Dec 31, 2008

Unceasing Prayer

Oh, the depths and riches of God’s Word! There can be so much treasure in a word or two: “In the beginning, God…” or “In the beginning was the Word…” In the first line of Psalm 69, we discover another treasure chest of gold.

O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.

Fr. Patrick Reardon offers some wonderful background and insight into this earnest prayer in his book, Christ in the Psalms.

PSALM 69 (70)

Except for a few very minor variations, Psalm 69 is nearly identical to the final verses of Psalm 39. A plea for help in distress, it is a prayer appropriate to a great many circumstances in life. In fact, it is safe to say that the psalm’s opening line…has been prayed, over the centuries, more than any other line of the Psalter. There is a reason for this. In the sixth century, the great monastic code of the West, the Rule of St. Benedict, prescribed that each of the seven “day hours” (as distinct from Vigils, the midnight service) should begin with this verse, thus guaranteeing that it would be prayed at least seven times each day.

This usage became common in the West, even for nonmonastics. One finds it in the traditional roman Breviary, for example, and Archbishop Cranmer placed that verse at the beginning of the Anglican daily Evensong.

The roots of this usage, however, go back earlier to the Christian East, especially Egypt. A century before the rule of St. Benedict, the popularity of this prayer among Egyptian monks was observed by St. John Cassian, a Romanian monk who traveled extensively around the Mediterranean and finally settled in southern Gaul. The tenth book of Cassian’s great work, The Conferences, which is the second conference of Abba Isaac on prayer, most marvelously describes the efficacy of this psalm verse in all the circumstances of life. Whether in temptation or calm, says Abba Isaac, whether in fear or reassurance, whether in pain or pleasure, joy or sorrow, there are no circumstances in life when it is not supremely proper to pray: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” This prayer, he goes on, should never be absent from our lips.

As a simple doubling and slight expansion of the “Lord, have mercy,” this opening line of Psalm 69 became, then, one of the most important early formulas in the quest for constant prayer. It served as a kind of historical forerunner to the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living god, have mercy on me a sinner”).

After stating that this formula - “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me” – had been handed down through the Egyptian monastic tradition from its most ancient fathers, with a view to attaining purity of heart and constant prayer, Abba Isaac continues:

Not without reason has this verse been selected from out of the whole body of Scripture. For it takes up all the emotions that can be applied to human nature and with great correctness and accuracy it adjusts itself to every condition and every attack. It contains an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a consciousness of one’s own frailty, the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present and at hand, for whoever calls unceasingly on his protector is sure that he is always present. It contains a burning love and charity, an awareness of traps, and a fear of enemies.

Then several pages of Abba Isaac (as narrated by Cassian, in what may be counted among the most eloquent and carefully crafted paragraphs in all of Latin patristic literature), are devoted to the sundry and manifold circumstances in which it is proper to pray: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me.” Prayed from the heart, it places the mind constantly in communion with god.

The quest of the ancient Egyptian tradition, Isaac insists, was to make this formula a permanent invocation:

This verse should be poured out in unceasing prayer so that we may be delivered in adversity and preserved and not puffed up in prosperity. You should, I say, meditate constantly on this verse in your heart. You should not stop repeated it when you are doing any kind of work or performing some service, or are on a journey. Meditate on it while sleeping and eating and attending to the least needs of nature….Let it be the first thing that comes to you when you awake, let it anticipate every other thought as you get up, let it send you to your knees as your arise from your bed, let it bring you from there to every work and activity, and let it accompany you at all times.

Dec 4, 2008

Have You Lost Your Senses?

Several years ago, I began to think more about beauty.  No, this isn't going to be a "Confessions of a Middle Aged Woman" piece!  I am not talking about the type of beauty that is flashed in front of us hundreds of times a day, making us discontent with how God made our bodies and wanting more than anything to be a size 2 (okay, I'd be thrilled with a size 10).  I have done some thinking about beauty in our local churches.

I am still making this incredible journey from Evangelicalism/Protestantism to the Orthodox faith and encountering so many areas to reconsider and revisit.  During the Reformation, the anger and resentment toward the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church was so intense that many were eager to completely purge the church buildings of any reminders of the greed and opulence that was so visible in the cathedrals of the day.  Statues were destroyed, icons disfigured, vestments and liturgical elements were removed.  Protestant chdomeurches became very austere inside.  After all, the important thing was "hearing the Word of God".  These other things were not deemed necessary for salvation, growing in the faith, or worship.  Sola Scriptura - all we needed was the Word of God.  The altar was replaced with a pulpit.  Crosses (especially those depicting the crucifixion) were taken down or relegated to less conspicuous corners.  It was important to remove anything that would be a distraction or that would keep one from listening to the pastor's sermon or message.  Colors, stained glass, items made of gold, beautiful wood, richly painted icons, exquisitely carved statues, rich tapestries, candles and candelabras, incense, pew cushions of red velvet - all these could possibly interfere with our ability to concentrate on what is being said.  Our thoughts would be turned to material things and not the spiritual.

The reasoning sounds good.  But these sensory elements were not originally embraced in order to flaunt the wealth and power of the Church.  They were used to be reminders of the beauty and attraction of heaven in a world that was full of sin, corruption, death and suffering.  God insisted on such beauty in the tabernacle of the Old Testament.  The tabernacle was to be a reminder, a representation, a model, of what is going on in heaven.  On a smaller scale, this perspective was later incorporated in the synagogues where the Jews worshiped.  Likewise, when the early church became established in the first thousand years after Christ, the liturgy and surroundings were modeled after the Jewish synagogues.  These elements were considered very important because they helped to engage all the senses in worship - not just the brain.  It enabled worshipers to, just for a portion of their week, enter into the beauty, majesty and wonder of what occurs in heaven continually.

A month ago, Frederica Mathewes-Green posted an article in Touchstone magazine.  In Lettuce Pray, she ponders the impact of the multi-media on our children (e.g., even Christian media such as Veggie Tales) and makes this observation:f_candles_child1

. . . there was once a time when the most astounding experience a child had each week was worship. It began as he entered a building uniquely designed and beautified to glorify God. There he would hear music unlike anything he encountered in daily life. There would be (in many of our traditions, anyway) bells and candlelight, vestments and sumptuous fragrances, and images of Christ and the saints which would greet his eyes wherever he looked. He would hear stories of the lives of the saints, and those would be some of the most exciting stories he ever heard, providing daily examples of real-life heroes whom he could emulate. All in all, going to church would be the most sense-flooding experience a child had all week.

What have we gained by removing so much beauty from our churches and making them multi-purpose facilities which can be changed from worship service, to youth group rally, to concert hall?  Where can you go to be reminded of the beauty of God, his transcendence, his power?  Many evangelical churches have limited worship to one sense - hearing; hearing the music and hearing the Word of God.  The surroundings and decor are without excess or ornamentation.  There is little to observe up front or in the surroundings.  What about the other senses which God has given us and wants us to use - seeing, touching, tasting, smelling?  Are these not as deserving as the one?

I believe that God intended us to use all of our senses in worship.  He created them for our good and to use them for His glory and adoration.  Think about it next time you worship on Sunday.

Nov 15, 2008

The Gift of Gifts

November 15th marks the first day of the Nativity Fast for the Eastern Orthodox Church.  As with the Great Fast that precedes Pascha (Easter), this is a time (40 days) of abstinence and spiritual reflection in preparation for the Nativity of Christ on December 25th.  So my thoughts turn toward Christmas.

One of my favorite books through the years has been a collection of Puritan prayers and devotions entitled The Valley of Vision. I have been reading one of the selections each day during my evening prayers.  How fitting that the one I read two days ago was about the Gift of Christ himself.mpj038474500001

O Source of All Good,
What shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts,
thine own dear Son, begotten, not created,
my Redeemer, proxy, surety, substitute,
his self-emptying incomprehensible,
his infinity of love beyond the heart's grasp.
Herein is wonder of wonders:
he came below to raise me above,
was born like me that I might become like him.
Herein is love:
when I cannot rise to him he draws near on wings of grace,
to raise me to himself.
Herein is power:
when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart
he united them in indissoluble unity,
the uncreated and the created.
Herein is wisdom:
when I was undone, with no will to return to him, and no intellect to devise recovery,
he came, God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost,
as man to die my death, to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect righteousness for me.
O God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds, and enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy,
and hearing, believe, rejoice, praise, adore,
my conscience bathed in an ocean of repose,
my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father;
place me with ox, ass, camel, goat,
to look with them upon my Redeemer's face,
and in him account myself delivered from sin;
let me with Simeon clasp the new-born child to my heart,
embrace him with undying faith,
exulting that he is mine and I am his.
In him thou hast given me so much
that heaven can give no more.

Sep 27, 2008

Cot Bearers

I was reminded this morning of the importance of regular eye exams and updating prescriptions for your lenses when it is necessary.  Over time, we will become accustomed to whatever comes through the pupils of our eyes and even begin missing the finer details around us.  Indeed, we may even miss seeing something altogether!  This morning, the Lord let me look through some different lenses.

Three of the Apostles - Matthew, Mark and Luke - include the account of an event that happened during Jesus' ministry in Galilee.   The story is not an obscure one.  Children who are exposed to any of the New Testament stories and parables invariably know this one too.  It is the dramatic event of four friends and a friend of theirs who was paralyzed (Matthew 8:1-4, Mark 1:40-45, and Luke 5:12-16).  A side note: isn't it interesting that there were four men who carried him?  It would take that many to lower a "bed", cot, or pallet through the roof - each one perhaps holding a corner.

There are, of course, many angles from which to view this miraculous event early in Jesus ministry - the power of friendship, unbelief vs. belief, forgiveness of sins, determination, perseverance, faith, etc.  But as I read this passage this morning, the message that rang out loud and clear for me was the power and importance of intercessory prayer for those around us. Prayer is not mentioned anywhere in the passage nor discussed.  But the very act of these dear friends carrying their friend to Jesus - one who was not able to travel there on his own - highlights the importance of bringing individuals before the throne of grace through our prayers.  Christ honored the efforts, love and faith of these four men by forgiving the sins of the paralytic and healing him physically.  Spiritual and physical healing.  Nowhere does it say that it was the faith of the man who was paralyzed - he was helpless.  In this case, he needed those around him to "carry him" to the Lord.

What an amazing and humbling perspective of our role and privilege in bringing others to the throne of grace for mercy and healing.  All of us know individuals who are struggling, in pain or burdened with the cares of this world.  We have the opportunity to be one of the "cot bearers" for them - lifting and lowering them to the feet of the Savior.   He will take it from there.

For those of you interested in reading about present day "cot bearers", Abbot Joseph (Mt. Tabor Monastery in California) has written two wonderful accounts of the ministry that monks have in praying for others:  Monks at Prayer (part I) and Monks at Prayer (part II)

Sep 5, 2008

But what about John?

Sometimes my lack of curiosity astonishes me.  I've been a Christian almost 40 years.  I have heard sermons on a variety of topics by a long list of preachers and teachers.  Anyone want to guess how many times I have heard the story of Jesus' birth, the wise men, Herod's anger, the slaughtering of innocent children, and Mary and Joseph's flight into Egypt?  In all of those retellings and reenactments, I never once asked myself, "What happened to Jesus' relative, John, when all the children under two were being slaughtered?"  John, born to Mary's aunt and uncle, Elizabeth and Zechariah, was only 6 months older than Jesus.  How did God protect him from this barbarous slaughter of King Herod?  We know that an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt for a period of time.  But what happened to Zechariah, Elizabeth and John?  Obviously, John was protected in some way.

There is nothing in scripture that gives us an answer.  But there does exist a marvelous account that has been passed down through the ages and held dear by Christians for centuries.  Let me share the events that transpired back then.
When King Herod heard from the Magi about the birth of the Messiah, he decided to kill all the infants up to two years old at Bethlehem and the surrounding area, hoping that the new-born Messiah would be among them.

Herod knew about John's unusual birth and he wanted to kill him, fearing that he was the foretold King of the Jews. But Elizabeth hid herself and the infant in the hills. The murderers searched everywhere for John. Elizabeth, when she saw her pursuers, began to implore God for their safety, and immediately the hill opened up and concealed her and the infant from their pursuers.

In these tragic days, Zachariah was taking his turn at the services in the Temple. Soldiers sent by Herod tried in vain to learn from him the whereabouts of his son. Then, by command of Herod, they murdered this holy prophet, having stabbed him while he was between the temple and the altar (MT 23:35). Elizabeth died forty days after her husband, and John, preserved by the Lord, dwelt in the wilderness until the day of his appearance to the nation of Israel. (taken from The Orthodox Church of America website.)

What an amazing demonstration of God's protection for His great messenger, John the Baptizer!  Just as Jesus' life was spared from the unbridled fury of Herod, John's purpose and ministry could not be thwarted.  And what a moving example of dear Zechariah and his wife as they knew the importance of this child that was given to them in their old age.  They were willing to die in order that God's kingdom might be ushered in.

This is only one story that we don't typically hear from the pulpit or in the Sunday school class.  Think of how many more there are and how many we will hear about in eternity!  Glory to Jesus Christ!

Aug 18, 2008

Drinking from the Fountain

‘Blessed is one who has despised all earthly and perishable things and acquired love.’
Such a person’s reward increases every day.
Such a person’s reward and crown has been prepared, the Kingdom of heaven has been given them.
All the Angels call them blessed;
all the Powers of heaven praise them;
the choirs of the Archangels receive them with joy.
For them the gates of heaven will be speedily opened,
and they will enter with boldness, take their stand by the throne of God,
be crowned by God’s right hand, and will reign with him for endless ages.

- St. Ephrem the Syrian

Love is terribly important to God. It is his essence. It is who he is. How can we refuse to acknowledge it? How can we choose to ignore it in our own lives? How can we repeatedly fail to call upon it? We see love as an option - whether to give it or not to another person. Typically, we develop this attitude over the years because we have been deeply hurt by those not exhibiting love toward us. Oftentimes, such injury is incurred from those whom we thought we were close to and shared a commonality and communion in the faith. We thought we were under the umbrella of love, but then lightning strikes the umbrella. We stand holding a charred assemblage of sticks and vow to never go out in the rain ever again.

Thus our hesitancy toward loving those around us begins to take shape. Our life experiences tend to strengthen our distrust and suspicions of people rather than our compassion and openness toward them. On the other hand, there are those I have known who seem to have an endless capacity to love all who cross their path in life. I have observed at the same time that these individuals are quick to forgive and eager to hope for better things in others and life situations. They are resilient and not deterred by potholes. I'd like to think that they were blessed with a "sunny disposition" and I was born under a thundercloud (after all, I grew up in Ohio). Differences in temperaments can be a good excuse for people like me, but they are never mentioned in scripture as an opportunity or justification for lack of faith in situations. Indeed, God uses all kinds of temperaments to accomplish his purposes. Quite frequently, he uses the very weaknesses of a certain temperament to show forth his glory and power. There goes that excuse.

Our English word "love" covers so many emotions and situations that it hardly has any true meaning anymore. God, however, is very specific in what love is and is not. Contrary to our typical perception of love being strictly an emotion, God often describes love in actions (1 Cor. 13), not feelings. But this isn't to be a list of good behaviors we should adopt as Christians. Rather, if we aren't seeing these type of actions in our life, then perhaps we need to examine our relationship with the Source. For love must come from the One who is Love. We can manufacture a pretty good substitute on our own, but it does not produce lasting results.

There are times that I wish I could just wake up in the morning and have love pouring out from my spirit. But life drains us of energy and can be discouraging to our spirit. God knows that we must refuel every evening and every morning. He is eager to meet us and strengthen us. We must make the time. We must daily go back the Fountain of Life that we may never thirst:
"Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst...the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:14)

The Samaritan woman was weary of the daily labor of getting water herself and carrying it home. God waits for us to become weary of our own methods of love and to come to him. He waits to transform us.

Jul 19, 2008

His Hand is Open

Anxiety - a displacement of my daily confidence in the wrong things. (statement made by Father Stephen, Glory to God for All Things)

Anxiety has followed me throughout my life. I naturally gravitate toward those things I can touch and see that give me the illusion of security and confidence. I like to know that I have enough money in the bank. I like to have my pantry full. I like a choice of clothes that all fit. I like to have a house that is comfortable and affordable. All these things make me feel good and take away temporary anxiety. I know I have a backup plan or "extras" or "more than enough". I don't want to worry about shelter, clothing or food.

But what situation does God prefer for me? A life where I am continually, hour by hour, dependent on his hand for all things - food, shelter and clothing. It is not because he is selfish and wants me as a slave in his kingdom. He desires this for me because only then can I truly know his infinite love and care for me! He cannot truly reveal these things through just providing me with a monthly paycheck. He desires to restore to me the relationship for which I was created in the beginning - a relationship with him. He is my heavenly Father and desires to care for me as a Father does a daughter. He wants to show his love for me and reveal glorious and mighty things which I cannot fathom in the small and controlled world which I have created.

I do have a choice: 1) a controlled environment, created by me, where I will know what to expect and how I can survive day by day, or 2) an uncontrolled (in the respect that it is not controlled by me!) environment, sustained by God, where He delights in caring for me and showing his might and power to me and through me by providing for my every need. One is very predictable and inevitably boring. The other is completely unpredictable and a treasure chest of surprises. One requires very little of me. The other requires everything. One is dependent on my intellectual and material resources. The other is dependent on the riches and power and wealth of the God of the universe. One requires no one outside of myself. The other requires a relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of my soul.

When the options are put in words, the choice seems obvious. And yet...we are afraid. Afraid that God will not pull through for us. Afraid that he will take us where we don't want to go. Afraid that he will abandon us and then we will have nothing and no one. Afraid that he will require too much of us - more than we can bear. Afraid that we will fail - in our eyes and the eyes of others.

What assurance would convince us? He has done everything possible to prove his love for us - including becoming incarnate and dying a horrible death in order to conquer death and restore us and all creation to its original purpose. What more would we ask of him? He has gone more than the second mile. He has gone to hell and back for us. And we cannot trust him. What could we possibly possess that is of greater assurance and promise than what He has to offer?

We pride ourselves in our rationality and logic, but our behavior defies both. If we weigh the choices in the balance, there will be no doubt as to which is made of true gold.

Jul 3, 2008

You are not Alone

There was a boy, named Hyacinthus. He lived in Caesarea in Cappadocia (modern day Turkey) and was raised in a Christian family. The Roman emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117 AD) enlisted the young man as his "cubicularius" (chamberlain). This was an official charged with the management of the living quarters of a sovereign or member of the nobility. The emperor was unaware that Hyacinthus was secretly a Christian.

One day, while the emperor and his entourage were offering sacrifices to idols, young Hyacinthus remained at the palace, shut himself in a small room, and prayed fervently to the Lord Jesus Christ. One of the servants overheard him praying and reported to the emperor that, although Hyacinthus was entrusted with an imperial position, he did not honor the Roman gods and was secretly praying to Christ.

Hyacinthus was brought to trial before Trajan, who tried to persuade the young man to deny Christ and sacrifice to the Roman idols. But Hyacinthus remained steadfast and declared that he was a Christian. He was whipped and thrown into prison, where the only food given to him was what had already been offered to the idols. They hoped that he would be overcome with hunger and thirst and eventually eat. Hyacinthus did not eat the food, an
d he died after thirty-eight days. When they came to torture him again, they found his dead body. But when the jailer walked into the cell, he saw two angels in the cell. One covered the saint's body with his own garment, and the other placed a crown of glory on his head. The young Hyacinthus suffered for Christ in the year 108 AD in the city of Rome. Later, his bones were transferred to Caesarea in Cappadocia (modern day Turkey). He is remembered for his courage and faith on July 3.

This image of the angels, brings to mind a quote earlier in the week that gave me pause:

Do not be surprised that you fall every day; do not give up, but stand your ground courageously. And assuredly, the angel who guards you will honour your patience. - St. John Klimakos

What difference would it make in my life if I truly acknowledged the presence of a guardian angel in my life? How would I live differently?

First of all, having an angel - that amazing, powerful and incredibly beautiful creature - assigned to me is a thrilling thought. No gift of such splendor and quality has ever been given to me. This would be like being given a royal sword that had been crafted by the best bladesmith in the world, tried by fire, and known worldwide for its beauty and sharpness. I am not worthy of such a gift.

Secondly, knowing the power of angels, that they are servants of the Holy One and strictly organized and commissioned by God and the Prince of Angels, Michael, I am moved with tremendous gratitude that God would protect me with such force, power, and diligence. Scripture says that God will protect me as the "apple of His eye" and hide me under the "shadow of his wings" - Psalm 17:8. Our heavenly Father is intimately involved in my protection and care on a daily basis. His mighty angels are assigned to ensure that this happens.

Thirdly, I would never feel alone or vulnerable. Even physically removed from other people or in a dangerous situation, I would ever have the presence of my guardian angel to comfort and strengthen me. He will jealously guard and defend me. Yes, death may still come upon me, but not because my angel failed to protect me. Death or harm cannot come unless God allows it for his purpose and for his glory. Even in the Valley of the Shadows, my angel will not leave my side. As thousands of saints and martyrs will attest, these mighty warriors of the heavenly host remain with us and help us in the transition from this life to the next. We are never abandoned for one second.

Jun 28, 2008

A Call for Help

Answer me speedily, O LORD;
My spirit fails!
Do not hide Your face from me,
Lest I be like those who go down into the pit.
Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning,
For in You do I trust;
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
For I lift up my soul to You.
Deliver me, O LORD, from my enemies;
In You I take shelter.
Teach me to do Your will,
For You are my God;
Your Spirit is good.
Lead me in the land of uprightness.
Revive me, O LORD, for Your name’s sake!
For Your righteousness’ sake bring my soul out of trouble.
In Your mercy cut off my enemies,
And destroy all those who afflict my soul;
For I am Your servant. - Psalm 143: 7-12

The psalmist finds himself in a major crisis and calls out to God in his terror and hopelessness:

  • Holy God, answer quickly! I see destruction all around me and I'm afraid I will be brought down with it.

  • Lord, make your presence known to me for I am terrified by my loneliness.

  • Comforter, I need to hear your loving words in the morning that I might be assured of your love for me.

  • Counselor, give me direction on which path to choose, even though I cannot see a doorway at this point.

  • Mighty God, deliver me from my enemies (oftentimes, physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual foes).

  • Teacher, I need instruction in how to obey your will (perhaps weakness in this area was a catalyst for the present situation)

  • Good Shepherd, keep my feet on the narrow path, following you and your voice (sheep tend to wander off).

  • Giver of Life, restore life and health to my languishing soul, so that I may glorify you in all things. I was created to glorify God, and true fulfillment and purpose comes only as I pursue this end.

  • Alpha and Omega, send your mighty angels to encamp about me and defend me from my accusers, for my soul has become weak and wounded.

We live in difficult times. We not only contend with the struggles of making a living, paying bills, keeping a job, meeting obligations, raising a family, but we have inner battles to content with. Voices that tell us we are failures. Doubts about decisions we must make or have made. Concerns about our health or someone else's health. Habits of the past that have now caught up with us and keep us from growing in our faith. In our busyness, we try to defend ourselves and keep walking. Eventually, we find ourselves exhausted and bleeding. We wonder how we got to this point.

Meanwhile, God is waiting to answer our call. He is mighty to save. He is longing to help us. Reading over the psalm again, isn't it absolutely amazing what God offers us? All the power of the Trinity and all that love available to us. But we must be in the position to receive it. It cannot be a position of pride and arrogance. God lifts up the humble in spirit.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Psalm 51:17

Jun 14, 2008

Living in the Economy

Last night, we listened to a pair of authors on the Bill Moyers TV show NOW. Both Steve Fraser and Holly Sklar have done their homework on the steps leading up to and explanations for the present economic crisis which is affecting so many middle class Americans. Both were a wealth of information of past history and trends in America, and both had dire warnings if our country continues on the path that is going. No surprise there.

Both of the authors, in separate interviews, commented on the excessive greed of corporate America and their willing bedfellows - federal bureaucracy and government. With the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the wealthy received a starting flag to pursue wealth their way with no consequences or restraints. It was a repeat of the golden age of the late 1800's. Over the past decades, we have witnessed the appalling lack of integrity and restraint of CEO's, their boards of trustees, stockholders, politicians and judges who have convinced themselves that they deserve to amass insane amounts of wealth, with no thought as to sharing it with those below who have been responsible for making their companies and careers successful. The result is a HUGE gap between the unfathomably wealthy and the middle class, which is rapidly slipping into lower class and, barring a major change in government and corporate policies, ultimately headed for poverty levels. During this time, many of us who have always considered ourselves middle class are bewildered as to why it is so difficult to put food on the table, pay for gas for our cars, take care of our clothing needs, handle everyday home repairs, and meet medical needs. We keep adding part-time jobs to make ends meet, but the ends keep moving farther apart. We're working longer hours, being denied health insurance, and offered no security that we will have our jobs tomorrow. One of the authors made the point that we are somewhat fooled by the salaries we are earning, thinking that they are so much higher than what our fathers or grandfathers earned. It was pointed out that, with adjustments made for inflation, we are actually earning what our grandfather earned in the 1920s as far as purchasing power is concerned. That was probably a blue collar or agricultural job and not even considered middle class.

After an hour of assimilating this information and realizing that these authors were describing my husband's and my current financial situation and frustrations, it was easy to become depressed, angry, and ready to pile into a VW van and head for Washington (sorry, that's my Baby Boomer coming out!).

My next thought was, "How does God want us to respond to living in this era?" Historically, this trend is nothing new - the extremely wealthy possessing all the power and lording it over the lower classes. Economics has cycles just as does the weather. The pendulum usually does swing the other direction - eventually. Sometimes it takes decades and many broken lives and political upheavals. I believe my bigger concern in the present crisis is the absence of outrage over the lack of integrity being displayed by these men and women addicted to the god of Mammon. Power corrupts. Money can be an immense source of power, and very few can handle it in a manner that benefits others. But stop and think for a minute. If you don't believe in an ultimate source of right and wrong and your existence here on earth is all the joy and happiness you will ever experience, then why wouldn't you try to get as many toys as possible and experience as much of what this life has to offer? With this thinking, you are responsible for your own happiness. If you aren't happy, then you only have yourself to blame. From this perspective, these individuals can only wonder why we aren't clawing our way to the top like everyone else and hoarding as much as we can for ourselves.

I believe we need to consider the lack of moral values and spiritual foundation that currently premeates our country and how this poverty has given birth to the current situation. We have become heady over our own inventions, technology and investments. They have wooed us with their power, glitz and profitability. Obviously, the evil one is immensely pleased that we are distracted and so easily entertained, and he is busy daily offering us enticements for all our five senses. If he can keep us preoccupied, then we won't be aware that we are completely ignoring the true life, peace and joy that only Christ can offer. Satan (no coincidence he is referred to also as the Angel of Light) has been in the deception business for thousands of years and has perfected it. You don't stand a chance trying to fight him on your own.

We are currently facing an economic crisis in our country. As believers, we have a hope and a kingdom that this world does not acknowledge. Shouldn't that affect how we live our lives in the present circumstances? If things continue to get worse, and there isn't any indication that there is a solution around the corner, will the world see a difference in how we as believers navigate through these waters and how others are handling it? As we daily lift our needs before the Father and trust his care for us and our loved ones, by His grace we will be able to reach out in mercy and tenderness to those who don't share that hope and point to something greater than the riches of this world. It is often in the bleakest of nights that God's glory has opportunity to shine the brightest.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.

But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.

- I Timothy 6:6-12

Jun 11, 2008

Not as Easy as It Looks

Sometimes it happens that, when you begin to pray, you find you can pray well. At other times, even when you have expended great effort, you may find your efforts frustrated. This experience is given to make you learn that you must exert yourself constantly, for having once gained the gift of prayer, you must be careful to keep it safe. - Evagrius of Pontus

Yes, and why would we think that prayer should be easy? My thinking is that, if this is something that is right and good and honors God, then he would honor it and protect it from distraction or temptation. This goes back to the brownie point system. If I do this, then I will be rewarded. Gee, I almost sound like a millennial - I should be rewarded for just showing up.

Prayer has frequently been presented in our culture as a gentle, passive, generous activity. It's a way of showing honor and respect to God and a gesture of support and encouragement to those we pray for. Paintings show individuals quietly and serenely on their knees or with hands folded in prayer. We are touched by their example of humility and entreaty.

At what point was prayer put on the level of an afternoon tea party? Nothing I read in scripture, nor do I see in the lives of the apostles, martyrs and saints, suggests anything but blood, sweat and tears when it comes to prayer. Think of Christ spending entire nights in prayer. Think of Hannah praying for a child. Consider the deacon Stephen as he was being stoned. There is a battle raging around us - greed, power, immorality, hatred, and covetousness. Our human resources are powerless against them. These enemies are greater than what we can see, touch, taste or feel. They can only be confronted and managed by a power stronger than ourselves. Initiating prayer against them is only the beginning, for that only puts the enemy into a rage. The heat rises and the attacks increase. You have been warned.

If we see prayer as an option or another way of coping with the stresses of life, then perhaps we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are fairly protected and secure, thanks to our 401K, our steady income, health insurance, life insurance and retirement plan. The present economic crisis and energy shortage have revealed just how fragile these provisions can be. We have placed our trust in them for so many years that we have lost sight of who truly gives us life and our daily provisions. The true battle, however, is won, not in accruing more assets or increasing our insurance plans, but by continual communication with the Almighty God and wrestling with those forces unseen - as if our life depended on it. It does.

Jun 2, 2008

Stand up Straight

When an archer desires to shoot his arrows successfully, he first takes great pains over his posture and aligns himself accurately with his mark. It should be the same for you who are about to shoot the head of the wicked devil. Let us be concerned first for the good order of sensations and then for the good posture of inner thoughts. - St John Chrysostom

Chrysostom's statement caused me to stop and think of how often, when I am being "attacked" or sense spiritual oppression, I take a defensive position - just hoping to avoid the arrows flying around me. There I am crouching in the corner with my shield held up in front of me.

St. Chrysostom paints a very different scenario, one that makes me recall the consummate archer in Lord of the Rings - Legolas. When sensing attack, he lengthened himself to full height, drew the arrow from his quiver, and with great precision placed it against his bow. There was intention, concentration and a narrowing of focus, as he zeroed in on his target and gauged the distance between them. In archery, you don't have the advantage of the "shotgun" effect - hundreds of pieces fanning out toward the enemy in hopes that enough of them will mortally wound him. No, you have one arrow, carefully placed and intentionally directed toward your foe. The success of the directed arrow depends on the physical and mental disciplines of the past and the ability to let them play out at the exact moment of danger. Our battles are not won on the battlefield. They are won in our daily position before God and our participation in the life of the Body of Christ - prayer, humility, confession and worship. A posture check might be in order.

May 24, 2008

Broken Pots

There is more joy in heaven over a converted sinner than over a righteous person standing firm.

A leader in battle has more love for a soldier who returns after fleeing, and who valiantly pursues the enemy, than for one who never turned back, but who never acted valiantly either.

A farmer has greater love for land which bears fruitfully, after he has cleared it of thorns, than for land which never had thorns but which never yielded a fruitful harvest.

- St Gregory the Great

At first glance, this appears that God loves the broken more than the holy. Ah...but what we think is holy and what God considers holy are worlds apart. Trying hard to be holy does not constitute holiness. Doing "holy" things does not confer holiness. Embracing holy thoughts does not give birth to holiness. Holiness cannot be copied or manufactured. Only God can impart holiness and righteousness. Only he can bring out true love, grace and mercy in our lives. There is only one source of these heavenly, holy virtues - God himself. There are no shortcuts. There are no substitutions. You have to have the genuine article or else it's a cheap imitation.

But we don't like this pathway! It's painful, humiliating and degrading. If I choose this road, it will be filled with insecurity, vulnerability, humility, and weakness. How could that be good? This flies in the face of all we have been taught in the American culture about freedom, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and wealth. There really is a "fork in the road" and there really are 2 very opposite journeys. We have the choice. Our sense of logic and rationality cannot grasp that brokenness, contrition and servant hood could be the best position for life. Society calls us "losers" and "unambitious." We become a "drag" on the upwardly mobile and the fiercely independent. We don't want to be reminded of human weakness, failures or faults.

But God...God's power and love blazes forth in the midst of this environment. The soil is ripe and fertilized, ready for tremendous growth and fruition. Now he can do mighty works and bring many more to himself for salvation and redemption. Pulling the thorns and getting bloody, admitting failure and standing up again, asking for forgiveness and apologizing, being willing to give up the comfortable and satisfying - these are the things that produce great results, great glory and great joy. It's counter intuitive, I know. But it's all a part of God's upside down kingdom. This truism is repeated over and over by the church fathers and the martyrs who lived it and saw the reality in their own lives.

But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

[Paul speaking to the Corinthians]

May 10, 2008

Praying for Others

Do not set your heart on what seems good to you but rather what is pleasing to God when you pray. This will free you from disturbance and leave you occupied with thanksgiving in your prayer.
- Evagrius of Pontus

As someone who was a part of evangelical circles for several decades, I was always instructed to be specific in my prayers for others. This ended up being a great frustration to me over the years, because I didn't know what specifically to pray for people. How could I know what would be best for them? How could I know all the details of their situation? There was always the attempt to get as much information as possible from those who requested prayer, so that "more effective prayers" could be offered on their behalf. This practice frequently resulted in an hour of "sharing" and no time to pray!

But even when I possessed a great quantity of background about that individual and what was going on, I still didn't trust my own conclusions on what God should do in the situation. My prayers ended up being "Lord, if it is your will..." do this or that. Why was it necessary to verbalize a variety of possible outcomes to the situation in my prayers? How could I hope to pray for another's situation when the events in my own life rarely made sense!

I have found tremendous freedom in the Eastern Church as we petition God on behalf of others. We ask for God to glorify himself and that his kingdom would be established here on earth as it is in heaven. I am not required to be the spiritual guide for everyone who asks me to pray for them. I need only bring that person's needs before the Father and ask for his mercy and blessing upon him/her. My focus is on the Godhead and the power and mercy and love that is shown toward us. I plead on another's behalf, as I do for myself. God's answers are too varied, too marvelous and too complex for me to even fathom them in my mind. As Mary, the mother of Jesus, was known to do, she saw others' needs and took them to her Son. Remember the wedding at Cana? Mary didn't presume to tell Jesus what he should do. She merely presented the situation to him. As I hear a person's request or see his/her situation, my responsibility is to lift them to the Father. Those who have gone before us also pray for us, and we can ask them to join us in our prayers to the Father.

There is this constant flow from us and the saints to the throne of God and back - a continual "conversation". The Trinity is working in marvelous ways each and every day, throughout the world, and we are a part of that heavenly stream of faith, hope and love. May we not become entangled in what we should request or how it should be presented. May our focus be on pleasing you.

May 2, 2008

Link by Link

Why do you increase your bonds? Take hold of your life before your light grows dark and you seek help and do not find it. This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.
- St Isaac of Syria

Here are some of my thoughts on this:

  • We can add to or increase the "chains" that bind us - these chains can be in the form of addictions, fear of the unknown, fear of the unanticipated, anxieties over job and career, financial worries, fears of failing, I am reminded of that scene in Scrooge where Ebenezer's previous friend and co-worker, Marley, explains to Ebenezer that the chain he bears was crafted by himself "link by link". We have a natural tendency to blame others or circumstances for the chains that bind us. If we are truly "free in Christ" then those chains are crafted by ourselves.

  • We have been given a certain amount of light - wisdom? discernment? - but that light can fade and disappear completely.

  • We have choices in regard to how we respond to things that happen to us or what things we wrap our lives around.

  • We can seek help too late - answers will not be given and we won't find the hope for which we are looking.

  • We can "waste" our life by running after those things that are not eternal - status, material goods, the approval of others, physical pleasures, beauty, relationships, careers, money, security, the praise of others, etc.

  • New concept - the life God has given me is to be contemplated with the end result of repentance. It is not for my pleasure, my benefit, my selfish goals. If practiced daily, such an attitude would radically change my outlook on life! My life has meaning only in relation to God. That said, my soul is in a sorry condition and needs repentance and cleansing from sin daily. My "feet" need to be washed daily, and the only One who can effectively wash them is Christ through his shed blood and broken body.

My prayer in the morning should be: "Lord, my heart is wicked and prone to evil always. Have mercy upon me."

My prayer during the day should be: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

My prayer at night should be: "Lord, I have sinned without number in what I have done and what I have left undone. Have mercy upon me."

Apr 23, 2008

Living in the Kingdom

Love Christ and put nothing before his love. Christ is everything. He is the source of life, the ultimate desire, he is everything. Everything beautiful is in Christ. - Father Porphyrios

Do I believe this? I want to. Scripture affirms the statement. But the world I live in each day mocks and dismisses such thinking. Key words: love, everything, life, desire, everything, beauty. He promises me love, life, beauty, and fulfillment of my deepest desires in Him. The world promises the same things, but insists on being able to define those things for us.

  • The love the world gives us is artificial, sadly dependent on circumstances and the sincerity of the people who give it.

  • The life the world gives us is limited and eventually runs out, leaving us with discomfort, loneliness and physical deterioration.

  • Our desires for the things of the world are fleeting, unpredictable, often thwarted, and characterized by the law of diminishing returns.

  • The beauty that the world offers is showy, skin deep, fickle, subjective, misleading, and constantly changing.

The world promises that we can have it all. In reality, we each get only a little bit of the pie, and even that does not satisfy our deepest longings.

We truly spend a lot of our waking hours pursuing love, life, desires and fulfillment in this world. Why do we do it? What reward are we looking for? We are such earthbound creatures. We can't imagine what we cannot see, and yet Christ came to us and taught us to look toward that which is unseen to fulfill all our human desires - the kingdom of God. Our comprehension of love, life and beauty are so limited by what this world has to offer. And Satan would love to keep us in the dark in such matters of the heart. We carry the kingdom of God in our hearts, but our senses continue to search for it in the world around us. Call me a mystic, but I am thinking that the reason we struggle so much in this area is that we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to fill ourselves with the world around us and too little time in the kingdom inside of us. I Cor. 3:16 - "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" We don't have to sit in a church to spend time in the kingdom of God. We just need a chair, a quiet spot, and the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. How marvelous, how incredible, how incomprehensible it is that God has given us all that we need to be transported into his very presence at any moment. We just need to practice carrying our heart before him, asking for his mercy and cleansing, and then humbly receiving his love, his life, his eternal beauty. He will fill our hearts to overflowing. He is generous, loving and kind. He longs to pour his blessings upon us and gather us in his arms. Oh, my soul, why do you stray from the Good Shepherd every day? Lord, train us to hear your voice more clearly in the midst of the roar of the world.

Apr 17, 2008


The night was not made to be spent entirely in sleep. Why did Jesus pass so many nights amid the mountains, if not to instruct us by His example? It is during the night that all the plants respire, and it is then also that the soul of man is more penetrated with the dews falling from Heaven; and everything that has been scorched and burned during the day by the sun's fierce heat is refreshed and renewed during the night; and the tears we shed at night extinguish the fires of passion and quieten our guilty desires. Night heals the wounds of our soul and calms our griefs.

[John Chrysostom, Hom. in Psalm VI]

Talk about a radical concept. From infancy we have been conditioned to believe that we need 8 hours of sleep in order to function properly and to be emotionally and physically healthy. When we wake up in the middle of the night, we assume that something is wrong with us. Type "insomnia" into Google and you get 24 million sites. Americans spend millions of dollars each year on medications to help get to sleep and stay asleep all night. Almost everyone I talk to is on one of the familiar brands advertised on TV. Sleep clinics are big business.

This quote from John Chrysostom [347-407 AD] led me to rethink my views on sleep. I was always a bit uncomfortable reading passages in the gospel that described Jesus' nighttime journeys to the mountains or remote areas in order to pray. Surely, he didn't mean for us to follow his example. I mean, he was the Son of God - one would expect him to do that! The disciples didn't seem to accompany him in these wee hours of the morning. Perhaps this was just a Father and Son thing. But it still bothered me. There was something there that whispered, "If it was important to Him, why wouldn't it be important for you?" I can't think of any other place in the gospels where Christ said, "I'm doing this but don't think you have to."

We tend to think of nighttime as God changing the sign in the door from "Open" to "Closed" and ceasing from all activities. But God continues to work even during the night hours. Invisible things occur which have tremendous impact. The earth "breathes" and cleanses itself (in spite of our continually making it more and more difficult for that transformation to happen daily with our pollutants and destruction of forests and oceans). Some animals find food at night. Dew descends from the cooler air and blankets the ground with welcome nourishment and water to replenish that which was lost during the day. We are a part of the great Creation. Why wouldn't we be included in this marvelous, daily cycle of healing and renewal also? Yes, God restores us by giving our bodies rest and our muscles relief from use. But nighttime can also be an amazing time for spiritual awareness, insight and dialogue with our Father. Next time you wake up in the middle of the night, make sure it's not your heavenly Father requesting a midnight moment with you. You might find healing for your hurting soul, encouragement in the midst of your trial, or the cleansing of tears shed over sins or sorrows. There were some pretty amazing events that occurred in scripture during those early hours of the morning! You'll be amazed when you start thinking of them.

Mar 26, 2008

Have You Looked Under Your Bed Lately?

Fr. Stephen mentioned in his March 25th blog a phrase from the Great Canon of St. Andrew – a service which is done during the first week Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. The phrase is part of a prayer that asks “that we not be possessed nor become the food of demons.” Before you dismiss this as folly, consider the 1 Peter 5:8 passage where Paul warns us to be on guard, because “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour”.

My former evangelical self wouldn’t allow me to dwell on the possibility of this situation, because there was always the fear of falling into the habit of looking for a demon under every rock. Somehow, by even saying the word “demon” we might give them power over us. Therefore, better to totally strike them from our vocabulary. After all, do I really believe that they have that much power in the world, that they would even bother with me? Hmmm…such a thought of doubt reminds me of a rather fatal conversation in the garden of Eden many millennia ago. But just imagine going through the day conscious of the fact that demons were looking for an opportunity in every moment to trip me, to raise doubts in my mind, to discourage me, to increase my fleshly appetites through all my senses. Granted, there is a delicate balance here between paranoia and being wise and discerning. We don’t like to consider the fact that we are stalked and harassed each and every day of our lives here on earth. We prefer to look for the peaceful, calm and cheerful aspects of our surroundings and hope that this the true reality. But if we open our minds to the possibility that this hostile spiritual environment exists around us at all times, wouldn’t we live our lives a bit differently? Wouldn’t we be more careful about our choices and words? How many times a day do we grasp for those things that give us only temporary satisfaction – the next hour, the rest of the day, the rest st_michael3.jpgof the month? Our shortsightedness is appalling sometimes. We were created for eternity. Why are we making choices based on the belief that our happiness can be found only through the things that we can see, touch, taste, or hear?

In the same blog, Fr. Stephen recalls that when his son was a preschooler, he was given a small statue of the great angel, St. Michael – “his sword drawn and triumphantly holding the adversary beneath his foot.” In his limited knowledge of the spiritual battles going on around him, his son would pray: Dear St. Michael, guard my room. Don’t let anything eat me or kill me. Kill it with your sword. Kill it with your sword. Amen.”

We would do well to adopt his prayer as our own each and every day.

Mar 16, 2008

The Myrrhbearers

In our church, we have an icon of "The Myrrh-bearing Women". Seven women are portrayed with their flasks or bottles of myrrh. There are several accounts in scripture concerning specific women anointing Jesus with perfume or myrrh - Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:1-11, Luke 7:36-50, and John 12:1-7. There are also accounts of other women who ministered to Jesus and his disciples throughout their ministry and specifically after Christ's death and burial. As I reread some of these passages, I noticed that those who were upset with the women who anointed Christ were not critical of the act of anointing. They were upset with the waste of a very expensive commodity or with the reputation of the person doing the anointing. Therefore, I am inclined to think that the ritual of anointing someone was not uncommon in the ancient world. As Westerners we have difficulty getting past someone pouring perfume or oil on our hair or feet! We would tend to be totally embarrassed or annoyed.

Conducting some unofficial research on the topic of myrrh in ancient times, I found that having a "supply on hand" was common among those with the means to purchase it. Myrrh was used for a wide variety of medicinal purposes and to bring comfort and healing to a person's soul and body. The woman of the house, if she had the financial means or could set aside money to secure a little at a time, would consider having an bottle of myrrh on hand as necessary as having a fully stocked medicine cabinet or first aid kit.

Frankincense and Myrrh in Ancient History

  • Myrrh was used in embalming the Egyptian pharaohs and is listed in the Ebers Papyrus (16th century BC), one of the world’s oldest medical texts.

  • The Greeks considered myrrh a sacred substance and those who could afford the resin used it as incense and to treat virtually every illness. The Greeks began using myrrh to replace living sacrifices in the 3rd century AD.

  • Frankincense was used in ancient times and throughout the Middle Ages by the Christian church as holy anointing oil.

  • Both frankincense and myrrh have a long history of use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, African healing, and Indian Ayurvedic practices.

  • Myrrh is the most often repeated aromatic essential oil in the Bible.

In his book Healing Oils of the Bible, Dr. David Stewart suggests that essential oils and their uses were well known at the time the Bible was recorded. Although healing oils such as myrrh and frankincense were very valuable and not commonly used except by the rich, most people would have known exactly what they were and how they could be used – which is why the Bible could refers to these and other herbs and oils without explaining their use.

Antibiotics, penicillin, cortisone, and pain medication weren't available remedies. However, there were some wonderful and very powerful natural ingredients that gave healing and comfort through difficult times. These women were giving the very best they had, the very best they could buy, in order to bless those they loved dearly. That is a timeless message.

Feb 28, 2008

Glittering Cathedral

We were traveling home from Wednesday Liturgy last night, taking the freeway to get home. It was dark and I could see a total of about 5 stars in the sky. Now, I know there are billions more than this, because about 30 years ago I had opportunity to attend a weekend retreat in a desert in California. The first night I was there, I stepped outside and looked up. The display in the sky was so breath taking that I almost fell to my knees in worship. The heavens appeared as a black canvas sprinkled with glitter. Why couldn't I see this startling beauty back in the city? As much as we like to think that the universe revolves around us, we know that God doesn’t roll out this luminous exhibition only when we happen to be in the desert. It is always there and has always been there, since the beginning of creation.

He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. - Psalm 147:4

It is a well known fact that we cannot see the stars when we’re in the city, because the lights from the city are too bright. Likewise, in the daytime the presence of the sun precludes our ability to see the stars. Light some candles during daylight, and you don’t even notice them in the room. It is only against the blackness that the true beauty shines forth.

Hubble PhotosShould we be so surprised that our spiritual lives wane over the weeks when we don’t take time to “come away”? We need to be reminded daily, hourly, of the presence of those billions of stars - God’s presence, his care and power. I don’t know any other way to achieve that other than spending frequent time in God’s desert, confessing my weaknesses, gazing upon his beauty, and listening to his words. I don’t have to go on weekend retreats – just daily ones. Step into his glittering cathedral as often as you can!

Feb 18, 2008

Beauty and the Church

This morning as I was waiting for the Divine Liturgy to begin at our Eastern Orthodox Church, I took great delight watching various parents bring their little ones up to the front to the iconostasis. The time before and after the service is a marvelous opportunity to bring the children closer to the beautiful, life size icons up front and allow them to light a candle before the icon of Mary (Theotokos), Jesus, St. Basil or St. Nicholas. If you are familiar with Orthodox churches, you are already aware of the beauty that resides inside. There are bright colors everywhere, candles, and various pieces edged or covered with gold. Such a feast for the eyes!

Having come from an evangelical background, I am not accustomed to such dramatic beauty in a place in which I worship. Most of the churches I have grown up with are fairly neutral in colors and architecture is usually without ornamentation. I suppose the thinking is that those elements can be a distraction to worship. Or perhaps we have had negative associations with churches that spend inordinate amounts of money on such extras. I'm not really sure. I do think we have become impoverished by focusing exclusively on functionality and practicality when it comes to worship and communing with God and the saints.

Tradition has it that when Prince Vladimir was looking for the best religion for the people of his new country (which would later become Russia), he sent ten "good and wise men" to various nations to observe different religions and ways in which to worship. These men returned with various reports of the different religions, practices and their places of worship. Of their visit to the Orthodox churches in Constantinople they said,
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty... 1

I can certainly understand a little bit of their observation now that I have seen some of that beauty myself.

What a joy it is to see the children slowly approach the front of the church with wonder and delight in their eyes, carefully lighting their candle from a candle that is already burning and gently placing it in the sand before the icons. The very young must be lifted up by a parent or grandparent in order to place their special candle among the others. A prayer of thanksgiving is said as the child's face is radiant from the small and quiet flame that burns. Such a short moment but it is filled with love on many levels - love of the parent for the child, love of the child for the beauty before him/her, love for the person whom the icon represents, love of the child for the parent who cares enough to share such an intimate moment. Yes, the church is beautiful but the activities that take place within that beauty are equally breath-taking.

1 Russian Primary Chronicle: a history of the Kievan Rus' from around 850-1110 originally compiled in Kiev about 1113.

Feb 8, 2008


Sometimes I think I have made a transition to Eastern Christianity but then something happens to remind me that I have so many Western perspectives that will take years to change. It is difficult to think differently than how you were taught or from what was conveyed to you by adults, those in positions of authority, and those you admired. You never questioned their perspectives and opinions, because it made sense and you had respect for them. It never occurred to me that they perhaps didn't have all the information at the time. I think about this a lot as I embrace Eastern Orthodox theology.

I am staying at a Jesuit retreat center this weekend, partaking in a “silent retreat” for 3 days. There are a number of statues in the buildings and on the grounds. Oftentimes, outside there is a small chair or bench in front of the statues. An Evangelical would think, “Why would someone want to just sit there in front of a statue? It’s just a piece of cement (wood, bronze). Do these people worship these statues? Isn’t that idolatry?” As soon as you say “these people”, you have in essence erected a wall between you and “them”, whether that be Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Eastern Orthodox, or African American churches. That wall prevents any further discussion or opportunities to understand more fully why “these people” do and say what they do. We have pronounced judgment upon them and come up with the terms of punishment – ignore them and/or make fun of their beliefs and practices. This judge and jury approach to other faiths is not unique to Evangelicals and Protestants. Other faiths do the same thing in regard to Evangelicals! You have to admit that, in recent years, the name Evangelical has not been embraced with warmth and admiration by the media or the people you see everyday. Many have come to conclusions about this right wing group of Christians based on the extreme behavior and words of key representatives of this Protestant segment. In many cases, it is not a pretty picture.

Let me give an example of one area that many evangelicals misunderstand in Eastern Orthodoxy – the veneration of icons. Now just this phrase – “veneration of icons” – makes evangelicals cringe and step back as if they had just stumbled into the temple of Apollos. When I first encountered the use of icons in the Eastern Orthodox faith, I had this same reaction. What are they doing with all these images of Christ, Mary, and the saints? Why do they surround themselves with them? Are they like good luck charms? Doesn’t the bible speak strongly against such a practice – like in one of the Ten Commandments?

I could have stopped right there and dismissed “these people” as an element of Christianity I would never understand and gone on my way. I would have forever stamped them as “strange” and far from the faith I embraced. Thankfully, my husband had already done extensive reading on the subject and was embracing the use of icons himself. Can you imagine my confusion as I watched this man, whom I respect tremendously in matters of the Christian faith, taking part and finding great joy in an ancient practice that I could not fathom? Well, we weren’t short of material to read, for he had already accumulated quite a number of books. I began to read and soon discovered that I completely misunderstood the purpose of these incredible tools for worship.

"[Icons are]“an essential medium through which the holy may be approached and grace channeled, like a two-way mirror….The icon is the real equivalent to, and venerated with the same honor as, the Gospel. The one communicates religious truth through words, the other through visible forms and symbols. Both equally are modes of revelation.” (Nicholas Gendle, Catalogue: Icons in Oxford)

Icons were used extensively by Christians in the first centuries after Christ, in the churches and in homes. They were not meant to be “works of art”. They were “read”, just as you would say you have “read” the scriptures. In fact, when an iconographer paints an icon, he is said to “write” it, not “paint” it. Just as the Word of God is a means for our hearts to receivePantocrator instruction, grace, and understanding, icons can be a means of making that connection with God visually. By the way, you will find no icons of God the Father, since he is not visible to us. He only became visible to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, there are many icons of the Son of God, since he took on humanity and walked with men. You could touch him, talk with him, and pray with him.

Evangelicals have a difficult time with the concept of mystery or things they cannot explain from a scriptural perspective, even though many will agree that a sense of mystery is missing in the bible churches today. There is a longing in our hearts to reclaim mystery in our faith, but the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment did a good job in making us suspicious and skeptical of anything we cannot understand or rationalize. We automatically put it into the category of superstition or propaganda.

I am afraid that, in our attempt to emphasize the power and benefits of God’s Word, we have pushed aside those traditions that also enabled Christians to experience God with all the senses which he has bestowed upon us. We seem to have elevated the art of reason above all the other senses. What about the visual, touch, smell, and sight? Shouldn’t these also be incorporated into our weekly and daily worship? Why have we come to distrust them so much? To me, these are all part of the “image of God” in which we were created. The believers of the first centuries valued them, and services were designed to involve as many senses as possible through the use of incense, candles, colorful and gilded icons, kneeling or prostrating, chanting, and listening. Most evangelical churches limit themselves to the preaching of the Word and music on Sunday mornings. Taking communion varies from every Sunday to 4 times a year. Their sanctuaries are not particularly appealing to the eye. Oftentimes, they are devoid of any color, designed for stage productions, a multi-purpose room that can be used for the youth on Thursday nights and then as a place of worship on Sunday mornings.

Embracing the use of icons is a way for me to begin to restore some of that mystery to my spiritual life. Icons are a connection to those who are in that “country” for which I am bound. I am on the pathway, and I need their prayers for me as I navigate the often rough terrain here on earth. Jesus, the Son of God, his dear mother, Mary, the Apostles, the Church Fathers, those martyred for their faith, my own mother, all can intercede for me and pray for me as I pray to them. An icon helps me make that connection. They are God’s words to me through “visible forms and symbols”. I do not worship the blocks of wood, nor do I worship the person portrayed. They are my “spiritual team” who daily behold the Holy Trinity and who can lay my petitions before him. Why would anyone refuse such an opportunity? The results can be life-changing.

Jan 20, 2008

This World is Not My Home

I can’t remember if I have mentioned the journey I have been on this past year – the path from Western Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. It would take innumerable blogs to delineate the manner in which God has put together this puzzle in my life. He has used a number of books, individuals, and circumstances to lead my husband and me to a new understanding of the Christian walk through an Eastern mindset. For those of you who would enjoy reading another woman’s journey into Orthodoxy, I recommend Frederica Mathewes-Green: Frederica Mathewes-Green. For those who want a more general understanding, I suggest reading through some of the topics covered by Orthodox Wiki:

One of the joys I have discovered in this entry into Orthodoxy is learning about Christians who lived in the first hundred years after Christ. Many of them chose to spend years in remote locations in order to learn more about their faith and God Himself. They originally came from homes of wealth, impressive educational backgrounds and were disheartened with the pursuits of men and the desire for power and prestige. I had always considered such individuals as a bit crazy and self-centered who were just fed up with life and chose to just isolate themselves from humanity. How many of us would like to do the same? I would read accounts like the following and think “I cannot relate to this kind of Christianity”:

One time Macarius (at this time, a monk at the monastery) caught a thief loading his things on a donkey standing near his cell (his room). Without revealing that he was the owner of these things, the monk began to help tie up the load. Having removed himself from the world, the monk told himself, "We bring nothing at all into this world; clearly, it is not possible to take anything out from it. Blessed be the Lord for all things!"

There are amazing accounts just like this one that reveal a type of spiritual faith we are not used to in the West. These men and women understood something about the Christian faith that transcends life here on earth and is centered in heaven – daily and moment by moment. They appreciated the mystery of God and the way He is intimately involved in our lives. Their joy was not attached to things and people here on earth. Their faith was rooted, not in just the intellectual, but rather all five senses. Salvation was not limited to a one time profession of faith but a continuous transformation only possible through an intimate connection with the life of the Trinity. As a believer, one is brought into the Church, the Body of Christ (past, present and future) and a loving relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No solo Christians here! Your life is part of an eternal community that spans time and space. In addition, you have been brought into the presence of the God of the universe who hears your prayers and cares for you.

Daily, we are besieged by the “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (I John 2:16). Everything around us seems to communicate that this world is the most important thing and worth all sacrifices of time, money and energy. What are we doing daily to counterbalance this tremendous pull? What are we doing to focus on the eternal and that which has true value? Are we daily asking God to transform our lives as we pray and meditate and ask Him to make us more like His Son? Are we becoming less comfortable living in this world and viewing it as a “temporary residence”? Are we holding on to our jobs, money, and possessions, believing that they will bring fulfillment or offering them up for God to use however he chooses and to further His kingdom? Difficult choices, but, in return, you will reap the marvelous reward of the unbelievably rich life and love of the Holy Trinity.

For more on Macarius, go to: Macarius of Egypt

Jan 11, 2008

An Enlarged Heart

"Remembrance of wrongs comes as the final point of anger. It is a keeper of sins. It hates a just way of life. It is the ruin of virtues, the poison of the soul, a worm in the mind. It is the shame of prayer, a cutting off of supplication, a turning away from love, a nail piercing the soul. It is a pleasure less feeling cherished in the sweetness of bitterness. It is a never-ending sin, an unsleeping wrong, rancor by the hour. A dark and loathsome passion, it comes to be but has no offspring, so that one need not say much about it. A man who has put a stop to anger has also wiped out remembrance of wrongs, since offspring can come only from a living parent." St. John of the Ladder

Father Stephen pens a convicting essay on the issue of forgiving others. You might want to read it in its entirety - The Remembrance of Wrongs - if you're up for a bruising. I have never seen myself as a person who holds grudges against others, at least according to my definition. However, I find that God's definitions frequently differ quite a bit from mine! He doesn't stop at "do not hold grudges" but continues by insisting that we "forgive one another" and, further, to love them with a sacrificial love. When someone wrongs me, betrays my confidence, slanders my character, what is my immediate reaction? I cannot admit to thoughts of love and concern for them. Typically, such actions toward me result in mycastle1.jpg placing them on my "enemies" list and someone to avoid in the future. The drawbridge goes up and soldiers are sent to the towers to defend the castle! This is not at all the example that our Lord set before us as he hung on the cross, nor our dear brother, Stephen, while he was being stoned to death. We have never experienced such rejection and suffering, and yet their responses were the same toward their accusers: (The Lord)"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" and (Stephen)"Lord, lay not this sin to their charge". These requests came from the very depths of their hearts. Their love for others was greater than any injury or insult they could sustain.

If this makes you uncomfortable (as I am) about your present attitude toward certain individuals who have hurt you, the incorrect thing to do is to concentrate on not holding grudges and trying to be more kind to others. The piece that is missing is not a need for more forgiveness but a need for more love toward others. Love of this depth and magnitude is supernatural and can only come from God's Spirit working in and though us. We cannot produce it ourselves. We can manufacture a weak likeness to it, but it has no power, no life-changing qualities. What is needed is more humility - realizing our propensity to sin in our thoughts, words, and actions. And humility comes as we gaze upon Christ and see how spiritually needy we truly are. Others are the same. We are in the same boat. They need his grace and mercy just as much as we do. As we beseech the Lord daily to purify our hearts, we will find greater capacity to love those around us.
"The purer the heart becomes, the larger it becomes." St. John of Kronstadt