Jan 20, 2011

More on Forgiveness...

More on forgiveness by Fr. Michael (priest at the Holy Nativity Orthodox Church in Canada). These are distinctions that I have never heard or considered. Very helpful.

Forgiving the Unrepentant, Again and Again
Forgiving, again, and again, and again.  Forgive me if I carry on with this topic forgiveness, even if I get repetitive.

When I was a kid (about 8), I scraped my knee pretty badly.  I wasn't in a context of close adult supervision, so the wound was never cleaned or bandaged.  The scab was huge.  I couldn't leave it alone.  I kept picking at it until it got infected.  I would squeeze out the puss, a scab would reform, and I would pick at it some more.  It took months for the wound to heal (thank God I didn't get blood poisoning).  Well into adulthood, I had a scar on my knee from that wound.

Forgiveness, in my experience, is much like healing a wound.  If we have good spiritual care and we follow instructions and the wound is not too severe, we can heal (forgive) pretty quickly.  However, if we are left to own devices, if we have bad advice, or don't follow good advice, emotional and spiritual wounds can fester and become gangrenous and eventually kill us.  This is especially true if we keep picking at them: if we keep calling to mind past wrongs and experiencing afresh past pains.

One aspect of forgiveness that causes some confusion--and thus adds to the picking--is the association of forgiveness with punishment.  In a juridical context, sure, forgiveness means not receiving punishment.  However, experiencing consequences is not the same as being punished.  God forgives us our sin, yet we still experience many of the consequences of our sins.  This is an aspect of human freedom.  Freedom wouldn't be real if consequences were not real.  If I chose to go left, but experienced the consequences of the path on the right, then I never had a real choice.  While forgiveness averts punishment, it doesn't change consequence.

God may forgive me for hitting my brother, but the black eye doesn't suddenly go away.  In fact, although my brother too may forgive me, the emotional or mental sickness or instability that originally impelled me to hit my brother still needs to be healed.  Moreover, my brother having completely forgiven me, may still want to stay out of arm's reach for a while--at least until he has reason to believe that I have begun to lean how to control my anger.  This staying out of arm's reach has nothing to do with forgiveness.  Forgiveness was a matter of my brother's heart.  Staying out of the way is a matter of wisdom.  A man who has shown that he has anger control issues should not be treated as though he really doesn't struggle with such issues.  That would be stupidity, what is commonly called codependency. That is not forgiveness.

Sometimes people have a hard time healing emotionally and spiritually because they cannot separate these two matters, forgiveness and consequence.  This confusion is like an infection that poisons emotional wounds.  In order for the wound to heal, forgiveness is necessary. But forgiveness seems impossible, or at best foolish, when it is tied to (A) second chances (third, forth, fifth, sixth, chances) or (B) to trust.

Forgiveness does NOT mean an automatic second chance.  Forgiveness does not equal trust.  Forgiveness means that I have stopped picking at the wound in my heart.  Forgiveness means that I do not hold your trespass against me, against you.  I forgive you, but I also now know you better and will treat you according to that knowledge--not to punish you, forgiveness lets go of punishment.  I will treat you according to my knowledge of you so that you can heal, so that you are not soon put in a situation where you will be tempted to commit the same trespass again.

This is good for you and safe for me. Forgiveness does not throw wisdom and common sense out the window.  Sins have consequences, and forgiveness does not make those consequences go away.


Jan 15, 2011

Forgiveness and Forgiving

More on forgiveness by Fr. Michael (priest at the Holy Nativity Orthodox Church in Canada).

Ostensive Lyme asked whether Christians "need to" forgive the unrepentant. The short answer is yes.

I can see why someone might say no if we think of sin and forgiveness in mere juridical terms. However, as Orthodox Christians, this is not how we understand sin and forgiveness.

As Orthodox Christians we think of sin as wounding and alienation - from God, from others and within ourselves. So forgiveness has to do with reconciliation. Forgiveness has to do with healing. Just as I pointed out in Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, forgiveness is not static. That is, how or whether we receive God’s forgiveness depends a great deal on what we do. It’s a mystery, not a syllogism. God forgives unilaterally and completely. Jesus has already died for the sins of the whole world. From God’s end (so to speak), all of the sins of all of humanity for all of the ages have already been forgiven. But that is not the end of the story. Forgiveness has a life of its own - and anyone who has tried hard to forgive someone who has deeply hurt them knows this by experience.

Somehow the one forgiven interacts with the forgiveness offered. We might even say that the forgiveness offered must take root and grow and bear fruit in the life of the one forgiven. If this does not happen, forgiveness is somehow short circuited - in the one forgiven, not necessarily in the one forgiving. It helps to think of forgiveness as the whole process of healing, not just the initial step, not just a legal absolution or a letting go or forgetting of past wrongs. In relationships with others, one’s willingness or unwillingness to repent affects the progress of forgiveness, of healing. However, whether or not someone repents or accepts forgiveness does not necessarily have any effect on another’s ability to forgive. God forgives completely, even if His forgiveness does not always take root and bear fruit.

Not only does forgiveness interact with the one forgiven, it interacts within the one forgiving. God is perfect, so only God can forgive perfectly, once and for all. Human beings are sinful, which means that within ourselves we experience alienation. Part of us can want to forgive, while another part of us doesn’t, while yet other parts of us remain hidden. We can forgive on Monday and by Wednesday find surging resentment and anger rising from some hidden place within us. Forgiveness, for sinful human beings, is a process.

From the perspective of the one forgiving, the repentance or apparent repentance of the other is irrelevant because you have no control over someone else. In fact, I can’t even know if someone else really is repentant, no matter how penitent they seem. Only God knows that. What I do have control over is myself, and like God - and only with God’s help - I can forgive, I can begin to heal, regardless of the other's repentance or lack thereof.

P.S. It is also possible for one who has committed an offence to experience forgiveness even if someone refuses to forgive him or her. Forgiveness ultimately comes from God. So in forgiving, it's important to realize that the resources necessary to forgive are not our own apart from God. The ability to forgive those who sin against us comes from receiving the forgiveness that God has first given us, and in turn our forgiving others affects our ability to receive God's forgiveness. It' a mystery; it's a process; and it takes a lifetime.


Jan 14, 2011

Arguing the Gospel

In reading one of George MacDonald's books, I stumbled upon this insightful observation by one of the leading characters - Thomas Wingfold, curate of the local abbey.
The man who is anxious to argue every point will speedily bring a conversation to a mere dispute about trifles, leaving the deeper matter out in the cold. Such a man, having gained his paltry point, will crow like a bantam, while the other, who may be the greater man though maybe even in the wrong, is embittered by his smallness and turns away with increased prejudice. 
Few men do more harm than those who are on the right side but argue for personal victory. And even genuine argument for the truth is not preaching the gospel. He whose unbelief is attacked by argument will never be brought into a mood fit for receiving the truth. Argument should be kept to books. Preachers ought to have nothing to do with it - in the pulpit at any event. Let them hold forth the light, and let him who will receive it do so, and him who will not wait. God alone can convince, and till the full time is come for the birth of the truth in a soul, the words even of the Lord himself can have little potency.
- The Curate of Glaston, p. 92.

Fire on the Mountain

Met. Athanasios of Limassol

Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol relates below an extraordinary experience of an Athonite elder he knew personally:
One day after vespers were over the elder went to his cell to continue praying on his own. While doing that, he marvelled at the thought that everybody - all two thousand or so monks of the entire Athonite peninsula - was praying during that very moment. Then, he wondered what the Holy Mountain looked like under such intense prayer.
At that very moment he experienced himself being catapulted by the Holy Spirit high up in the air. It was as if he were looking down from an aeroplane. From that high point, he saw the Athonite peninsula spurting out flames like an active volcano, as if the entire mountain was on fire. Some of the flames went straight up to heaven. Others seemed weak, like the flame of a small candle, while yet others were flickering and barely visible. Yet, there was one, this elder claimed, that was like a fiery river that went straight up. He then overheard a voice coming from heaven saying:
"What you have witnessed is the Holy Mountain and these are the prayers of the monks that go up to God."
Then the elder asked: "And whose prayer is this great river of fire?"
God replied that it was the prayer of a certain abbot of a certain monastery, whose name cannot be revealed since this abbot is still alive.

Excerpt from Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality by Kyriacos C. Markides, pp. 222-223.
Found on Mystagogy.

Jan 6, 2011


'About the beginning of our Lord's thirtieth year, John the Forerunner, who was some six months older than our Saviour according to the flesh, and had lived in the wilderness since his childhood, received a command from God and came into the parts of the Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins. Then our Saviour also came from Galilee to the Jordan, and sought and received baptism though He was the Master and John was but a servant. Whereupon, there came to pass those marvellous deeds, great and beyond nature: the Heavens were opened, the Spirit descended in the form of a dove upon Him that was being baptized, and the voice was heard from the Heavens bearing witness that this was the beloved Son of God, now baptized as a man (Matt. 3:13 17; Mark 1:9 11; Luke 3:1 22). From these events the Divinity of the Lord Jesus Chist and the great mystery of the Trinity were demonstrated. It is also from this that the present feast is called "Theophany," that is, the divine manifestation, God's appearance among men. On this venerable day the sacred mystery of Christian baptism was inaugurated; henceforth also began the saving preaching of the Kingdom of Heaven.' - Great Horologion

When Thou was baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest; for the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the certainty of the word. O Christ our God, Who hast appeared and hast enlightened the world,glory be to Thee. - Troparion of Theophany 

'But Christ's descent into the river has also a further significance. When Christ went down into the waters, not only did he carry us down with Him and make us clean, but He also made clean the nature of the waters themselves... The feast of Theophany has thus a cosmic aspect. The fall of the angelic orders, and after it the fall of man, involved the whole universe. All God's creation was thereby warped and disfigured: to use the symbolism of the liturgical texts, the waters were made a "lair of dragons". Christ came on earth to redeem not only man but through man the entire material creation. When He entered the water, besides effecting by anticipation our rebirth in the font, he likewise effected the cleansing of the waters, their transfiguration into an organ of healing and grace.' - Bishop Kallistos, "Background and meaning of the Feasts" in the Festal Menaion

Source, January 6

Jan 5, 2011

Punishment or Discipline - What's the Difference?

I found a thought-provoking article by Fr. Michael (priest at the Holy Nativity Orthodox Church in Canada) which has me rethinking a lot of things!

The Prodigal Son - Rembrandt

Discipline and punishment are not the same thing. Discipline is a kind of teaching, it has as its goal the training of the person under discipline. Punishment is a mater of retribution, it has as its goal the carrying out of a sanction or penalty based on the transgression of a moral, legal or social code.

Discipline is an essential part of Christian life, punishment is not.

For the one under discipline, however, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between discipline and punishment. In fact, in the ascetic tradition of the Church, sometimes the word “punish” is used as a synonym for “discipline.” A good example of this is when an ascetic talks about “punishing his body” to bring it under control. Similarly, St. Paul in Hebrews 12 talks about the “chastising of sons,” which is never pleasant but rather painful. Such suffering is not punishment for breaking moral, legal or spiritual law; it is discipline “that yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

Nevertheless, it is harder to think in terms of discipline rather than punishment. To understand suffering and unpleasant consequences in terms of discipline requires discernment. It requires one to reflect on his or her life, relationship with God, and relationships with others. Because discipline leads to learning and growth, it requires that one fully engage it--not just endure it. Punishment, on the other hand, is easy to deal with. You only need to endure it.

If my sufferings are just punishment, then all I have to do is affix blame. If I am being punished, then I merely identify a rule or principle that has been violated. I just ride out the suffering, for there is nothing much to learn except not to break that rule again, or at least not to get caught again, or to find a loop hold or obtain an exception. Punishment does not require much reflection. It requires no growth. Punishment is fulfilled in forcing conformity to code or law, it has nothing to do with personal growth.

The tendency to think in terms of punishment rather than discipline pervades our psyches much more than we realize. As a culture, our concepts of equality are based largely on the presumption of equal treatment under the law. Such thinking trickles into our church and family life. When someone violates a moral or legal code, we feel something rise in our minds demanding punishment equal to the violation. While such legalistic thinking may seem to be necessary in certain secular settings, it has no place in the church, and particularly not in a Christian family.

Children are not equal. The goal of Christian child rearing is not equal conformity to any moral, legal or social code. The goal of Christian parenting is to train our children to know Christ, to love Christ and to become more and more full of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. When our children fail to keep moral or other laws, our goal is not to enforce conformity. Our responsibility is not to punish. When our children sin (miss the target in their behavior, speech or attitudes), our goal is to help them find repentance. Our responsibility is to provide the discipline (training) to help our child recognize and overcome temptation.

Sinful behaviour is a symptom of a deeper wandering from God. Helping our children find their way back to God is our goal, not the eradication of certain behaviours.

And while discipline is usually unpleasant, its success is measured not in conformity to any code, but in the “peaceable fruit of righteousness.” We must never forget St. Paul’s words to the Romans, it is “God’s goodness that leads you to repentance” (2:4). Goodness and discipline together, but mostly goodness: When the prodigal son returns, he receives only goodness.

Jan 2, 2011

The Gospel Writers

The following is a compilation of the prefaces to the Four Gospels by The Blessed Theophylact of Ohrid. My thanks to John Sanidopoulos for pulling it together on his Mystagogy website.

Those divine men who lived before the law were not taught by writings and books, but they had a pure mind and so were enlightened by the radiance of the Holy Spirit. Thus they knew the will of God, and He Himself conversed with them mouth to mouth. Such were Noah, Abraham, Job, and Moses. But when men grew weak and became unworthy to be enlightened and instructed by the Holy Spirit, God Who loves mankind gave the Scriptures, so that at least by these means they might be made mindful of the will of God.
Christ also conversed in person with the apostles, and He sent the grace of the Spirit to be their teacher. But later, heresies would arise and our morals would be corrupted. Therefore it was His good pleasure that the Gospels be written down in order to teach us the truth, so that we would not be drawn away by the falsehood of these heresies, and our morals altogether corrupted. He gave us four Gospels, perhaps because we learn from them the four universal virtues: courage, prudence, righteousness, and self-control. We learn courage when the Lord says, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul" (Mt 10:28); we learn prudence when He exhorts, "Be ye wise therefore as serpents" (Mt 10:16); we learn righteousness when He teaches, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them" (Mt 7:12); and we learn self-control when He declares, "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Mt 5:28).
For another reason are there four Gospels: they are pillars of the world. As the world is divided into four parts — east, west, north, and south — it was right that there also be four pillars. And for yet another reason are the Gospels four in number: they contain four elements — teachings, commandments, warnings, and promises. To those who believe the teachings and observe the commandments, God promises the good things that are to come. But those who do not believe the teachings and do not keep the commandments, He threatens with the punishments that are to come.
It is called “Gospel” because it announces to us things that are good: namely, remission of sins, being counted as righteous, ascent into the heavens, and adoption as sons by God. It also announces that we can receive these things easily. For we ourselves have not labored to obtain these good things, nor have we received them as a result of our own accomplishments. We have been deemed worthy of such good things by God’s grace and love for man.

Preface to the Gospel of Matthew
There are four Evangelists; two of them, Matthew and John, were of the company of the twelve, and two, Mark and Luke, were of the seventy. Mark was a follower and disciple of Peter; and Luke, of Paul. Matthew, then, first wrote the Gospel, in the Hebrew language for the Jews who believed, eight years after Christ’s Ascension. Some say that John translated it from the Hebrew language into Greek. Mark wrote his Gospel ten years after the Ascension, instructed by Peter. Luke wrote his Gospel fifteen years after the Ascension, and John the most wise Theologian, thirty two years after the Ascension.
It is said that after the death of the first three Evangelists, the three Gospels were brought to John while he yet lived that he might see them and judge if they had been composed according to the truth. When John read them he fully accepted the grace of the truth in them. and whatever the other Evangelists had omitted, he completed in his Gospel, and whatever they had touched on briefly, he elaborated. This was the beginning of theology. Since the other Evangelists had not mentioned the existence of God the Word from before the ages, John himself spoke the word of God—theology—concerning this, so that no one would think that God the Word was a mere man without divinity. For Matthew speaks only of the existence of Christ in the flesh, as he was writing for the Jews for whom it sufficed to learn that Christ was begotten from Abraham and David. A believing Jew is content to know that Christ is from David.
You might ask, “Was not one Evangelist enough?” Listen, then: one was enough, but four were allowed to write so that the truth might be revealed more clearly. When you see these four Evangelists, not sitting down together in one place, but each one by himself at a different time and place writing about the same things as if with one voice, do you not marvel at the truth of the Gospel and conclude that they spoke by the Holy Spirit? Do not tell me that they are not in agreement in all points. Consider where exactly they do not agree. Does one Evangelist say that Christ was born, and another, that He was not? Or one, that He rose, and another, that He did not? Indeed not! In what is essential, they speak with one voice. Therefore, if they do not diverge in the essential points, why do you marvel if they appear to vary in minor details? It is precisely because their accounts do not agree in every detail that we can see that they present the truth. If they had agreed on every point, it would cause one to suspect that they sat down and deliberated together in writing the Gospels. Instead, what one Evangelist has omitted, another has recorded, and for this reason that they seem to be at variance on certain points.

Preface to the Gospel of Mark
The Gospel According to St. Mark was written ten years after the Ascension of Christ. This Mark was a disciple of Peter, whom Peter calls his son, that is, his spiritual son. He was also called John (Acts 12:12), and the nephew of Barnabas (Col. 4:10), and the companion of Paul (Philemon 24). But eventually he accompanied Peter the most, and was with him in Rome. The believers in Rome begged Mark not only to preach orally, but also to give them a written account of Christ’s life. He agreed, and composed it immediately. God revealed to Peter that Mark had written this Gospel, and when he saw it, Peter confirmed its truth, and sent Mark as bishop to Egypt. There Mark preached and established the Church in Alexandria, enlightening all those in that sunny land to the south. The character of this Gospel, therefore, is unclouded and clear, containing nothing that is hidden.
Mark’s Gospel agrees with Matthew’s in every respect, except that Matthew goes into greater detail. And while Matthew begins with the Nativity of the Lord according to the flesh, Mark begins with the prophet and forerunner John. Therefore, though it may appear incomprehensible, some have given this understanding of the four Evangelists: God, Who sits upon the four-faced Cherubim, as Scripture says (see Ezekiel 1:10, 10:14; also Rev. 4:7) gave us the Gospel which likewise appears in four forms, but is held together by one Spirit. Just as one of the Cherubim had the face of a lion, and another the face of a man, and another the face of an eagle, and another the face of a bullock, so it is with the preaching of the Gospel.
The Gospel of John has the face of a lion, for the lion is royal and princely; and John began his Gospel with the royal and lordly dignity of the divine Word, saying, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God". But the Gospel of Matthew is in the likeness of a man, for it begins with the Nativity according to the flesh and the incarnation of the Word. The Gospel of Mark is likened to an eagle, for it begins with the prophet and forerunner John. And the prophetic gift, by which one can foresee and keenly perceive things that are a great way off, is like an eagle. For it is said that the eagle is the most keen sighted of all the animals, and can even gaze at the sun without shutting its eyes. The Gospel of Luke is like the bullock, because it begins with the priestly service of Zacharias, in the course of which he made sacrifice for the sins of the people, sacrificing a bullock.

Preface to the Gospel of Luke
The divine Luke, an Antiochian and a physician, had a great knowledge of natural philosophy; but he was also much practiced in Hebrew learning. He lived in Jerusalem at the time when our Lord was teaching, so that some say that he himself became one of the seventy apostles, and together with Cleopas, met the Lord after He rose from the dead. After the Lord ascended, and Paul believed, Luke became a close companion and follower of Paul. He wrote his Gospel with great accuracy, as his preface makes clear. He wrote the Gospel fifteen years after the Lord’s Ascension. He writes it to a certain Theophilus, a senator and perhaps a magistrate as well, calling him "most excellent". Magistrates and governors are addressed in this fashion, as when Paul said to the governor Festus, "O most excellent Festus".1 Everyone who loves God and exercises dominion over his passions is a "Theophilus" and "most excellent", and it is he who is truly worthy to hear the Gospel.

Preface to the Gospel of John
The strength of the Holy Spirit "is made perfect in weakness" (II Cor. 12:9): so it is written and so we believe. It is made perfect in weakness of the body, and especially in feebleness of understanding (logos) and of speech. This has been proven time and again, but nowhere so clearly as in the life of John, the great theologian and brother of Christ by grace. John was a fisherman and the son of a fisherman, not just ignorant of higher Greek and Judaic learning, but completely illiterate, as the divine Luke says in the book of Acts (4:3). His native town, Bethsaida, was lowly and obscure: a “place of fishing,” not of learning. Behold how a man like this—unlettered, unknown, and insignificant—acquired such spiritual power that he thundered forth doctrines taught by none of the other Evangelists. Their Gospels dealt with the life of Christ in the flesh and made no clear declaration of His existence before the ages. From this arose the danger that certain contemptible men, with minds fixed on the physical world and unable to comprehend anything exalted, would imagine that Christ first came into existence when He was born of Mary, and that He was not begotten of the Father before all ages. Paul of Samosata fell to exactly that temptation. Realizing this, the great John clearly set forth the spiritual begetting of Christ, without neglecting to record that "the Word was made flesh" (Jn 1:14). Some maintain that the Orthodox—the rightly believing Christians—asked John to write about Christ’s eternal generation in order to refute certain heretics who had already begun to teach that the Saviour was merely a man. It is also said that when the saint read the books of the other Evangelists, he marveled at the accuracy of their narratives on every point, and judged them to be sound and unbiased towards any of the apostles. But what the other Evangelists had not stated clearly, or had omitted, John clarified, developed, or added to his own Gospel, which he wrote thirty-two years after the Ascension of Christ, while living in exile on the island of Patmos. The Lord loved John more than any of the disciples, because of his simplicity, meekness and goodness, and especially because he was a virgin and pure of heart. It was on account of his purity in particular that John was entrusted with the gift of theology. "Blessed are the pure in heart," the Lord says, "for they shall see God" (Mt 5:8); and, indeed, John delighted in mysteries which most men do not perceive.
John was related to Jesus, in the following manner. Joseph, the Betrothed of the most pure Theotokos, had seven children by his previous wife—four sons, and three daughters whose names were Martha, Esther, and Salome. John was the son of Salome; therefore, Jesus was John’s uncle. Because Salome was the daughter of Joseph—the “father of the Lord”—she was considered to be the Lord’s sister; and her son, John, the Lord’s nephew. Salome means “peaceful“; John means “the grace of her.” May every soul understand that Christ’s peace, which is offered to all men, calms the passions of the soul, and gives birth to divine grace within us. But a soul in turmoil, always battling with others and with itself, cannot be counted worthy of divine grace. Consider another marvelous thing about John. Only he is said to have three mothers: first, Salome, his natural mother; second, thunder, for he is a "son of thunder" (Mk 3:17), on account of his powerful proclamation of the Gospel ; and third, Mary, the Theotokos, concerning whom the Lord said to John, "Behold thy mother" (Jn 19:27).
1 Acts 26:25. The single Greek word kratiste, translated in Acts 26:25 by the KJV asO most noble, is the same word used in Luke 1:3 to address Theophilus, but rendered in this case by the KJV as O most excellent. It is the superlative form of an adjective derived from the noun kratos, meaning might or dominion. In the next line Blessed Theophylact makes a play on the meaning of this word, and on the meaning of the name Theophilus, he who loves God.