Dallas!

Last night Kelly and I rolled into Dallas. We’re here safe and sound; the cars are still moving, the cat is still meowing, and I think none of our stuff is broken.

We spent several days with the Voss’ in San Antonio, enjoying their lovely house and great food. On Sunday, our one year anniversary, we enjoyed the hospitality of St. Ephraim the Syrian Orthodox Church,the downtown Riverwalk, and mall. Last but not least, we visited the Alamo Shrine where I giddily observed several rifles and other objects owned by Davie Crockett.

Thanks for your prayers!

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The God-Bearer

O most holy Mother of God, O only Lady who art utterly pure in both soul and body, look upon me, abominable and unclean, who have blackened soul and body with the stains of my passionate and gluttonous life. Cleanse my passionate mind; set aright my blind and wandering thoughts and make them incorrupt; bring my senses to order and guide them; free me from my evil and repulsive addiction to unclean prejudices and passions which torment me; grant my clouded and wretched mind the sobriety and discernment to correct my intentions and failings that, freed from the darkness of sin, I might be worthy to boldly glorify and praise thee, O only true Mother of the true Light, Christ our God; for all creation, visible and invisible, blesses and glorifies thee, both with Him and in Him. 

— St Ephraim the Syrian, A Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God, trans. Isaac Lambertson (Liberty, Tennessee: St. John of Kronstadt Press, 1997), p. 63.

 

The Confusing Discovery of Cneus Pompeius Magnus

One half a century before the coming of Christ the magnificent Roman general Pompeius Magnus (known by his friends and most historians as Pompey) captured large portions of Africa and the East. Young in age and fierce in stature, this remarkable general traveled through the world, pursuing victory and succeeding at every turn. But about 64 B.C. his troops found themselves occupying a unique place of personal interest for the young political star – Jerusalem.

The man hailed by many of his contemporaries as the Roman Alexander the Great strode through the back streets of Jerusalem and on into the temple with the mind to discover the secret of strange god of the Jews. Of this god he had heard much, but he had seen little. What could this one god be like? Did it fit in the pantheon of the other gods? It was always talked about, its footprints tracked throughout the empire… what did this god look like?

The invincible general walked with purpose through the synagogue where the word of the god of the Jews was spoken. He marched through the ornate halls, treading in presence of the golden cherubim and seraphim, looking for this ever illusive god. Not deterred by the rest of the ornamentation The invasion of the Temple in Jerusalem... Pompey quickly ascended through the sacred space of the temple to the clear focal point of worship, and pulled back the curtain to the Holy of Holies.

The content of Pompey’s expectation of discovery reveal to us the assumptions of a reasonable, educated, and inquiring mind: and now he draws back the curtain… and now as he steps inside the Holy of Holies – what are you expecting?

Pompey expected the hidden secret statue or representation of a god, the artifact that held the secret of the mysterious Israeli deity. What he found was nothing. The ornate designs and golden decor had stopped at the curtain. There were no images, there was no god. There was space. The Ark of the Covenant had been there: the Ark, a seat containing the divine commandments of God to His people. But the ark was gone, and with it the shekhinah glory of God. In its place was the Torah, the bones of the words God had spoken, the vestiges of God’s revelation to Israel. There was a space for the living God, and He was noticeably absent.

Pompey left the Temple confused but alive, spared from the judging fire of God’s presence by an act of fortunate timing. As we prepare to ask questions about what it means for something to be Holy, as we ask what it means for us to worship, and as we ask what it means for us to be saved we must remember Pompey. For what he discovered in the Holy of Holies was not a god, but the proof of a living God. He found negation, absence; and the meaning of the absence is the reality of the presence of God. Holy space is a place to be filled, worship is approaching the place were we might meet God.

The truth is that we treat our life with God with all the hubris of Pompey and without his noble curiosity. We, like our young general, think that we will easily and boldly discover the depth of God by discovering something about God, the mere image of Him. We do not realize the collapsingly profound truth, that God is real; and that to meet Him is terrifying. Less than a century later the “image of the invisible God,” with whom “the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily” stood under the noonday sun before throngs of men. Yet to many of those who met Him, Him they did not see. Today in our century we like Pompey have been given the sight of the absence, the awareness of the reality and the possibility of beholding the Image Himself.

But to see Him… to see the Word, the Image, the Life, and the Light, how can it be? “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Perhaps we have seen without beholding, perhaps we have walked past what we need to see the Light; perhaps we heard the Word and did not attend. Someone told us once that the veil was torn, God was at our beckon, and the temple was functionally dust. Perhaps they lied.

Let us walk humbly and obediently back through the synagogue, through the questions, the images, the words; and into the fearful presence of a living God.

Apophasis II

A fuller definition of worship will be forthcoming, but for now let’s work with the very general idea of worship being ascribing of great worth to someone or something: necessarily one of the four aforementioned categories. Despite the wide scope of the word it allows us to ask one the hardest and most driving questions about worship: what have I actually been worshiping? Is it the Creator of the universe? Using this idea, worship encompasses the entirety of life; and in fact can be best judged by the general trajectory of ones life. Are you prioritizing their life around wealth, fame, beauty, or love? Or better yet, which one of the four objects of worship are you building your life around?

Very few people build their lives around ascribing worth to created spirits, or demons. Where people have to be very careful is in realizing the forms that demons or demonic principalities might take; whether it be Extra-Terrestrials, Brahma, Karma, or Cosmic Energy. These are powerful spiritual objects that love to live under different names, so caution should be exercised. If these are spiritual rebels to the Creator it is wrong to ascribe worth to them. For here it will suffice to say that worship of these created beings is clearly wrong.

Even in our materialistic age it is clear to most Christians that materialism is wrong. Churches across America are losing the war however, as more and more of today’s parishioners are preoccupied with the mindset of this age. This behavior is often done out of a deficit of self-will and improper perspective, and when called out to the open the correct answer is clearly seen.

It is precisely between the Imago Dei in humanity and the revelations of Creator where most people are deceived. The Imago Dei, even in the fallen human reveals beauty, meaning, love, and goodness in the awesome panoply of divine likeness. Consider the fervent musician who seeks to continually channel the muse, to go further and further into the arms of beauty, creativity, and truth. Communication – and especially communication through the arts are part of what it means to be human. But is this experience an experience of the Creator, or just an orientation towards the magnificent human soul?

In some cases, it might be the case that someone is ascribing to a demonic power the power of the “muse”, in which case they are clearly not worshiping the God. Music is commonly used as part of worship, and many people equate worship with their ecstatic musical experiences. For many who frequent such “worship services” three of the four objects are possibly being worshiped. For the “worship leader” there is also the possibility of fame and wealth, leaving them open to all form of idolatry. This is not a judgment of these times of worship, merely an observation of how convoluted the experience can become.

Conversations can also be tremendously divine experiences. To see a person is akin to seeing infinity; it easily dwarfs nature’s canyons and oceans. This dialectic ecstasy is rarely known in a full and mature form, or else it would prove to be an idol worth denouncing. Almost everyone knows from their own experience how wonderful a good conversation can be, and thus relish in the joy living as their true humanity dictates.

Love can also be a created god. Plato makes a distinction between divine love and earthly love, one of which is pulls us upward and other that pulls us down. For the unformed person, love is likely to be a romantic narcissism that is ultimately selfish. On the other hand we know from St. John that “God is Love”, so the connection between the two is inseparable. At no time however, are we told the “love is God”, thus making the worship of love a notable failure.

All Hail the King: The Accomplishments of Barry Bonds

We all know tBonds full of emotionhe story of the toad that when kissed was turned into a prince. But a prince that by becoming king turns into a toad is another, unfortunately true story.

Sometimes you have to say the obvious. You have to say it because it is true, and say it sincerely; whether it’s been said a million times before by every media outlet or not, is what you have to do. The truth is still worth saying because it is always hard and always needs people to champion it, so here’s what I think is obvious and true, and hard about Barry Bonds the new home run king.

He’s not only the new king, he’s the new Macbeth.

Being liked means something. When people speak of JFK, Princess Diana, or Jimmy Stewart with fondness it has power and meaning. Sometimes we like to think that such “likeability” is nothing. This is a lie: why else would politicians care so much about public opinion? Being liked is power.

As you watch the complete chaos surrounding Bonds you can see people entering into his dilemma, watching and wanting and knowing you can have what you most want if you just make that compromise, that deal with the devil. So why is Barry Bonds so hated, so divisive? Regardless of what you think of him, you cannot argue that he has turned what was one of the crowning achivements in sports into a stale and tasteless moment for all of us. What we will remember about this is how we thought we should care, and how people didn’t know what to do or what to think.

Why do people love the Babe? Was it because he was white? Was it because he was so other, so untouchable? No, he was human, and we loved him more for all his friendly affability and obvious flaws. And yet he was also magnificent.

But when Barry broke the record we began to realize that the real hero here is the deposed king, Hank Aaron. When you watch Bonds hit 756 you can’t help but be rubbed a bit the wrong way. And when you are you remember Hammerin’ Hank – the good natured, classy guy whose accomplishment was cherished, loved, and lauded in heart of the racist south. The memory of that home run, which I only know through lore, is a proud moment for any baseball fan and for any human being. It reminded us of all that was pure about sports, about the wonderful joy of men playing a game and the wisdom, worth, and profundity that victory and accomplishment can reveal. Each of us became more alive and happy to be alive when Hank sent that ball into the Atlanta seats. It was a massive moment for Hank, for baseball, and for America.

Bonds has accomplished something more amazing than setting the home run record, he took the joy and fun right out of it.

For this reason I am so glad it’s over. I can’t wait for us to look again to the parts of baseball that are pure and fun and victorious. Baseball has a purity that must be protected. I can put up with slightly cooky sports stars (Gary Sheffield, Brian Giles), the ornery old cuss’ (Lou Pinella), the Yankees, and even the occasional racist (Sheffield again) if they care about the purity of the game. Bonds was smiling after the game, a game they lost. When Eric Gagne’s streak of consecutive saves was broken the first thing he mentioned in the interview was how happy he was that the Dodgers won the game.

Is it just steroids that make Barry Bonds so awful for the spirit of the game, such a threat to its purity? No, Bonds stands out singularly among the throng of other juicers, though certainly steroid usage factors in a major and obvious part of his figure. But more than that it is his selfishness, his disdain for the sport, for the team, for the game itself that makes him so awful and unattractive. McGwire’s accomplishments have been tarnished by steroid scandal, but he was like the kid who wanted to win so bad he cut some corners. Bonds is the kid who thought he should win and cheats, but doesn’t even like the prize… and that is unforgivable.

Barry, you wear the crown, but all you have done is remind us how much we love, cherish, and respect Hank Aaron more than you.

You’re kind of like the guy who beats up the girls’ other suitor thinking it will when him a date. Guess what, you’re winning has revealed to us who you are and we don’t love you. Thanks Barry, now we know we will always love Hank. You win the numbers game, and what do you have now?

Fear. You will feel it as you try to find a team that wants you next year, knowing A Rod’s coronation is drawing nearer. Your reign will be brief and lifeless. And soon enough, even the little that you have will be taken from you.

The Holy Mysteries: Institution and Spirit

It is with great timidity that I undertake a post on this topic, for neither the medium or the author are able to do much justice to the question at hand. The question is: What legitimizes the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments, if you prefer)? Pious acts are certainly profitable to those who desire to please God, but the Sacraments are quite literally the life of the Church. Baptism is for the “remission of sins” and the Eucharist is “for the life of the world”, confession perpetuates baptism, unction is for healing, Chrismation is the transmission of the Holy Spirit within the Church. These things are vital and efficacious means of Grace acted upon the people of God; if the Church is the Body of Christ then the Church without the Sacraments is a lifeless Body.

But what do we make of this mysterious life? Being that in it’s very title it declares itself to some extent unknowable and “other”, how much can we reasonably expect to delve into the life-giving Mysteries? Mysterious or not, the question of “legitimate” Sacraments is a huge piece to the Ecumenical dilemma. Is the Eucharist at the Episcopal church ecclesial community down the road the same as the one at my parish? What about the one at the One-ness Pentecostal gathering or the Calvary Chapel? Does Baptism do more for the Zwinglians than they claim it can? I propose that we must keep in mind the two movements of the Church (yes the visible Orthodox Church) if we desire not to err in speaking about the Sacraments and their faux rituals.

The first movement is one that is understandable to the rational and analytic. Bibles appear, the Fathers are given a voice, and tomes of Church history are consulted in order to find the appropriate and precise vocabulary to navigate our way in the life of the Church.

For example, my brother John and I were discussing this very question and St. Cyprian of Carthage was brought up and consulted. Concerning baptism outside the Church Cyprian makes some strong and strict arguments; calling these rites “a deluge in pagan waters”. Remember the book of Acts where Paul re-baptizes those who had only been baptized in the baptism of St. John the Forerunner, which was a baptism of repentance. The baptism of Christ is the baptism of the Holy Spirit says St. Paul. Remember that baptism is for the remission of sins, and thus separate from the act of Christmation. Remember also that the disciples laid their hands on the converts, made great pains to establish a pedigree from Christ, and that they were promised that what they bound on earth was also bound in heaven. In summary, remember that it is the institution of the Church, the hierarchs, are what validates and empowers these New Testament Sacraments.

St. Cyprian states the harsh, but obvious: men who aren’t part of the Church and don’t know the power and working of the Spirit cannot be administers of the Sacraments. Therefore, heretics (which for the Orthodox is about everyone) do not have any valid Sacraments. What good is the faith of a heretic or immature believer in the stained pagan waters of their baptism? How could that be part of our “One Baptism”? Even their “form” of the Sacrament cannot be realized and later empowered through Christmation, since their form was an imitation of the real thing; their can be no pseudo-authority and no pseudo-spirit, only false authority and false spirits. Either the water in which you were baptized was Holy or it wasn’t, and though not everything touched by the water is redeemed, neither should we deny the efficaciousness of the material object itself.

There are many understandable responses to this, some of which are helpful and some of which are cowardly and defensive. Some would challenge me on my definition of Church, and posit a differing model of what the Church is. Certainly this is helpful, since what I just described was more along the lines of a Roman Catholic way of speaking about the “Church” and its institutional authority. But rather than exchanging one large and pertinent question for another, a better response is to point out that this is not what the Church is currently doing, but is instead accepting people (like me!) through Christmation without the Sacrament of baptism.

St. Cyprian was speaking to his fellow hierarchs, urging them to take the purity of the faith and the Sacraments seriously, protecting them against the several heresies that threatened to dilute the life the Church. He encourages them to use their own judgment, remembering that they will answer to God. This is the first movement; the movement to purity, the movement that recognizes that holy things necessarily exclude the pagan. This is the “fencing” of the table, the protection of the holy things from, but primarily for the sake of the sinful and perverse.

We can get to the second movement when we ask the question: what in the Sacraments is life-giving? St. John makes it clear in his gospel when he quote Jesus saying “I am the true Bread” and “I am living Water”, and “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Christ, having conquered Death, is our means of life. It is only in Him that we have eternal life. Baptism is participation with Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; and the Eucharist is feeding on Him who is life Itself.

What it means to recognize Christ in the Sacraments is that we cannot treat the rites and rituals as magic, or some sort of formulaic conjuring up of power. This is not alchemy or chemistry, and it not the execution of seemingly arbitrary tasks and a prescribed order that legitimizes or guarantees power. Life in the Church is mysterious because relationships are mysterious and it is ultimately on our relationship with Christ on which our salvation rests.

Relating to Christ is not simple, and that is one of the reasons that we have the rites and rituals that we do. But we are blind if we forget that He calls us to imitate Him, and be like Him to the world. It is here that we see the other movement of the Church and the Sacraments, the movement of Incarnation; or perhaps more specifically, the movement of Condescension. Remember the Samaritan woman at the well? Remember the feeding of the hungry and poor? Remember Abraham, and the covenant? The actions of Jesus Christ was to see something of our, something like our faith, and upon that to count us righteous. The Eucharist is perhaps the most beautiful thing in creation, but remember that it is God’s condescension to us humble children that can reckon it righteous.

I have heard people accuse the Orthodox of seeing salvation as a matter of “find the right church to get the right sacrament”. We invite this critque that if we do not remember the two movements of the Christ and His Church. Our Eucharist is truly Eucharist and it is Holy, and there are things that also claim to be and are neither. But neither is our salvation a matter of finding the right faucet to drink from, it is about abiding in Christ.

So for now we will end simpler than were we started, and better off for it. The discussions will rage on, and we will be in the thick of it, searching after truth with all love and sincerity. As we search so shall we as part of the Body be aware of our simple and paradoxical nature that is distinctive of the the Church. These discussions, this effort, and this remembrance presses us deep into the marrow of the Church; the Bride visible, present, and accessible for our healing and our salvation.

Apophasis I

At the most fundamental level there are two things that can be worshiped: The Creation and the Creator. This distinction should remain a clear line for us, despite the fact that there are creations made throughout every day by a multitude of creators. In that these creators are ultimately creations they will considered as such. This is the basic distinction between objects of worship, but not the most helpful. Other categories may be constructed and adjusted based on what might be more helpful, but this category does not move. It’s as fundamental as saying there is a right object of worship and there is a wrong one.

Having said that; there are four things that can be worshiped. The first is the imago dei, or divine image of God found within humanity. This is the self love of the species, and the most difficult deception to see through. Next are external objects like money, gold, physical idols and fame. After that are the supernatural beings, demons and Satan himself. And finally, and most obviously, there is the Creator of the universe.

Did you ever think about how strange it was for Abram to hear the voice of God for the first time? What “god” did he think it was? What tremendous fear must have gripped him as he was striving to follow God’s commands, wondering about the nature of this being that had revealed Himself to him? In a land full of pagan worship to pagan gods, where powers and principalities were alive and moving, what faith did our father have in the voice of the Old Covenant? His faith followed an encountered awesome LORD and was not based on the life-affirming Christian bookstore atmosphere he felt. These other gods weren’t always sporting the Hot Topic vestiges, full of flaunted piercings and a dark hunger for chaos. And Abram obeyed God when he was instructed to sacrifice his son.

For many of us picking the right religion has to do with finding the fruits of the religion life-affirming, healthy, honest and joyful. Most Protestants find themselves at a church that is not deceitful, phony, and one that seems to be headed in a good direction. The father of our faith, did not have a faith of that quality. Should he have discerned about his God by such standards? Would it have been better for him to ascertain the character of the God that he determined to serve? Should he have polled the audience to make sure that he wasn’t joining a cult or following a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Certainly I am not trying to make any Christian less cautious in whom they submit to: in fact I desire the opposite. People need to be more cautious in whom and what they trust, especially when who they trust is themselves, and what they let guide them is their assumptions about who God is and what business we humans have to do with Him. Abram had little to none of that trust in himself, popular opinion, or even common sense; rather he hoped against hope in the promises of God. This is the first thing that we must do: look nakedly upon our encounter with the Creator who is the only One that we are to worship.

Here we must make a sharp distinction; for even thought we must strip off the trappings of our faith to see our encounter with the Creator we don’t see merely ourselves and God. We also see Father Abraham, the liberating priest Moses, King David, She who is blessed among women, the forerunner John, the beloved apostle John, and so on. We are not Abraham, and we will never be as much as we fail where he succeeded. Certainly we are of the same faith with him (there is one faith) but we are different because of the inheritance that he has given us. It would be foolish, ignorant, and proud, to think that we have started from scratch. We should never do such violence to the inheritance our father has bequeathed us.