The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

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

It’s not possible to delve very far into Orthodoxy without encountering the concepts of essence and energies. The development of that language goes all the way back to at least the fourth century, though in truth we see elements of it in the texts of the Holy Scriptures themselves. This language for describing God is an attempt to describe the indescribable in a way that helps us understand how we can be one with God (and each other) as the Father and the Son are one. Thus the concepts are ultimately rooted in the Incarnation. Many of the major disputes over the course of the first millenium of Christianity were specifically focused on the Incarnation itself. The great heresies either made Christ less than God or other than fully human.

His [Christ’s] entry into human life began the healing and restoration of that life. What’s more, if God could take on human form, our bodies are capable of bearing God’s presence in return. An ordinary human body can literally become a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). That can sound alarming — wouldn’t God’s presence destroy my feeble frame? — but Eastern Christians frequently draw an analogy to the burning bush. Just as Moses saw that the bush burned with God’s fire but was not consumed, so God’s presence can fill us while preserving — even completing — our embodied personhood.

As always, we have to remember that God is always everywhere present and filling all things. All creation is filled with the fire of the glory of God. It’s that light which sustains it. And just as Christ became man and remained God, we can be infused with the Spirit in our bodies without being destroyed.

Oddly enough, the word energy occurs frequently in St. Paul’s letters; he says, for example, “God is energon [energizing] in you, both to will and to energein [energize] for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Energy is a word we imported into English directly from the Greek. But there was not equivalent for this word in Latin, so in his masterful translation of the Bible, St. Jerome (AD 347-420) used operare, that is, “operate” or “work.” When the Bible began to be published in English, its translators stood at the end of a thousand years of devout reading, preaching, and studying the Bible in Latin translation. Our English Bibles refer to God “working,” not “energizing,” but isn’t there a difference? If we hear that God’s energy is within us, then union with him becomes more imaginable.

It’s a good example of the way language can deeply influence understanding and practice. Latin also lacked a word for the Greek concept often rendered in English as “repent.” So it was rendered as “do penance.” Over time, that had a profound effect on the belief and practice in the West.  It’s the same thing here. The idea of God “working” or “operating” made it seem more external and eventually led to the idea that these operations were not God himself, but creations of God we could experience. I’m not an expert, but I think this was part of the root behind the idea of created grace and similar Western concepts.

Instead, the energies of God are uncreated and just as much God as our hands and mouth and eyes are part of our being. When we experience the grace of God, we experience God himself — directly and unmediated by any created thing. It is true we can never know the essence of God. God transcends us. But in truth, we can’t truly and directly know the essence — the core being — of any other person either, even though they are finite, created beings. Instead we know them through their actions, words, expressed emotions — through their bodies. But we would never say that we do not know or experience other human beings as a result. In a similar way (God, of course transcends any direct statement), we truly know God through his energies. We can directly encounter him.

The Jesus Prayer is a way to help us toward that true encounter.


Who Cares About Unions?

Posted: February 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Misc | 4 Comments »

A pamphlet, Who Cares About Unions?, was shared by a coworker on a list I run for current and retired fellow employees. I had never heard of the author and took a minute to read his biography. He sounds like quite a character, but his “pamphlet” (who knew pamphleteering was back?) makes some particularly cogent points. The author has actually spent most of his life working on the other side of the table against unions in negotiation and business, both as an executive and as a consultant. Despite that history and some negative personal experiences with unions, he recognizes the vital role they play in our society.

The pamphlet collects some of the facts about what has happened in our country over the past thirty years in a list that is simultaneously one of the more comprehensive and concise that I’ve seen. I want to share that list here.

1.The top one-hundredth of one percent makes an average of $27 million per year per household. The average annual income for the bottom 90 percent of us is $31,244.
2.The richest 10% controls 2/3 of Americans’ net worth.
3.The superrich have grabbed the bulk of the past three decades’ gains.
4.Washington is closer to Wall Street than Main Street. The Median net worth of American families is $120,000. The median net worth for members of Congress is $912,000.
5.The 10 richest members of Congress all voted to extend the Bush tax cuts.
6.Gains and losses, 2007-2009: Wall Street profits: +720%; unemployment rate: +102 %; Americans’ home equity: -35%.
7.Those on Wall Street make record wages and benefits while the middle class loses.
8.Average CEO pay is 185 times bigger than the average worker.
9.The tax rate for a millionaire has gone from 66.4% in 1945 to 32.4% today. The pre-Bush tax cut rate for millionaires was 36.4%.
10.Income inequity has grown dramatically since the 1970’s-most due to skyrocketing incomes among the richest 1 percent and even more dramatically among the top 1/100 of 1 percent.

There are several important facts to add to that list. When adjusted for inflation, the median income for the bottom 90% of our country has actually dropped over the past 30 years. Even in the best years, it’s been pretty stagnant. The list also mentions the top tax rate. However, most of the income of those in the top 1% does not come from wages. Their income comes from a category we call “capital gains.” The capital gains tax rate is 15%. That’s right. The very richest in our country actually pay a lower tax rate than most of the middle class. (They pay more overall tax, of course, since that’s where the wealth in our country has become concentrated. But they pay at a lower rate. In what fantasy realm is that considered even vaguely fair?)

Unions are the only vehicle that are able to provide most of us an effective voice that wields real power. And without power, don’t kid yourself, your voice means absolutely nothing. At best, you’re a vote to curry and then ignore. Are unions free of problems and corruption? Of course not. No human institution is or ever will be. But they offer a viable means through which we can collectively act against the power of Wall Street. And we really don’t have any other such means. It’s little wonder that Wall Street (mostly through their puppet politicians) have targeted unions so consistently and effectively over the past thirty years. The decades of the Railroad Barons were a golden era for them.

It doesn’t really matter if you personally and individually are in a union. It’s about collective, not individual, power. In order for the middle class to have any meaningful voice, about a third of us need to be represented by unions. Instead, we’re on the verge of the end of unions in our country in any real sense. If that happens, there will be nothing to impede the final transformation of America into an oligarchy. We’re as close to that point today as we’ve ever been, yet a great many people still seem oblivious.

If the blatant and unpopular (according to every poll) attacks on unions and the middle class in multiple states don’t shake people out of whatever it is that blinds them, I don’t know what will. School teachers are not the enemy. Firefighters are not the enemy. Social workers are not the enemy. Public sector nurses are not the enemy. When did I wake up in an alternate reality where people have become so twisted they attack those who are trying to serve them? Are we human beings? Or are we wounded animals blindly lashing out at anything and everything placed in front of us?

I challenge everyone: Try to be human.


Weekend Update 02-26-2011

Posted: February 26th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Weekend Update | Comments Off on Weekend Update 02-26-2011

Ah, Forbes reports that it’s the Koch brothers who are the puppetmasters behind Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Always good to know who is dangling the politicians from their strings.

Basically, the Republicans and their moneyed owners want to take America back to the conditions of the late 19th century. If you don’t know what our country was like then, it’s time for you to hit the history books. Of course, given the evidence that so many Americans can’t even handle basic arithmetic in budget discussions today, I’m not optimistic.

Everything’s f*cked up and nobody goes to jail. Not a single person responsible for the criminal actions involved in the financial crisis and who made obscene amounts of money from it is going to jail or even being prosecuted. There was nothing unavoidable about the 2008 financial crisis. It was the direct result of criminal action by people who had been getting away unpunished with one crime after another for a decade. And they got away with 2008 as well, which means it won’t be long before the next “crisis.”

And it appears that the Republican strategy to stoke class warfare as a smokescreen for their efforts to “raid the till” on behalf of the corporate interests pulling their strings is proceeding apace. I find this effort to turn teachers, of all people, into villains one of the most craven and bizarre acts I remember seeing. It’s not like we have a surplus of teachers and we already don’t pay them enough for the job we ask them to do for our children. It’s almost as though Republicans seek a return to the days of uneducated masses (including children) working in sweatshops, mines, and other hazardous conditions for third pay. Maybe that’s their strategy for bringing jobs that have been shipped overseas back to the US. After all, if you can pay the same wages here with the same working conditions, it eliminates the cost of shipping materials and products. I would be disappointed that they can find so many gullible people who can’t see they are acting against their own self-interest in order to further enrich the already wealthy, but every corrupt government or demagogue in history has been able to build such followers. It seems to be a part of human nature. I will also note that our country grew strong over the past century from an approach to life in which those who did not have rights looked at those with such rights and aspired to gain them. At least some of those with such rights saw those who did not have them and sought to share them. Reading some of the comments of Walker supporters reveals the opposite mentality. Those individuals seek to strip from others rights and protections they themselves have lost. I will note that Christianity has a long-established word to describe such a perspective on the world. It’s called envy. And when it rules you it can be a most insidious and destructive passion.

Not that anyone’s paying attention (and many of the ones who need to hear it are mired in a Faux News alternate reality), but I particularly like Robert Reich’s recent posts. This one on the core issue behind the various budget crises is no exception.

When it comes to poll results, Texas is really just a smaller image of the nation as a whole. People want taxes cut not raised and want the budget balanced through spending cuts. But they don’t want to cut anything of any substance. Truly, we believe in magic. Of course, it doesn’t explain why most Americans seem to be okay with the wealthiest among us paying a lower federal income tax rate (15% on capital gains) than most of us pay. Logic doesn’t seem to enter the equation anywhere either. Should be interesting this year.

No particular surprise, but Politifact researches and finds that Wisconsin Governor Walker is a liar.

In Pennsylvania we get another look at what “health care reform” would look like if Republicans got their way. There aren’t enough voters in the wealthiest top percentages to keep electing these Republicans. (There are even fewer today with the greatest concentration of wealth at the top that our country has ever seen.) So somehow they manage to keep convincing a significant number of people to repeatedly vote against their own self-interest. Are we a country of masochists now?

Fr. Orthoduck has a great post on Wisconsin as well. “Supply-side” economics don’t work and when you try to act from how you believe things should work rather than reality, well … there are worse definitions for insanity.

Why Americans need unions? The main problem with the analysis is again that stubborn problem of requiring people to grasp basic arithmetic. What do they teach in schools these days? 😉

Here’s another article on the Gallup poll referenced above (with a link to a USA Today article on same). I haven’t found the Wisconsin one referenced yet. Maybe it’s time for Wisconsin Democrats to start recall petitions for some of the Republican Senators. (I believe the Governor and Representatives are immune from recall for their first year in office.)

What do you do when such a large percentage of a political party lose touch with reality?

Krugman on the Wisconsin power play. Republicans do seem intent on turning America into more of a third world oligarchy.

How do you spell corrupt (and stupid)? W-A-L-K-E-R

An analysis of state and local workers pay vs. comparable jobs in private sector. (All the studies indicate federal disparities are greater.) But they are right. Relatively more job security is worth the difference to most such workers. I’ll add that there are also many ways public sector jobs provide greater satisfaction for people who are not primarily driven by the desire of money. In public safety, health care, and teaching it offers the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In my case, I’ve had the opportunity to work on technical challenges that can be hard to find in the private sector. I’ve developed very complex software to address extremely challenging accounting-related problems. And I’ve developed (and am developing) technical architectures for an organization with more than a hundred thousand employees and hundreds of physical sites. I value the challenge as well as the somewhat greater job security more than just a money-based incentive. And I am proud that my efforts make at least some difference in the way our country functions. You’ll find relatively few public sector employees who are driven primarily by money. Money is never unimportant, of course, but we aren’t getting rich off the public. That’s one of the more despicable Republican lies.

The Republican Shakedown. I don’t really have anything to add.

Fr. Orthoduck responds to a question with a breakdown of a specific report illustrating very clearly through that example the way people twist and distort facts to convey a lie.

I like this take on Wisconsin (and Governor Walker in particular) by Diana Butler Bass. We become like what we worship and all modern versions of “Jesus” are not the same. In fact, some understandings are so different from each other, they hardly look like they are even talking about the same God, even where they superficially use the same words.

Krugman looks at some of the other provisions of the Wisconsin budget bill. Most of the attention is on the union-busting provisions, but there are a number of other things that are pure power grabs by the Governor. They assert that he can take action (even sell power plants) to private companies without competition and without the involvement of the legislature. Let’s declare a “crisis,” and then loot the state for all you can get away with.

In this post by Steve Robinson  on miracles, I particularly like these lines from Chesterton. “In so far as the Church did (chiefly during the corrupt and sceptical eighteenth century) urge miracles as a reason for belief, her fault is evident…. It is not that she asked men to believe anything so incredible; it is that she asked men to be converted by anything so commonplace.” I appreciate that about Orthodoxy. I think of the many stories of monks who refused initially to believe that an angel had come to them, even when one really had. They knew that demons masqueraded as angels of lights and their opinion of themselves was that it was more likely a demon would come to them than an angel.

Some thoughts from Vint Cerf on the Internet. IPv6 transition, of course, is a big issue right now.

I feel like I want to ask, “What do they teach in schools these days?” People seem to have lost the use of simple arithmetic and logic. If they hadn’t, surely they wouldn’t so be so easily misled? I mean, the lies that are being told aren’t even very sophisticated ones. The mind boggles.


The Jesus Prayer 4 – Spirituality

Posted: February 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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 then tries to summarize some of the differences between the modern forms of Eastern and Western Christianity. (To the Orthodox eye, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism often seem to be two sides of the same coin. They are cut from the same cloth.) The cultural and linguistic differences between what we often call the Latin West and the Greek East began developing from an early time. Language shapes culture and culture forms the lens through which we understand reality. St. Augustine made some of his errors, for instance in his doctrine of original sin, because he didn’t read Greek and relied on a Latin translation that in a few key places was simply wrong. Moreover, since he wrote in Latin, his work received little notice or attention among the Greek fathers of the time, so it was never really critiqued or corrected (though St. John Cassian did make some effort in that regard). I use that as an example to illustrate that this is an ancient and deep divergence.

I don’t mean to imply the divergence was in any way necessary or inevitable. It wasn’t. We can see that clearly in all the many languages and cultures (not least the Slavic) in which a more unified Christian mind has been preserved. There were many factors, often political, behind the gradual divergence over centuries between the East and the West. Nevertheless, it’s an important present-day reality with which we have to somehow cope.

Khouria Frederica points out that within Orthodox contexts, the word “spirituality” is not much used.

The reason is the everything is “spirituality.” Christian Orthodoxy is itself a spiritual path, rather than an institution or set of propositions. … From the outside Orthodoxy must look exuberantly chaotic, but from the inside it is a closely coordinated collection of wisdom (some elders term it a “science”) about how to pursue theosis. … Nor does Eastern Orthodoxy have the range of devotional practices seen in the West. There is not an array of monastic orders, each with its own emphasis or mission. There is really only one “program” of spiritual healing, and within it the Jesus Prayer holds a unique role.

The basis for whether or not a practice is included and passed along to subsequent generations is effectiveness. It has to actually work. This unified form of spirituality across Orthodoxy (even other ancient churches not presently in communion with each other because of ancient disputes) is all aimed at the goal of theosis. Body and soul, the goal of salvation is union with Christ — oneness or communion with God.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 20

Posted: February 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 20

51. God is the limitless, eternal and infinite abode of those who attain salvation. He is all things to all men according to their degree of righteousness; or, rather, He has given Himself to each man according to the measure in which each man, in the light of spiritual knowledge, has endured suffering in this life for the sake of righteousness. Thus He resembles the soul that reveals its activity in the members of the body according to the actual capacity of each member, and that itself keeps the members in being and sustains their life. This being the case, ‘where will the ungodly and the sinner appear’ (1 Pet. 4:18) if he is deprived of such grace? For if a man cannot receive the active presence of God on which his well-being depends, and so fails to attain the divine life that is beyond age, time and place, where will he be?

This text refines and expands on the question from the previous text. If God is the one who is the source of our life, where will those of us who do not want that life be? It’s really an important question. The answer cannot be in some place apart from God since there is no such place. Nothing can exist apart from God. Personally, I like the time St. Maximos takes to properly develop the question. It’s a most serious one.


The Jesus Prayer 3 – Hesychia

Posted: February 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 3 – Hesychia

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 discusses another term, hesychia, anyone who explores Orthodoxy or the Jesus Prayer will encounter. It’s an important concept to understand.

In biblical Greek this word means “silence,” “quiet,” “stillness,” or “rest.” It is not an empty silence, but one marked by respect and awe. I think of Job, who said, when confronted by God’s majesty and power, “I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4).

St. Gregory of Palamas wrote that in that stillness, we can directly encounter God and we can perceive reality as it is — suffused with God. The Transfiguration of Christ illustrates this truth. Although we call it a “transfiguration,” Christian understanding has always been that what the disciples saw was the reality of Christ. Jesus never broke communion with the Father and the Spirit, so he lived constantly in their presence and light. Most of the time nobody could see that reality. The light of God is not part of creation. Whatever it might be, it’s not photons. And we are told in multiple places that those energies of God suffuse and sustain all that is. Most of the time, we do not have eyes to see.

To the limited extent I understand it, hesychasm seeks to quiet the nous so that we can experience God in our innermost being. When we do, through God’s grace, it can be possible to acquire the Spirit in such a way that we do have eyes to see the reality of creation.

I’ve never experienced that myself. I feel it’s important to stress again that there’s nothing special about me and I’m still not very good at all at the practice of any aspect of Christian faith. But I do believe it’s true. This marks the key difference I found between Hinduism and Christianity very early on. Both teach and speak of a God in whom we live and move and have our being, but Brahman and Christ are not the same. Ultimately, Brahman is other and unknowable, while Christ, even as he transcends our knowledge, makes himself immediately and personally known.


Prayer, Evil, and the Nature of Things

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A post about prayer on the blog, Permission to Live, kicked the wheels of my mind into gear and started it whirling. As my mind peeled back layer upon layer, I quickly realized I couldn’t really say anything meaningful in a comment. But in this case I also realized I did want to write something on the topic. The post in question actually touched on a number of areas, but I’ll primarily focus my thoughts on the purpose of prayer and the deeper question of why God does not prevent evil things from happening to people who do not deserve it and allows good things to happen to the wicked. Obviously, those are topics that can’t possibly be addressed in a blog post. The Library of Congress would not suffice.

When I try to express thoughts in areas like these I particularly feel the need to state up front that the things I say will of necessity be incomplete. I have to discuss God, but God is greater than me in such a way that no analogy, no description, no words could ever truly describe him. My mind and imagination are insufficient to the task, but they are the tools I have. So the reality is always far greater than anything I can understand or say. Please keep that in mind and try to work with my imagery rather than against it — at least for the short time that you are reading this post.

Before we can move to a discussion of prayer on a topic this deep, we have to begin with the nature of things from a Christian perspective. The fundamental division of reality lies between the uncreated and the created. Only the Father, the Son, and the Spirit can be placed in the category of uncreated. Everything else that exists is a creation of God. Moreover, God created all things good. Nothing was created evil. (Elizabeth Esther actually just posted on the innate goodness of human beings.) It’s important to grasp this fundamental Christian tenet since it runs directly counter to the narrative of some religions — both ancient religions and present day ones.

When we acknowledge that truth, something should immediately stand out. There is no place in those divisions for evil. This is one of the thoughts behind my recent post on evil as mystery. Evil is not uncreated; the only uncreated is God. Moreover, all created things are created by God and are created good. Part of the mystery of evil is that it cannot be said to have the same sort of existence as created things. In fact, it almost has to said to have no existence in the sense that creation exists. Yet evil is palpably real. So what then is evil? That’s the question to which we have to turn.

One of the aspects of creation is its freedom. There is a randomness woven into the fabric of created things that seems to provide the framework within which, for example, human freedom can exist. While that provides the basis from which we can exercise our free will and creative abilities and thus have the potential of truly being in the likeness of God, it’s not limited to humanity. That element of freedom is woven into the fabric of created things by a God of overflowing love. And that freedom is, as part of creation, also an innately good thing.

Such freedom does introduce a certain wildness into creation — even absent the influence of man. I think people often particularly misread the second creation narrative in Genesis. The garden cannot represent some idyllic, perfect unfallen reality. There was already a wilderness outside the garden into which the man and the woman could be banished. I tend to think of the image of the garden in terms of a nursery. It was a place of few challenges in which the man and the woman could learn to fulfill their created function.

And what was that function? At least part of it was to order the wildness and randomness of creation. Some of that can be seen in the act of naming (though that bit also has other meanings) since names are powerful. It’s also seen in God’s command to them. A part of our natural function is also to act as priests in creation, offering it back to God in Thanksgiving. In this sense, Jesus commanding the storm, healing the sick, and feeding the many displays his true humanity at least as much as his divinity. Yet, the story of the garden illustrates that even in the safest possible nursery environment with only a single ascetic challenge, we still do nothing but turn away and hide from God. Read the story. Man accomplishes nothing in the garden but sin. From the time we were able to lift our heads above the animals, we have turned away from God.

And that provides our first clue into the nature of evil. Evil is an aberration, a distortion, of that which was created good. It flows from the freedom instilled in creation when that freedom is turned against God. (It wouldn’t be freedom if that capacity did not exist. And if it exists, it happens.) We could ask why God then created such freedom, but that strikes me as a futile question. Any such reality we could imagine would be incredibly diminished. Beauty flows from that freedom. Love flows from it. I don’t see how a God of overflowing love could have created anything less.

Yes, I’m sure God knew from the beginning that evil would flow from the fabric of such a creation. That’s why we have the apocalyptic image of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. God knew and was planning to rescue and complete his creation from the start. In that respect, creation is not simply something that happened in the past. Creation continues to happen every time the darkness is pushed back even a little, every time evil is transformed into good, every time love conquers. Creation is the ongoing process of renewing all things.

So what then is prayer? It seems to me that many Christians today reduce prayer to little more than intercessions. While that’s an aspect, I don’t believe it’s the central purpose of prayer at all. What is our truly human created role and responsibility in creation? Humanity was created to be the ruling, royal priesthood of our world. We were to order creation and offer it back in thanksgiving to God. (There is much that could be pursued from the Eucharist beginning as bread and wine rather than wheat and grapes, but I’ll set that aside for now.) First and foremost, prayer is our direct connection to God. And it’s in and through our communion with God that we order time and the rest of creation.We are created for communion with God and prayer is an expression of that communion.

Of course, even most of us who are Christian do not live in constant, unceasing prayer. I don’t think most of us regularly or ever recognize the extent of our culpability in the evil of the world. We are not isolated individuals. We were created not only for communion with God, but for communion with each other. As such, we share a common nature and bond with each other and with the created world we are intended to rule. It’s through that shared nature that the work of Jesus is efficacious. He became one of us in every way, sharing the fullness of our common nature, and by doing so he redeemed us and defeated death on our behalf. And by healing the human nature Jesus also completed all that was necessary to heal and redeem the whole created order.

But therein lies the rub. The evil we do spreads to others and to the world in ways we do not always directly perceive. As we particularly see in Romans 8, creation itself groans beneath that weight. When we turn away from God, we turn energies shared in the human nature to evil. By our own acts, we have contributed to the evil others experience and to the evil others do. I rarely hear of a crime or evil act and think to pray for the way my sin contributed to it. We deny our interconnectedness or we embrace only the positive and personally beneficial aspects of it. But to the extent we have each done evil, we have contributed to the evil of humanity and the world.

Finally, we are also instructed to pray for intercession, especially for others. And God sometimes intercedes. God miraculously heals a person. God protects an innocent in desperate need in a manner that offers no easy explanation. And yet many other people die despite many intercessions. Children suffer. Not everyone is healed. Not everyone is protected. All of this is true. And sometimes Christian attempts to explain this truth away do more harm than good, I think, especially when they try to call evil something sent by God or something that was really somehow “good.” Evil is evil and it is not of God. Our hearts look on evil and cry out, “Why?”

This is where I try to remember that God is not willing that any perish, that God is actively working for the salvation of all. I remember that God is constantly turning evil into good. I think of Joseph, who is certainly a type of Christ. Great evil was done to him again and again and God did not stop it. But Joseph did not despair. Joseph did not curse God.  And ultimately he could tell his brothers that God had taken their unquestionably evil act and turned it into a tremendous good. That’s the gospel of Christ prefigured. Jesus suffered in every way we suffer. He endured torture and execution under supremely unjust and evil conditions. Jesus absorbed the worst that evil could do and defeated evil and death on behalf of us all.

I believe God perceives all possible outcomes of every decision and every interaction. Reality is not static, so there is no single path. I tend to think of a bubbling stew, though that’s a weak analogy. It has states of being that are fluid and change. And the freedom of creation, especially our freedom, has immense value. Even in those times when God has blocked a human action, he has not blocked the intent or the effort to perform the act. God does not make human beings less than they were created to be. (Though it must be said we tend to do that ourselves.) And from all the stories I’ve read throughout Christian history, it’s rare even for God to so physically restrain someone from acting.

God is always working for our salvation — the salvation of every human being. And God is always working to transform evil into good. But he does not reach into our being and restrain our hearts from working evil. I believe God intercedes or doesn’t according to those goals and more. Other influences are the prayers of the communion of the saints. As the evil we do works its tendrils into the fabric of reality in ways we can’t perceive, so our prayers permeate creation. Either the things we do accomplish something or there is no point doing them.

It’s not an answer that explains. As one who has suffered evil and seen those I love suffer evil, I don’t think it’s something that can be explained. But I trust reality is at least somewhat like what I’ve described. We can’t avoid choosing a narrative framework and a perspective on reality. Of all the ones I’ve explored or held over my life, the Christian narrative offers the best lens through which to understand the nature of things. I’ve encountered this strange God, but even if I hadn’t I would want to believe this framework over the alternatives.

We cry, “Lord have mercy!” And he does.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 19

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 19

50.  If we who have been given the honor of becoming the house of God (cf. Heb. 3:6) by grace through the Spirit must patiently endure suffering for the sake of righteousness (cf. Heb. 10:36) in order to condemn sin, and must readily submit like criminals to insolent death even though we are good, ‘what will be the fate of those who refuse to obey the Gospel of God?’ (1 Pet. 4:17). That is to say, what will be the fate or sentence of those who not only have diligently kept that pleasure-provoked, nature-dominating Adamic form of generation alive and active in their soul and body, will and nature, right up to the end; but who also accept neither God the Father, who summons them through His incarnate Son, nor the Son and Mediator Himself, the ambassador of the Father (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5)? To reconcile us with the Father, at His Father’s wish the Son deliberately gave Himself to death on our behalf so that, just as He consented to be dishonored for our sake by assuming our passions, to an equal degree He might glorify us with the beauty of His own divinity.

This text asks a question that strikes me as particularly appropriate in light of the video on Salvation I posted this past Sunday. This text sets the stage rather than provide an answer, but it asks the right question. It strikes me that question is often wrongly posed as something more like: What do I have to do to get God to accept me? It sets God in opposition to us when that has never been true. We have set ourselves against God, but on his part God has never been against us. Instead he has pursued us unfailingly — assuming our passions in the flesh and ultimately descending with us all the way into death.

The question is not about God. God has done all this is necessary and possible to rescue us and continues through the Spirit to do everything possible to rescue us. But he will not force us to be something we do not will to be. God is the lover of mankind, not its rapist. God cannot act counter to his nature and will not violate the fundamental element of freedom with which he has imbued his creation. That would make both creation and God less than they are.

No, the question now lies on us. In a sense, it always has. Where will we turn our will? What sort of being do we seek to be? Will we seek communion with God or will we continue seek a non-existence we cannot achieve? Will we act to become truly human? Or will we seek instead to become something like an ex-human being?

If you don’t ask the right question, you’re less likely to stumble across the right answer — or recognize it if you do. I think this may be part of the problem with so many strands of modern Christianity. They find many different answers to the wrong questions.


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.


Salvation

Posted: February 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | 30 Comments »

The video below uses two chairs to visually represent first the Protestant perspective of God and man, their relationship, and what it means to be saved. Using the same two chairs, the video then represents the Orthodox perspective of salvation. The common Protestant view is not misrepresented or distorted. I’ve heard the same thing from pulpits and read it in books. The stark comparison, though, again leaves me bemused why anyone would call the Protestant perspective “good news.”