Monday, August 28, 2006

Reuters Admits to Altering Beirut Photo

A recent press release tersely noted:

“Reuters withdraws photograph of Beirut following Air Force attack after US bloggers, photographers point out 'blatant evidence of manipulation.' Reuters' head of PR says in response, 'Reuters has suspended photographer until investigations are completed into changes made to photograph.' Photographer who sent altered image is the same Reuters’ photographer behind many images from Qana, which have also been subject of suspicions for being staged.”

Hmmmm…faked war photographs? How is a news editor supposed to know these things? I guess it takes a real expert to determine that. For example, take a close look at the following photograph. To the average person it is just another pic of Beirut under attack. Reuters or AP would probably publish it in a heartbeat. But a true photographic expert can spot something that seems a bit unusual and marks it as a possible fake. Can you tell what that might be?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

"Not But by Prayer and Fasting"

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

From our Gospel Lesson this morning (Matthew 17:14-23), we heard the story of a demon-possessed boy that the apostles could not heal. By this point they had been granted authority by our Lord to cast out demons and heal all manner of sickness and disease, but this case stymied them and they were unable to do a thing. After the tumult had died down and the crowds dispersed, the somewhat humbled apostles took the Lord aside and asked Him privately why they could not cast out the demon. Our Lord gave them two reasons: 1) they lacked sufficient faith, and 2) they lacked the ascetic foundation of prayer and fasting necessary to overcome evil.

These two principles were well understood by the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who taught that a proper faith energized by prayer and fasting gains the power to overcome all evil; not only the evil that works upon us from the outside, but the evil that operates within ourselves as well.

Let us begin by examining these two forms of evil. The evil which works upon us from the outside comes not only from demonic influence and direct temptation, but also from a fallen world that has unwittingly embraced this influence and expresses it through all manner of depraved philosophies and activities. In Western society this is most commonly expressed as gross materialism, the philosophy that this world and its pursuits are all there is and all that matters. In America this philosophy is expressed in everything from humanist secularism to our lust for material goods and earthly pleasures.

Americans have surely given themselves over to the driving need to buy, to own, and to possess. The happiest moments in many people’s lives are when a sound investment pays off, or they have bought themselves some new toy or that darling new pair of shoes. For many of us, our lives are littered with things we have bought to bring us happiness at the moment, and which now gather dust in closets, garages, and rented storage.

Tithing Christians are not immune to this either, since we often tend to rationalize that once we have given to God His ten percent, the rest belongs to us to spend as we please. We forget that everything belongs to God, and that we are appointed to be stewards, not owners. Each expense should be carefully considered with His kingdom in mind. Some of us learn this rather late after a lifetime of foolish and selfish spending, but I suppose it is better to learn late than never at all. Perhaps it is to such slow learners that our Lord says, “Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”. Our gracious Lord thus provides us with the means to correct our errors of materialism and return to a more modest and kingdom-oriented manner of living.

But America’s embracing of evil does not end with the idolatry of wealth and its fleeting pleasures; it spreads out to encompass every form of stimulation or fantasy, every manifestation of personal gratification or selfishness, and anything which provides a welcome distraction from the fear of death and the certain awareness of the pending judgment. These external forms of evil resonate within us so well because we each have our own internal evils which crave them. We often call these evils “the sinful passions” and it is important that we understand the nature of these.

According to the Holy Fathers of the Church, man was originally created with only one passion: the pure and sinless passion for God and for Him alone. Imagine for a just moment the sheer bliss of being motivated only by this one passion; of being single-minded and truly loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul. Imagine not being distracted by a thousand other thoughts and cares, but rather, of having your whole life shaped and defined by this one overwhelming love for God. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Can’t you just envision the peace that this would give you; the relief of no longer being conflicted in soul or hopelessly drawn by things which only take you away from God? Imagine the joy of such a whole and united life in which no temptation could be strong enough to divert you from the pursuit of your one true love.

When we picture that wonderful thought in our minds for just this moment, doesn’t it grieve you that there are so many forces at work in you right now that seem to prevent that? For a second we fondly picture being made one with God. But only for a second, before that sweet hint of bliss is polluted by the thought of all the other affections and cravings and inclinations that we would have to give up. We’ve allowed so many other things to take the place of God in giving us life and joy, and yet they do not give us that life and joy at all but only pain and sorrow. Even knowing this, we still pursue them and lay aside God whom we desperately wish we could love. If ever there was a time when our cold, unfeeling hearts might warm or our dry eyes might moisten with tears, it is when this thought comes to the forefront of our minds, however briefly, and reveals to us how truly fallen we are.

Man may have been created with a single pure passion, but when he fell that one passion was shattered into a hundred different pieces. Each of the pieces still functions—each still craves, desires, needs—but they are all lying about in a mess on the floor, each now pointing toward a different object. One craves this, another desires that. They are no longer one, and no longer predominantly oriented toward God. To make matters worse, by our own willful sins we have often taken the larger pieces and smashed them into even smaller bits, thus making it even harder to orient ourselves back to God.

Dear God! Who can save us from this dreadful brokenness and paste our pieces back together, so that instead of the agony of conflict and the torment of being drawn every which way in our lives, we can be drawn back to God with oneness of intent and purpose? Is this not the true and actual meaning of salvation, a word which literally means “wholeness”, “oneness”, or “healing”? Christ came not just to forgive our sins, but to heal the brokenness they have caused and still cause in us.

But if this is so, and we are in Christ, why are we still conflicted? Why are we still driven by strong urges which cause us to deny God? Why are we often so lukewarm in our love for Him, or so willingly turn away from Him for some other, insignificant love? It is because our healing, our salvation, is not yet complete. The very inconsistency of our behavior should reveal that truth to us. We are not yet whole and single-minded in our pursuit of God. There are many false loves that must be defeated in us so that those broken bits of driving passion can be reclaimed and recalibrated back toward God. Our lives are like a jigsaw puzzle of an unknown image, and all apart before us. It is hard to get started on it, but only when we slowly and painstakingly begin to fit the pieces back together does the face of Jesus begin to take shape, and then we learn what our lives are all about and we make haste to joyously fit the remaining pieces in place.

With the help of God, we need to participate in putting ourselves back together. And just like in this morning’s Gospel, there are certain spiritual obstacles in our lives that can only come out through prayer and fasting. These may not be demons, but they are the result of demonic influence in the world around us which we have absorbed. They are the result of our following and loving things that are not from God and do not lead to God, but have brought us much harm. The ascetic disciplines of the Church—of learning how to pray continuously, of fasting, of abstinence in some things, of moderation in others, of refraining from evil and doing good, of renouncing fleeting sinful pleasures for the lasting joy of loving God, of rejecting this fallen world and its lusts for the kingdom of heaven—these are the very things that can drive out the bad from us and begin to unite our many little passions into one powerfully motivating passion for God.

Do you think this is impossible for you? Are you too shattered to pursue your own wholeness? Think of all the many men and women of the Church who were just as torn as you, but finally came to the place in their lives where they chose to sacrifice all for God and only then discovered He was right there helping and guiding them. We all seek peace and contentment, but only those who pursue God will find it; everyone else is cheated along the way and in the end.

Internal conflict and double-mindedness, confusion and chaos, craving things which further shatter our souls and leave us in ever-deepening sorrow—these are not from the God who loves us. Let us pursue the one true and everlasting joy of knowing and loving God, and discover the uniting of our fragmented passions and the healing of our broken humanity along the way.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Orthodox Evangelism, Part II

In a previous post on this subject, I offered the thought that Eastern Orthodoxy represents something of a “tough sell” in America for a number of reasons. My original post primarily centered on the ascetical nature of Orthodox Christianity; how this lifestyle of moderation and self-denial, structured traditional worship and prayer, frequent fasting, and the expectation of one’s personal accountability to the parish community and to a father/confessor is all a little too “serious” for the light and frothy religious mentality prevalent in our country today.

I contend that this latter mentality is catered to by a large segment of contemporary Christendom, particularly those groups which bend toward a “seeker-sensitive” approach for the sole purpose of increasing their membership. Motivated by a panic over waning church attendance, Christian leaders seem to have adopted a “give the people what they want” policy which takes many different forms depending on the denomination. The Roman Catholic response has been one of systematic “modernization” in switching from Latin to English, shortening the Mass to 45 minutes or less, bringing in guitars, experimenting with charismatic manifestations, allowing female altar servers, doing away with the monastic habit, and so forth. Many mainline Protestant denominations, in danger of complete extinction, have sought to postpone this inevitable fate by becoming “all-inclusive” and marketing themselves as having few strict moral or doctrinal guidelines, creating an atmosphere friendly to unrepentant homosexuals and to those who simply do not wish to be told what to believe by some ecclesiastical authority. Free-wheeling Evangelicals, lacking any definable rootedness except in a handful of self-imposed “essential” doctrines, have continued to experiment with “the flavor of the month” to attract members, featuring everything from a strong emphasis on Zionistic end times prophecies to rockin’ praise bands.

The bottom line seems to be that American Christendom has become a spiritual smorgasbord from which the individual can pick and choose as he or she pleases with a minimum of commitment or cost. If he wishes, the individual believer can even simply stay home on Sunday and not attend any church at all. Protestantism in particular seems unable to address this growing problem, since for many years it has presented salvation as a personal event, not directly connected to any church. If a person doesn’t need a church to “be saved” then Christian groups must resort to offering other tantalizing incentives to attract potential members, but can never denounce those as unchristian who choose to remain unchurched.

Against such a backdrop of self-defined Christianity, in which exists no discipline or discipleship except for whatever the disciple chooses to impose upon himself (Oh, the irony of it!), Orthodox Christianity stands out as a singular menace; daring to impose its own beliefs upon its members and insisting that they follow a well-defined lifestyle in pursuit of union with Christ and theosis. How will such an approach ever succeed in today’s religious market?

In truth, it just may indeed succeed very well if presented to the right people.

There appears to be a growing number of people who have become dissatisfied with the shallow and often bone-dry well of American Christendom. Some of these folks remain within a Christian context, shopping from church to church in an endless search for the water of life. These folks are true seekers; not shopping for something to entertain them, but are actually seeking a deeper communion with Christ and a greater sense of connection with the kingdom of God. Quite a few of these folks have wandered outside of the Christian realm in the hope of finding what they seek in the so-called “New Age” religions.

At first blush, many of these New Age groups may seem to be just another extension of the American desire for self-made religion, as they combine elements from various “Eastern mystical religions” into a format palatable to Americans. But there is one denominator which many of these groups share in common with Orthodox Christianity besides an Eastern origin. They most often eschew “easy” or merely doctrinal approaches to faith and spiritual illumination, and see such things as coming from a life-long and fairly all-encompassing and disciplined pursuit. “New Agers” generally understand that enlightenment comes gradually as one changes internal and external attitudes and behaviors which conflict with the goal of illumination. Their concepts of what exactly constitutes such enlightenment may differ significantly from what is taught within Orthodoxy, but the redeeming quality here is that they at least understand that they must pursue something, and that this pursuit involves openness to continual change (metanoia, repentance) on their part. New Agers are also more open to the general idea of mysticism and to the physical disciplines of prayer and fasting as well. These are all essential elements of historic Christianity long ago abandoned by Western Christendom in its move from faith to reason, and to instant salvation via a one-time, largely cerebral acceptance of Christ.

Is it possible that the Holy Spirit is guiding people out of the confines of a Western religious view that in general is rationalistic, minimalist, hyper-individualistic, and largely hostile toward historic Christianity, back toward an Eastern mindset whose spiritual pursuits may be more compatible with Orthodoxy? I don’t know. Certainly not all people take this route. An ever-increasing number of Evangelicals are converting directly to Orthodoxy, but in most cases this has been the result of a somewhat abstract study of church history which convinced them of the truth of the Orthodox Church, but which still left them rather ill-equipped to handle the “culture shock” of a fundamentally different approach to the Christian life than that which is found in the West. New Agers will certainly have their own culture shock to pass through when they come to the realization that the “Christ-consciousness” they seek is not some abstract concept, but the living Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Perhaps Orthodoxy represents the middle ground between these two religious viewpoints; more holistic and mystical than Western Christianity, yet more incarnational and personal in its embrace of God than perhaps is typical of New Age beliefs.

I am grateful to my friend Kevin for introducing this possibility to me. Most of contemporary American Orthodoxy’s evangelical outreach has naturally been directed toward American Christians. But perhaps there is a new group of people to consider. Evangelicals usually want nothing to do with New Age folks, and vice-versa. The two groups are polar opposites. Yet here lies Orthodoxy smack dab in the middle, offering to both groups the true meaning and fulfillment of their deepest spiritual desires if they can only overcome their prejudice against historic Christianity and see the truth it contains.

For those Christians or other religious folk who only seek a convenient faith that is of their own choosing, Orthodoxy has nothing to offer. But for sincere Christians seeking an unlimited and unimaginable communion with God, and for New Age believers wondering if there is more to this person named “Jesus” than the fact that He was a good teacher and personally enlightened, Orthodoxy has what they are seeking. It is only up to us Orthodox Christians to educate and position ourselves to help such folks find what they need.

What do you think? I am still forming my own thoughts on this matter and I certainly welcome your input.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

A Trout Story

A lazy bend in the river;
a deep pool, well shaded
by verdant alders overhead.
A flat boulder on the bank,
opens the curtain of willows.
Upon it the Old Dude stands vigil,
working, waiting.

The Old Veteran lies below,
watching, waiting.
Enticed by the fly
dancing just below the surface.
It is a game of patience,
of nerve;
who can outlast the other.

The Veteran faces upstream,
moving his form only enough
to hold his place in the current.
He is curious, but cautious;
something just isn’t right.
The offering seems good,
but he has seen it all before.

Age learns to wait;
all things will be revealed.
Youth seizes the moment;
sometimes at great cost.
The young trout snatches the fly,
beating the Old Veteran to it.
A last, terrible mistake.

This game is played
many times over.
Soon the creel is filled
with foolish young trout,
keeper-size; enough for supper.
Yet the Old Veteran
has not been tricked.

The Old Dude acknowledges the winner.
He leaves the pool
and hikes back to his camp.
Soon he will feast on his catch.
The Old Veteran feasts on the knowledge
that he has survived another day.
It is enough for him.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

“Our Father” …Oh Brother!

A little over 30 years ago as a brand-new Christian, I found myself at a “prayer meeting” held in someone’s living room. The older folks were seated on the sofa or the chairs; the folks like me with young knees were kneeling on the carpet. Everyone was taking turns praying the “Lord we just wanna” litany so common in Evangelical groups. You know, that’s the one that always goes, “Lord, we just wanna thank You now for Your goodness and mercy toward us, Lord. And Lord we just wanna praise you now that you are gonna grant us [Fill in the request here], Lord, because You know that we need this, Lord. And Lord, we know that You are gonna grant this to us, Lord, because we ask this in JESUS’ holy name. Amen.”

Whatever Evangelical church or prayer group that I visited in those days seemed to follow this exact same form of prayer with only minor modifications, depending on the skill of the one praying, and his tolerance for redundancy in repeating the word “Lord” endlessly. Every group was led by one or two of the more articulate brethren, considered “spiritual” for their ability to make long prayers artfully laced with bible verses and faith lessons, intended more to impress the others in the room than God, who presumably doesn’t require instruction in such things.

Anyway, there I was at that prayer meeting and my turn came up. Out of the blue I decided to pray the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” I began, and went through the whole thing. As I was praying with eyes closed, I heard a couple of folks shifting uncomfortably in their seats. When I finished, no one joined me in the final “Amen”. There was silence, until one of the elder members cleared his throat and interrupted the meeting to say, “It’s OK people, Michael is one of our new brothers here and doesn’t seem to know that we born-again believers don’t pray formulaic prayers.”

I took that to mean I had committed some sort of spiritual faux pas. Eager to learn the nature of my error, I asked some folks about it after the meeting. Everyone acted embarrassed for me, as if I had shown up to the meeting wearing my underwear on the outside of my pants. “It’s OK,” one or two folks assured me, “We have all done dumb things at prayer meetings before”. Finally one brother flat out told me, “We don’t pray written prayers; God only hears the prayers we offer in our own words”. This was news to me. “But, didn’t Jesus give us this prayer and tell us to pray it?” I asked. “No,” came the reply, “Jesus only meant that it should be viewed as the model for how we pray”.

Well now I was really confused! According to Luke’s account, Jesus said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father…’ ” There is no mention of the prayer as being a model; Jesus simply said “Pray this”. Even Matthew’s account, which records the Lord as saying that we should pray “in this manner” does not directly imply that the prayer He taught us was intended as a mere framework to guide us, especially when we take the accounts of Matthew and Luke together as a whole.

But my confusion didn’t end there. I thought to myself that even if we agreed on some ill-defined basis to take the Lord’s Prayer as nothing more than a model, I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who actually followed that model. The “Lord, we just wanna” model I heard almost everywhere bore not even a passing resemblance to the supposed model of prayer our Lord gave to us. And oh yes, if we born-again believers didn’t pray formulaic prayers, how did “Lord, we just wanna…in Jesus’ name” creep in to become the standard Evangelical formula of prayer to God?

Furthermore, I wondered what we born-again believers had against written prayers. Were not the Psalms “written prayers”? Weren’t they used by Israel and by the early Christians in their services? Don’t many Evangelicals privately pray the psalms in their devotionals at home? Haven’t many “praise bands” incorporated the Psalms into the songs they play at church? “But the Psalms are scripture,” one brother suggested to me, “They are the words of God, not the words of men”. OK, that sounded pious. But then I wondered, when we offer our own prayers at our meetings, aren’t those prayers “the words of men”? “That’s different!” he insisted, growing impatient with my endless questions. “God wants us to only pray to Him in our own words!” Summarizing what he was telling me I asked, “So God doesn’t want us to pray in the words of men unless of course they are our own words, and at the same time God doesn’t want us to pray to Him in His words, or in the words of Jesus?” I believe the conversation abruptly ended at that point.

In the years that followed I became more acquainted with historic Christianity and discovered that the strange contempt for “written prayers” so common to Evangelicals was not at all shared by our forefathers in the faith. While frequently praying to God in their own words, the ancient Christians also freely used the Psalms and certain other prayers written by holy and respected men of the faith. The early Church was also liturgical, meaning that it followed a defined structure in its worship services, which eventually was written down and standardized among the churches, together with most of the prayers that had been composed specifically for it. The liturgical structure that the earliest Christians followed was based naturally on inherited Jewish models, but developed a rich Christian content as the Church emerged from Judaism to form its own identity.

Most Evangelicals, while generally taking a stand against the idea of liturgical worship, in fact almost always follow some sort of routine structure in their services. It never occurs to them that this represents a form of liturgy, albeit based entirely on contemporary models rather than on the ancient Christian one.

Earlier Christianity’s easier acceptance of written prayers was rooted in their understanding that the Holy Spirit was the guide of the Church. The same Spirit which guided Israel in the formation of its Temple worship and various feasts was also immediately recognized in the New Testament era as the guide of the “Christian Israel” in its worship. While not equating the prayers and liturgy of the Church with the scriptures, the early Christians nevertheless recognized the same Author behind them, and received many prayers written by “holy men of old” (2 Peter 1:21) into its experience if they had gained the universal “Amen” of all God’s people. Over time the Church gained many prayers by this process, which represented God’s ongoing direction to His people and His instruction in how they ought to approach Him in Christian worship.

Evangelicals today are largely unaware of this entire period of historical development representing God’s work within His Church. They tend to see the only true historic Christianity as existing in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (Most of which they misinterpret in an effort to make the practices of the apostolic Church resemble their own as much as possible) and then leapfrog fifteen centuries or more ahead to whatever point in the Reformation aftermath that they can again comfortably identify with. Anything between those two periods of time—the great “flyover country” in contemporary Evangelical understanding—is tragically dismissed by them as “tainted by Catholicism” and therefore untrustworthy.

Such an unrealistic approach to Christian history has locked Evangelicals into a vicious cycle. Considering the historic Church to be untrustworthy, they ignore it. By ignoring it, they never learn the truth about it. They exist entirely within an historical vacuum of their own making, which is the only environment capable of preserving both their skewed views of earlier Christianity and their post-modern interpretations of scripture.

As a former Evangelical Protestant myself, I deeply understand the rationale behind this mindset. But I can also vouch that when one bravely sets it aside and engages in an unbiased study of Church history, often against the solemn warnings of fellow believers, an entirely different picture emerges than the one painted by Evangelical leaders determined to maintain their positions. “The truth shall set you free” goes the adage, and seldom is this better proven than when one learns the truth about the Church.

The history of Christianity, best understood when traced from its origins forward through time, reveals not only the schisms and departures from apostolic orthodoxy, but also that very orthodoxy itself. Every believer I know who has made such a study was shocked to learn that the Church and the true belief it embodies did not entirely disappear off the face of the earth until Martin Luther happened along, but continued healthy and intact through the entire first century and into the second, third, and fourth centuries and well beyond that even to our very day in the form of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Evangelical teaching that the Church lost its bearings after the apostolic age until being entirely corrupted by Constantine is proven by actual history to be a modern fable designed to justify Evangelical theological innovations and rejection of the Church. A study of history not only proves this, but something else as well.

A study of Church history proves that Jesus kept His promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. The witness of the Holy Spirit can be clearly seen in the life of the Orthodox Church in every generation. The ancient liturgical worship of the Church, rooted in Judaism and filled with many Christian prayers written by holy men inspired by the Holy Spirit, reveal to us nothing less than the Mind of God in the midst of the Body of Christ. It is this which has largely become “The Abandoned Mind” in modern Evangelicalism. Seeking to reinvent the Church according to their own understanding, Evangelicals have abandoned far too much of the patient work of the Holy Spirit in God’s people, which represents their own Christian inheritance. They fail to recognize the great spiritual poverty this has brought upon them. Acting as if the only relevant work of the Holy Spirit is what happens in their lives, they fail to give proper respect to the work of the Spirit in all generations and thus, in a very real sense, oppose Him.

“The Abandoned Mind” of God must be recovered by Evangelicals if they are to reunite with their Christian heritage and the Church founded by Christ. The flap over my praying of the “Our Father” at an Evangelical prayer meeting was the catalyst that helped me begin to recognize how out of step we had fallen with the Mind of God revealed in history. When sincere Christians strongly react against reciting the very prayer which Christ Himself gave us, you have to see that something has gone terribly wrong, and Evangelical traditions have overshadowed and nullified the very testimony of God Himself.

Lord have mercy!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A Psalm of Hope

A word of encouragement from the Spiritual Psalter of St. Ephraim the Syrian:

The Second Stasis
Do not lose heart;
There is hope, and it is Christ.

“Do not lose heart, O soul, do not grieve; pronounce not over thyself a final judgement for the multitude of thy sins; do not commit thyself to fire; do not say: The Lord has cast me from His face.

Such words are not pleasing to God. Can it be that he who has fallen cannot get up? Can it be that he who has turned away cannot turn back again? Dost thou not hear how kind the Father is to a prodigal?

Do not be ashamed to turn back and say boldly: I will arise and go to my Father. Arise and go!

He will accept thee and will not reproach thee, but rather rejoice at thy return. He awaits thee; just do not be ashamed and do not hide from the face of God as did Adam.

It was for thy sake that Christ was crucified; so will He cast thee aside? He knows who oppresses us. He knows that we have no other help but Him alone.

Christ knows that man is miserable. Do not give thyself up to despair and apathy, assuming that thou hast been prepared for the fire. Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire; He gains nothing if He sends us into the abyss to be tormented.

Imitate the prodigal son: leave the city that starves thee. Come and beseech Him and thou shalt behold the glory of God. Thy face shall be enlightened and thou wilt rejoice in the sweetness of paradise. Glory to the Lord and Lover of mankind Who saves us!”

[The book, “A Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God” by St. Ephraim the Syrian (Items # 2040, hard-bound and #2239, leather-bound) is available online from St. John of Kronstadt Press at:]