with in that whole series revolves not so much about the specific term “justification” but rather why it’s so important to some people. It seems that the entire subject is reduced to a question of whether you as an individual are in or out while begging the question of what it actually is that you perceive yourself to be within or without.

After framing my brief and rather confused comment on the post, I thought I would look to see if I could find something anywhere that would give me better language for what I wanted to articulate. During that process, I stumbled across the article Beyond Justification. It wasn’t really what I was looking for, but in many ways it’s probably what I needed to read right now. The following posts in this series will be explore my thoughts and reactions to that article. I’m not sure where this series is going to go, but it should be an interesting journey.