Saturday, February 24, 2007


“Feelings” is much more than the title of a really bad song from the 80’s (“Fee-lings…whoa, whoa, whoa…feee-lings”); they also strongly influence the way that most of us live our lives. Feelings in and of themselves are fine, though like the rest of our humanity are fallen, and thus serve as unreliable guides in life. When undiscerning folks depend strictly upon how they feel to determine such things as truth, love, commitment, even spirituality, then we begin to have real problems.

Let us take love as an example. Although there are often feelings associated with human love, love itself is not fundamentally an emotion. Love is action. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son…” Thank heavens that God’s love is not measured by warm and fuzzy feelings toward us, but by genuine compassion and self-sacrifice for our sakes, leading to our redemption and glorification. In a marriage, feelings come and go, and many marriages end tragically because one partner or the other decides that they no longer feel in love. In such a case, feelings become more important than the action of love and commitment. Those who succeed in marriage do so by consistently putting the right actions and commitment ahead of changing feelings. Over time, such couples are often rewarded with a depth of feeling far greater and more enduring than any they knew in their youth.

For Orthodox Christians seeking communion with God, there is much to learn from this.

A very large segment of contemporary Christendom routinely mistakes feelings for “spirituality”. The services that many Christians attend deliberately include lively music and animated preaching designed to produce an emotional high for the audience as an alleged “sign” of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Folks leave the service in a temporarily elevated emotional state and claim that they “feel” the Spirit within them. If any of these people practice a “quiet time” at home, the success of that is often measured by the same emotional standard. A person might tell his fellow believers at work that he had “a really good time with the Lord” that morning, because during his prayers or scripture readings he felt himself emotionally stirred up.

The problem of course is that emotions really have nothing at all to do with spirituality. A believer can utilize all manner of gimmicks to keep himself emotionally charged up, and at the very same time remain utterly oblivious to the many serious sins in his life that keep him from true communion with God.

Conversely, the Eastern Orthodox experience caters very little to feelings, but unrelentingly addresses our need for repentance and restoration to God. This is of course what Christianity should address. But in a society in which people are absolutely addicted to their feelings, this fact is often overlooked and Christian spirituality is reduced to a mere emotional state.

Orthodoxy is really good at what it does; namely, shedding the light of God’s truth upon our darkened souls and revealing the many sins that lurk therein. Emotionally speaking, this can be very stressful and often produces a reaction quite the opposite of “feel-good” Christianity. But Orthodoxy also provides us with the proven spiritual therapies to expunge these sins and heal our souls, and thus it is necessary that our sins not remain hidden and unknown to us, even if their uncovering should cause us a certain measure of distress.

Sometimes however, Orthodox Christians forget this important fact and get caught in the web of their feelings when their sins begin to be revealed. As a priest, the number one confession that I hear from people is that they allow themselves to lose heart because they feel so unloving toward God, so unspiritual, so sinful. My dear brothers and sisters, we are unloving, unspiritual, and sinful; just how else are we supposed to feel about this? In this rare instance our feelings are actually revealing what is true about us, thanks to the divine light which guides them.

The issue for us comes down to whether we will allow this emotional experience to bring us closer to God or to drive us further away from Him.

If we are completely given over to feeling good about ourselves, we will tend to flee from everything that reveals the painful truth about us. Thus we will participate nominally in the life of the Church; we will not pray, not fast, not be watchful over ourselves, not come to confession, because all these things make us feel bad—at least at first. In short, we will hold God and His Church at arms length and will regard the Orthodox pursuit as “too depressing”. By such action, we remain in our sins and fail to make the progress in our life that we otherwise could.

I’ve even heard the occasional convert lament their conversion to Orthodoxy, claiming that they “used to really love the Lord” and now all they seem to experience is compunction and tears. What they don’t realize is that such things are a wonderful gift from God meant to lead them to repentance, renewal, and ultimately, to joy. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”. With the proper spiritual guidance, such experiences can help us move beyond the superficial “honeymoon” stage with God into the depths of a true and enduring love of the Lord.

Orthodox believers who come to understand this, enter into that wonderful life of “bright sorrow”. On the one hand, we do gain the sorrow that comes from finally seeing a few of our own sins so clearly, and from recognizing our own willful participation in the dissolution of our souls. We come to lament that we have truthfully loved the darkness more than the light, and our sins more than God. But on the other hand, we also gain a brightness in our lives from knowing that these things were never hidden from God, only from us, and that God has always loved us, and loves us still.

It is necessary that we see our sins, at least to the degree that God will allow, in order to begin to enter into a mature relationship with Him based upon repentance. If you were to interview any older married couple, you would find that they possess both wonderful and painful memories of their life together. You would discover that they faced times of failure and sorrow, perhaps even betrayal—and times of growth and forgiveness, of restoration and deepening communion. Through it all they remained committed to the action of love, and were not led astray for long by emotion. Any relationship based primarily on “feelings, nothing more than feelings” will always remain shallow or will fail in time.

Our Christian life must be based on the action of love, which will one day lead even to the healing of our fallen feelings which now only seem to get in our way. We must learn to accept the bitter with the sweet in our Orthodox Christian life, and to always follow genuine love as our guide through the turbulence of our present emotions.

Do this, and you will succeed with God’s help.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Guardian Angels

About three weeks ago a Public Utility worker was driving his truck along Hwy 395 when he hit a patch of ice and lost control. That's his white pickup on the left of the photo. It might appear that he was driving from the left to the right, but in fact he was driving from the right to the left and when he lost control of his truck it smashed through the guard rail on the far right where the group of men are standing on the road.

"Somehow" (and this is the guardian angel part) his truck flipped over the culvert and landed on its wheels on the left side, missing the edge by just a few feet. You can see his truck resting there on the left of the photo. Pretty amazing, huh?

Now take a look at the next photo to see just how lucky that guy really was!

If that guy didn't go to church before, I hope he starts going now!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Forgiveness Sunday

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

Today we stand at the threshold of Great Lent. Tonight during Forgiveness Vespers, we will step across that threshold and enter once again into that holy and saving season, by God’s infinite mercy. It is a privilege for us to do this together, and there is much for the Orthodox Christian to be reminded of during this very important time.

First, let us understand that we do not enter into Great Lent as mere individuals, but as a community. Today’s popular Christianity promotes a bizarre myth of “stand-alone” salvation, allegedly based on one’s subjective and individualistic “relationship to God”. In contrast, traditional Christianity has always emphasized a communion of the faithful with God and one another in the Church as being that from which our salvation flows. This is because salvation comes from the Holy Trinity, which is both the model for our life, and its fulfillment as well.

The Holy Trinity is comprised of three Persons united in the perfect communion of love. From this model flows the kingdom of heaven, which is a true community of the heavenly hosts and all the saints who have found favor with God throughout the ages, the very life of which is a sharing in that same communion of love with the Holy Three. The Church is the visible component of this kingdom, through which men and women on earth seeking salvation are permitted entry into this communion that they too may find the ultimate fulfillment of their life in the Holy Trinity from which it began.

Thus, all begins and ends with the Trinity, and everything in the true Christian life follows that model of community and communion, rather than the falsehood of individualism and independence. Therefore, although we each individually have much to gain from Great Lent, we really only gain that if we participate in Lent as community.

This is why we begin Great Lent together, by leaving the comfort of our homes and our evening routines, assembling together as the church in prayer, taking the time to make a metania before one another and to ask and grant forgiveness, with a love which befits those seeking communion with God.

In the “Our Father,” our Lord taught us to pray “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. In his commentary on this passage, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “For we have many sins. We offend both in word and in thought, and in the very many things we do worthy of condemnation. And 'if we say that we have no sin' (1 John 1:8), we lie. The offenses committed against us are slight and trivial, and are easily settled; but those which we have committed against God are great, and need such mercy as is only His. Take heed, therefore, lest for the slight and trivial sins against you, you shut out for yourself forgiveness from God for your very grievous sins.”

St. Cosmas of Aitolos, an 18th century priest-monk, evangelist, and martyr once wrote, “If you want cure your soul, you need four things. The first is to forgive your enemies. The second is to confess thoroughly. The third is to blame yourself. The fourth is to resolve to sin no more. If we wish to be saved, we must always blame ourselves and not attribute our wrong acts to others. And God, Who is most compassionate, will forgive us.”

These illumined teachings from two of our holy fathers show us that our forgiveness from God is not at all unconditional, but is predicated entirely upon whether or not we forgive others. Once again we see that our salvation is not independent, but very closely connected to one another.

Our forgiveness toward one another must be from the heart and complete. But this is not often easy. Many times we may assure ourselves that we have forgiven someone, and might even put on a nice if slightly insincere smile when we encounter that person. But in an unguarded moment, anger may flare or gossip may flow, and the truth is revealed that we have not forgiven at all.

This is where St. Cosmas’ advice can be soul-saving. True forgiveness does not occur by merely trying to suppress anger that deep inside we honestly believe is justified. True forgiveness can only come when we begin to blame ourselves.

What can this mean? Our whole culture and even the language that we use militates against this idea of blaming ourselves. I might say, for example, that “Bob made me angry by what he did”. But is Bob really responsible for my reaction of anger, or is that my fault? Another person might also be affected by what Bob did, but not react with anger because he realizes that he is capable of doing the exact same thing that Bob did. Thus, rather than blaming Bob, he blames himself and asks God’s mercy upon both himself and his fellow sinner Bob.

If we are careless and do not recognize our own sins, especially in the actions of others, then we will always judge harshly. This is why the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim pleads, “Help me to see my own sins, and not to judge my brother”.

This sort of self-blame is not destructive, unlike the child who wrongly blames himself for his parent’s divorce. On the contrary, the kind of self-blame that St. Cosmas describes is very liberating and allows us to be largely at peace with all men, despite their imperfections. It allows us to focus on our own repentance, and react with mercy toward those who would otherwise offend us.

Why do we begin Great Lent with a service of mutual forgiveness? Because at one time or another during the previous year, someone has annoyed, disappointed, or offended you, and you have judged them in your heart. Or perhaps it is the other way around. Either way, our Lord gave us a specific commandment regarding this. He said, “If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave there your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

That’s what our Lord said. What do we say? “It’s OK. I never said anything to the other person about it; I only quietly judged him in my heart. Besides, I’ve gotten over it”. Oh, how magnanimous of us! Why, we don’t even need the commandments of Christ when we can deal with things so effectively on our own!

I hate to be a drag, but it just doesn’t work that way. That judgmental little heart of ours needs to be healed. According to Christ, that can only begin to happen when we first go to our brother or sister seeking reconciliation. If we wish to obey our Lord, to truly be a part of this holy community seeking salvation, and allow our Lenten effort to be crowned with success, we need to come tonight and be reconciled to one another. As is always the case when we submit ourselves to Christ, this will make all the difference.

Let us rejoice that God has mercifully brought us once again to this saving season together. And let us begin with forgiveness for all.

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

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Joke

I don't usually do political jokes here, but I thought this one was cute:

Marine One, the presidential helicopter, lands on the White House lawn and President Bush steps out with a piglet under each arm.

The Marine Guard snaps to attention and salutes, and the Marine closest to the President says, "Nice pigs, sir!"

The President replies, "These aren't pigs; they're geniune Arkansas Razorback hogs. I got one for Senator Hillary Clinton and the other one for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi".

The Marine salutes again and says, "Nice trade, sir!"

Friday, February 02, 2007

Christian Unity

Christian-what-now? Yep, it’s true; the words “Christian” and “unity” are not often found in such close association, and do sound somewhat strange to the modern ear when linked together in this way. Contemporary Christendom is shattered into thousands of different and often conflicting denominational and “non-denominational” groups. The irony of this situation is that most of these groups proudly claim to follow the bible only and never the opinions of men, yet the bible itself is clearly incapable of spawning such division. Only men can do that, and only when they weave their own opinions in amongst the tapestry of the scriptures so tightly that they can no longer distinguish one from the other. Thus each man insists that his doctrine is “only what the bible teaches” while utterly failing to see how much of himself he has woven into his interpretations.

Do you suppose this is why St. Peter wrote, “…no prophecy of scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter: 1:20-21)? As a “pillar of the Church,” Peter clearly understood what so many today deny; that the private interpretation of scripture leads inevitably to division and is the leading enemy of Christian unity.

Most scholars agree that the apostolic age and the period following it was the time in which Christendom enjoyed its greatest unity of faith and life. There are many reasons why this was so. One obvious reason, not often mentioned these days, is that the bible as we know it today did not yet exist in those early years. The New Testament scriptures weren’t written until decades into the Christian era, and the Old Testament scriptures weren’t utilized in the same way that many Christians insist upon using the bible in our day.

A premise widely held by most Protestants, and universally so by Evangelicals, is that the Christian faith is derived solely from the bible. Historically however, its origin is not in the scriptures at all. The Christian faith was introduced to the apostles first by Christ, and then delivered to them in completeness and with power by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. This was in accord with Christ’s promise to them that the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, would come and lead them into “all the truth” (John 16:13). The faith mystically delivered to the apostles was not in opposition to the previous revelation of the Old Testament scriptures, but was indeed the fulfillment of them. This is why the prophets and the apostles are called the foundation of the Church (Ephesians 2:20). It may have taken some of the apostles time to fully comprehend this mystically revealed faith—Peter’s own early hypocrisy amongst the Galatians comes to mind—but comprehend they did, or else their later writings which comprise the New Testament canon were merely human speculation and have no meaning to us today.

The early Christians received their instruction in this faith from the apostles, and as we read “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship” (Acts 2:42). Repeatedly the apostles urged the Christian faithful to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught” (2 Thessalonians 2:15), and to endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). In fact it is difficult to find any epistle written later by one of the apostles that does not contain frequent and impassioned pleas for Christians to be of one mind with one another, and to forsake division at all cost. One cannot read the first chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians without sensing the scandal that Paul obviously felt when he heard that there were actually contentions among the believers there. “Every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ”. Is this much different from those who say today, “I am of Luther; I am of Wesley; I am of Calvin; I am of the Bible”? I suppose it is, since those Corinthians were at least still together in one church, and had not yet divided from one another to start their own denominations.

But listen as Paul goes on to reason with them: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” The one answer to all three of these questions is a resounding no; obviously all these scenarios are impossible. Yet today we routinely hear Christians claim (with alligator tears) that the Body of Christ is divided.

How is this so? How is it that something which Paul clearly regarded as impossible in his rhetorical question to the Corinthians has been made possible today? Well, the fact is, it hasn’t. Christ still cannot be divided. And the Body of Christ, linked as it is to its one, indivisible Head, also cannot be divided. What people today seem to have forgotten is that the Church, being the Body of Christ, is a divine institution, not a merely human one. It is God who formed the Church, and who allows men to be added to it. As men cannot divide the unity of three divine Persons of the Holy Trinity, neither can they divide the unity of the One Body of Christ. The chilling truth however is that it is entirely within the power and prerogative of men to divide themselves from that One Body, just as they can divide themselves from God.

The model for Christian unity is in fact the unity of the Godhead itself. The three divine Persons of the one Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, although distinct in personhood, are one in essence, one in purpose, in will, and in action. They reflect the perfect unity of the Communion of Love that exists within the Godhead. It is this unity that Jesus was referring to in John 17:21 when He prayed to His Father on behalf of all Christians, “That they may be one—as thou Father, art in Me, and I in Thee—that they may one in Us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me.”

A divided Christendom does not reflect the unity of the Holy Trinity, and thus cannot be said to be in communion with the Godhead. Everyone, believer and non-believer alike, intuitively understands this. Christ Himself indicated that the whole world would know the truth of it. But it is the believers today who refuse to acknowledge this fact, and utilize any rationale they can conjure up to justify their own division.

We often hear that as long as Christians can agree on the “essentials” of the faith, there can be unity among them. Oh really? Well, who gets to determine what those essentials are? The Lutherans have historically held to a different set of essentials from say, the Southern Baptists. Whose list of essentials is right? “Only those which come from the bible” is the common answer. But again, the Lutherans believe their essentials come only from the bible and so do the Southern Baptists. Thus we get back to the same problem of men integrating their opinions so deeply into the scriptures that they cannot see where the one set ends and the other begins.

“But it is only the visible church which is divided,” others will claim. “The invisible church, the real Body of Christ, made up of all true believers regardless of denomination, is undivided”. Oh please! To which “church” was Christ referring when He said that by its unity men would know it was of Him? Can men see an invisible church? Obviously He was speaking of a visible Church. And can you imagine a definition of the church as “the body of all true believers, regardless of denomination” flying with any of the apostles? Can we picture the Corinthians explaining to Paul that they weren’t really divided; they were all simply members of the “invisible church” who merely couldn’t agree on a few “non-essentials”? Don’t overreact, Paul.

Here’s another example right out of “The Gospel According to Ned Flanders”. Have you ever witnessed two Christians in a heated debate over some point of scripture, who then broke off the argument without resolution and concluded that they would just have to “agree to disagree”? Often such an insipid comment will be followed by strained smiles and the calling of each other “Brother,” followed by a hollow claim of “unity in diversity” while each stubbornly refuses to accept the view of the other. Thus human opinion and ego can be preserved, together with division over doctrine, but the two arguing Christians can feel really good about themselves because they at least agreed to disagree.

Finally, there are many Christians who simply don’t care about division. They have no concept of Christian unity as being a reflection of the unity of the Godhead, nor the fact that a lack of unity exposes a lack of communion with the very same. They see these things strictly in human terms, and believe that every Christian has the “right” to interpret the bible according to his own, individual conscience. Um, where exactly is this “right” spelled out in the scriptures? Where are we told to interpret the bible for ourselves, or to formulate our own privately-held set of doctrinal beliefs? Even the noble Bereans, who daily searched the scriptures to confirm the teaching of Paul and Silas, did so only to confirm what the apostles taught, not to invent their own teaching.

Clearly the early Christians enjoyed such a remarkable unity—a truly astonishing unity by today’s standards—because they sat at the apostles’ feet and were utterly devoted to their teaching and to the maintaining of fellowship with them. If the apostles’ Church had been full of people each reading their own bibles and interpreting them according to their own “consciences” and opinions without regard to what the apostles taught, it would have fallen apart in a single generation.

Not to paint too rosy a picture, but of course there were folks who disagreed with the apostles on this or that point of doctrine, and left to form their own groups. St. John said of these, “They went out from us, but they were not of us. For if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us. But they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 John 2:19). Whoa, John; that’s pretty judgmental! Shouldn’t he have said, “We all hugged in a brotherly fashion and agreed to disagree”? It seems that John was not at all as tolerant of division as so many are today.

Of course John could be firm where many today cannot, because he understood that the Church was One and that the apostolic faith that formed its very life was not based upon the opinions of men, but was the revelation of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. Today when say, a former Calvary Chapel church divides from its parent organization to become a member of say, the Vineyard organization, people understand that this is merely the trading of one opinion for another. Contemporary Christendom is awash in relativism caused by too many opinions over “what the bible truly teaches”. No one could dare stand up and say that their church alone is the One, True Church of the Apostles.

No one, that is, except those within the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is neither denominational, nor even “non-denominational,” but pre-denominational, since it has existed whole and complete since the time of its founding by the apostles themselves. In today’s world, this is indeed a scandalous claim, and many reject it without a second thought. All I propose is that people give it that second thought, and maybe a third and a fourth, especially when considering the alternatives available today. Such a serious claim deserves more than just a knee-jerk reaction because it doesn’t suit our modern sensibilities.

The Protestant indoctrination teaches that the apostolic Church did not survive; it did OK for awhile, but was corrupted by Constantine in the 4th century and eventually mutated into the Roman Catholic church from which the Reformation was eventually born. Such a teaching neatly pulls the veil of suspicion over all historic Christianity, and allows the modern Protestant to utterly ignore it, while substituting his own interpretations of the bible as “the only reliable measure of truth”. If this is what you think, I propose that you research the first three centuries of Christian teaching and patristics—you know, those blissful centuries before the faith was allegedly “corrupted by Constantine”—to see whether this “uncorrupted” teaching resonates more closely with what is taught in your denomination, or in the Orthodox Church. The results will likely be as eye-opening for you as they were for me, when I participated in the exact same process.

You see, I was once a Protestant Evangelical believer who became deeply grieved over the division of Christendom, together with my contemporaries seeming ease in accepting it. I believed that there had to be a time when Christians enjoyed a greater degree of unity in matters of faith, life, and dogma than that which I saw around myself. I needed to believe that Paul wasn’t lying when he declared. “There is one body, and one Spirit…One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). One body can only mean one Church, and one faith can only be the one faith of the apostles, not every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s version of it based on how they each read their own bibles.

If such a thought has ever entered your heart, you may find that a study of the early Church will propel you into the greatest adventure of discovery since you found the bible itself. I wish you God’s guidance in that, and many blessings!