Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Tough Week

            These words were lately used by the President to describe the week beginning Sunday April 14.  The week saw acts of terrorism in Boston, and a tragic fire and explosion in Texas, compounding the other challenges with which life is often filled.  Boston also experienced the emotional roller-coaster of lockdown, manhunt, shoot-out, and arrest.  A tough week indeed.  The words, however, could equally well describe another week long ago, which was also filled with emotion, fear, and death. 
            I refer of course to the last week of our Lord’s earthly life.  It began with His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the whole city exploded with joy and celebration, hailing Him as King Messiah, and anticipating the imminent coming of the Kingdom and the overthrow of the Roman occupation force.  Our Lord’s adversaries, and the Romans, then went on high alert.  Christ entered and took command of the Temple, clearing out the sellers who set up their tables in the only space there reserved for the Gentiles, and who effectively turned the House of God into an eastern bazaar.  After this, He endured challenge after challenge, as one group after another confronted Him, some in open hostility and some with feigned admiration, all of them trying to refute and humiliate Him.  Tension grew with each confrontation.
            The week was filled with danger, since it was well known that Jesus’ foes had recently tried to stone Him, a fate which He narrowly escaped (Jn. 11:8).  For this reason His entry into the city had to be secretly pre-arranged, as did the place in the city where He would eat the Passover meal (Mk. 11:1f, 14:12f), for if He left the safety of the public crowds, He risked arrest and execution (Mk. 14:1-2).  That Passover meal, eaten with the Twelve in secrecy, was marked by fear.  He predicted that one of them would betray Him, that He would have to leave them, that they would all deny Him and leave Him alone.  As they ate the bread at the beginning of the meal, and as they drank the cup of wine afterward, He declared the bread and wine to be His body and His blood, broken and poured out.  They did not know what it all could mean, but they knew talk of death when they heard it.
            Then came the catastrophic night of betrayal and arrest, when one of their own inner circle acted as guide to His enemies, and when they all forsook Him and fled.  Peter, initially trying to prove himself brave, tagged along later at a distance, only to find himself denying Christ over and over again, as the Lord had predicted.  While the disciples scattered and cowered, their Lord was being tried and mocked and beaten by His own people at an illegal all-night trial.  When daybreak came, He was handed over the Pilate.
            One might have expected the famous Roman justice to win the day.  It did not.  Pilate found himself out-manoeuvred by the Sanhedrin, forced to choose between condemning an innocent Man and being denounced to Caesar for supporting an insurrection.  He took the obvious political choice, and washed his hands.  The deal collapsed whereby Jesus might be found guilty and still released as part of the Passover amnesty:  the terrorist Barabbas was released instead, and Jesus delivered to be scourged and crucified.  By three o’clock in the afternoon it was all over.  Jesus hung dead on the cross, beaten, disgraced, abandoned by almost all.  His adversaries were triumphant.  For them it was the most satisfying Passover in a long time.  But not for the disciples of the Lord.  For them, it was a tough week.
            This review of the first Holy Week can help us through our own tough weeks, for it teaches us that God does not save us from fearful suffering and death, but reveals His salvation in the midst of it.  The fear-suffused and dark Passover supper would be later revealed as the eternal and joyful Mystic Supper, as the meal of death became the meal of life.  The moment of supreme defeat and disgrace on Golgotha would become the cosmic victory of God, when He worked salvation in the midst of the earth.  This shows that all our suffering can be transmuted into joy, if we wait on God.  Dark days may tempt us, calling us to despair, to give up on God.  Judas gave up:  he took a rope and hanged himself.  We must not give up.  Despair called to Peter too, for after he denied his Lord time and again, he went out and wept bitterly (Mk. 14:72).  But he did not finally heed the call to despair.  Despite his almost unbearable pain, he persevered, and waited and did not give up.
            With God it is always worth the wait.  Christ came to Peter and restored him, accepting his repentance and calling him to once again take up his apostolic calling and leadership.  He came to all the disciples, forgiving them, gathering them, healing their hearts and breathing His Spirit into them. Holy Week may have ended with the Cross on Friday and the Tomb on Saturday.  But it gave way to the Resurrection on Sunday, the first day of the week and a sign of the timeless eighth day of eternity.  As we go through our life and endure tough weeks, let us continue to wait on God.  When day dawned that first Resurrection morn, all the pain of the past week faded with the passing darkness.  So it will prove for us.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Friendly Giant

           As Boston emerges from its recent lockdown and as America struggles to come to terms with the recent tragedy at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, perhaps one of the most disturbing features of the events may be found in the persons of the bombers.  The two brothers responsible for the terror and the carnage were to all who observed them completely normal people, not unlike everyone else around them.  Boston is a great city, full of ethnic and religious diversity, and it is not unusual to find people there of foreign ancestry.  The brothers who planned and carried out the acts of terror, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar by name, seemed to be (in the words of one person who knew them) “just normal American kids”.  A classmate of theirs described the younger brother as “so normal, no accent, an all-American kid in every measurable sense of the word”.  Friends said that he laughed at everyone’s jokes and tried hard to get along with everybody.  A youth counsellor who went to school with the older brother described him as “just a big friendly giant”.  He had a wife, Katherine, and a young daughter.  After he won a Golden Gloves boxing match he told a local newspaper, “I like the USA…America has a lot of jobs”.  So how did these normal American kids become the Boston bombers?  How did the friendly giant become the terrorist?
            We easily imagine that people who end up doing terrible things must be monsters, misfits, drooling misanthropes who are utterly unlike those around them.  That is a comforting thought, because it means that we can identify them in advance, and take warning.  It shakes us to discover that often people who do monstrous things do not look or act outwardly monstrous, and that they seem to be alarmingly like everybody else.
            This contains a cautionary tale for us all.  Tamerlan and Dzhokhar were not the product of bad seeds, born with innate tendencies toward evil and depravity.  They chose to take the path that led them to do evil acts, one decision at a time.  At time of writing, the story of their journey down that path is not known, but we can be sure that the journey was a gradual one.   The friendly giant did not go to bed on Monday thinking, “I like the USA”, and wake up Tuesday planning to set off two bombs to kill its innocent citizens.  Somewhere in his young life he listened to lies, and let those lies take root in his heart.  He chose to listen to this voice, and not that one; to decide upon one road, and not another one.  Each choice and each decision led him a little further away from sanity and love, and each step of his journey led him into spiritually smaller and smaller rooms.  The road to delusion is travelled, like all roads, one step at a time.
            The lesson to be learned from this?  “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).  It is possible for anyone to start down evil roads.  That road may not lead to acts of terror, or even acts of crime, that does not mean that it will not ultimately end in hell.  The fall to which St. Paul was referring, for example, did not involve acts of crime or terrorism, but acts of idolatry, which if embraced would lead to hell all the same.  The scary fact and the abiding lesson is that the road to hell is also travelled one step at a time, and is travelled gradually.  If we harden our hearts to love and to God, this sclerosis occurs over time, in a series of small and seemingly insignificant decisions.  We may scarcely notice that our love is cooling, that our prayers are becoming more and more infrequent, that anger increasingly forms the background of our lives.  We descend down a slow and gentle incline, always downward, its fatal progress hardly perceptible from one day to the next. 
            The truth is that Tamerlan and Dzhokhar are not unlike all of us.  They simply chose poorly, and kept on choosing poorly until their choices were evil.  We may learn from their terrible example, and keep watch over own hearts, lest we also fall and our hearts become hardened.  A good way to start this inner watchfulness against hardness of heart might be to pray for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar as well as for their victims.  And may the good Lord protect all.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Arrow that Flies

           At time of writing, we are still reeling from incoming news of the bomb blasts that went off at the Boston Marathon.  News footage of twin explosions that went off within seconds of each other, reports of shattering glass, of individuals killed outright, and of flying shrapnel injuring and maiming many others, including young children, all combine to pummel the heart and reduce us to a state of shock.  Though the President of the United States did not use the words “terrorist act” in his initial statement to the press, others from his office did later confirm that this is being treated as an act of terror, given that the explosions seemed to have been coordinated.  Once again it seems that America is under attack.  Whatever sense of ease, safety, and complacency we may have built up in the years since the horrific events of “9-11” is now being challenged.  How should a Christian respond to all this?
            In a word, with peace of heart.  The Scriptures are replete with promises that God would keep and preserve His people who trust in Him.  “The Lord will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life” (Ps. 121:7).  “As the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord is round about His people from this time forth and forevermore” (Ps. 125:2)  “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him and delivers them” (Ps. 34:7).  “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.  A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you’ (Ps. 91:5-7)
            It will be replied, of course, that in Boston, the fearful arrow did indeed fly by day, and destruction did indeed waste at noonday, and no one is suggesting that no Christians were harmed in that carnage.  It seems that believers in Jesus and those who trust God have no special immunity from such disasters.  When acts of terror occur, they touch all without discrimination, afflicting people utterly at random, whether or not they have faith in God.  This being so, what of those promises of Scripture?  Were they simply given in vain?
            No, for no word of Scripture speaks in vain, and as Christ Himself said, “Scripture cannot be broken” (Jn. 10:35).  But we must look deeply to understand what it means, and what its sacred poetry actually promises us. 
            The fact is that the world in which we live is a dangerous place throughout, and always has been.  Women die in childbirth, children die in infancy, disease tears and ravages us throughout our life.  Evil men murder and maim, wars carry off multitudes, tornadoes and floods and earthquakes work their terrible carnage, and men are martyred for the Faith.  The bombs of Boston, horrifying as they are, should not markedly change our picture of the world—we knew that it was filled with suffering and death before any of today’s bombs went off.  And yet it is in this world that God promises us true security. 
            The poetry and promises of the Old Testament find their final meaning and substance in Christ.    Christ’s life and Cross reveal that security does not consist of avoiding suffering, but in being safe in God even in the midst of it.  As St. Paul taught, our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3).  The Lord said the same thing:  even those who suffered martyrdom and death for Him were safe—“not a hair of your head will perish” (Lk. 21:18).  What?  If they had suffered and died for Him, how could He promise that not a hair of their head would perish?  Surely their whole body perished!  Physically, yes.  But where it counts, in eternity, no.  In the age to come, they would arise and survive whole, sound, untouched and untouchable by any suffering. 
            This is the true and final meaning of those Old Testament promises of safety.  Our earthly life will not finally end in death, but in unshakable joy and unending peace.  Whether our bodies perish through martyrdom in the first century, or through falling towers in New York, or through bomb blasts in Boston, our real life remains hidden with Christ in God, safe at His right hand, far above earthly explosions, far above the arrow that flies.  In the days to come, when more news emerges from Boston, we must remember the promises of God, and keep our hearts anchored in His peace.  The twin blasts of Boston challenge us locate our security where it should be—not in this age, but in Jesus, and in His Kingdom.

(Note: this post is available in audio through Ancient Faith Radio here.)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Mouseketeer and the Iron Lady

            Yesterday April 8 saw the deaths of two famous women, both “cultural icons”, and women who could hardly have been more different from one another.  I refer of course to the Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and the Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher.  The differences between the two are stark indeed.
            Annette Funicello was a child star who came to the public attention in America in the 1950s as a “Mouseketeer” of the Mickey Mouse Club.  An image of wholesomeness in a more innocent time, and hailed as “America’s Sweetheart”, she went on to star with Frankie Avalon in a series of popular “beach movies” such as “Beach Blanket Bingo” in 1965.  Though she and her husband divorced after sixteen years of marriage in 1981 and she remarried in 1986, she remained an uncontroversial image of wholesomeness, avoiding any hint of scandal and refusing to do any film which would cast her in a morally dubious role.  In one of the beach movies in which all the other girls were wearing bikinis, she happily consented to Mr. Disney’s request that she wear a one-piece bathing suit to uphold her image.  She continued to uphold that image:  in the 1990s, she produced a line of teddy bears for the Annette Funicello Collectible Bear Company.  Yep:  teddy bears.  She was renown for her image of sweetness, light, and kindness.
            Rather less known for her sweetness and light was the British Margaret Thatcher.  The daughter of a grocer, she eventually settled on a career in politics, running as a candidate for the Conservative party and winning a seat in Parliament in 1959.  In what was then emphatically a man’s world, she became Britain’s first female Prime Minister in 1979, a position she held until 1990.  To say that she was controversial would be a tremendous understatement, for she was both loved and loathed for her strong stands throughout her time as Prime Minister.  It was not for nothing that the Russians who came to know her on the international stage dubbed her “the Iron Lady”—a title she accepted and relished.  She famously commented that she didn’t know what the word “consensus” meant, and preferred the politics of conviction to the politics of consensus.  Some, upon hearing of her death, commented on Facebook, “ding dong, the witch is dead” (echoing the glee with which those in Oz greeted the news of the death of the Wicked Witch of the West).  Others loved her deeply, and lamented her passing, regarding her as the one whose headstrong refusal to give in to opposition saved Britain economically.  Both sides however would agree that her defining characteristic was strength, not sweetness.  No teddy bears here.
            So, apart from the accidental fact that both died April 8, what do the two women share in common that we Orthodox could profit from?  In a word, courage.  In the mid-1980s Annette Funicello was diagnosed with a particularly severe and untreatable form of Multiple Sclerosis.  She suffered silently for years, but only announced it publically in 1992 to dispel rumours that her falling was the result of alcoholism.  She went into long decline, which culminated when she and her present husband Glen invited the Canadian documentary film-makers “W5” into their home to update the world about her condition, and revealed the devastating ravages of her disease.  Margaret Thatcher’s courage was also in evidence when she entered her own long decline into ill health and dementia, a fact her daughter Carol revealed to the world in 2005.  Her courage was also in abundant evidence throughout her political career, as she faced down all opposition, even surviving a bombing attempt on life. 
            Anyone who follows Christ needs such courage.  In a world where Christian conviction is frequently mocked and rarely popular, one who decides to take up the cross and follow Jesus will find plenty of obstacles to overcome, whether one lives in Cairo or in Washington, in Russia or in Canada.  St. Paul warned us long ago:  “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12), and we do not require familiarity with the Scriptures to know this, only familiarity with the stories in the newspapers.  Some might dismiss the apostolic warning as paranoia; such a dismissal reminds me of the dictum of WKRP’s Johnny Fever who quipped that “when people are out to get you, paranoia is just good sense”.  Perhaps people are not yet “out to get us”.   Nevertheless the truth remains that the perennial struggle against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil requires determination and courage.  When the Church receives a convert by Chrismation, it first prays for that person, and in one of those prayers we find the petition that the convert “may confess before all men the Name of Christ our God and that may be always ready for His sake to lovingly suffer and to die”.  Following Christ and confessing His Name before all men is clearly not for the faint of heart.  We need courage if we are to remain faithful to the Lord.  The wholesome Mouseketeer had it.  The resolute Iron Lady had it.  May God grant that we have it too as we follow Him.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Slip Sliding Away

         One of the saddest books I read is the Church metrical book, the book containing the list of those baptized, married, and buried (or “hatched, matched and dispatched”, as one person put it).  It can be a sad read because of the number of people once baptized and chrismated that no longer walk with the Lord.  Most of course continue their journey of faith, but some do not.  They began well enough as zealous converts to Orthodoxy, but now have lapsed, and have never been seen in church again.  The question arises then, “How is it that a person begins an Orthodox life with all zeal and then falls away?”  How does apostasy happen?
            Certainly it does not happen suddenly.  One does not awake one morning, having living as a zealous Orthodox disciple of Jesus for the previous months, look in the mirror and say, “Good heavens!  I think I am a Scientologist!” and then lapse from Church.  Rather, apostasy occurs as a process, as a kind of drifting away.  That is why the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes, “We must pay the closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it” (Heb. 2:1).  Apostasy is a matter of drifting, of slow retreat from the way of life to which we have been committed.  It will be helpful to mark the stages of this drift, so that we can avoid it.
            The first stage in the drift from Jesus and from Orthodoxy is losing our spiritual edge.  For as zealous disciples of the Lord, we retain a certain “edge”, a determination to serve the Lord, to continue growing in His knowledge and love.  Every day He has new things to show us, new discoveries.  We arise from bed every morning saying, “O Lord, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid; You have loosed my bonds” (Ps. 116:16).  That is, we begin with an inner dedication to God, offering our life and the coming hours of our day to Him.  In the first stage of drifting and apostasy, we lose this dedication.  Dawn no longer finds us His servant.  We simply arise from bed and look for breakfast.  Almost imperceptibly, we retake control of our lives, wresting it from His gentle hands.  This process of cooling off is so gradual we scarcely notice.
            Then comes the second stage, more noticeable and rooted in the first stage.  That is, we begin to decide whether or not we will go to church on Sunday morning, whether or not we will say our daily prayers, whether or not we will the keep the customary fasts.   We may in fact finally decide to do these things, but that is scarcely the point.  The point is that we feel we have the freedom to do it or not.  In actual fact, we gave up this freedom when we decided to become Orthodox disciples of Jesus.  In our baptism, when we (or our sponsors) renounced Satan and united ourselves to Christ, “bowing down before the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided”, we then gave up the freedom to decide for ourselves how we would spend our Sunday mornings, and whether or not we would say our daily prayers.  We decided at our baptism, then and there, that Sunday morning would find us in church, and that we would pray to our God every day.  From that moment on, we no longer belonged to ourselves, but to Jesus.  In this second stage of apostasy, we feel that we in fact belong fundamentally to ourselves, and so possess the freedom to decide whether or not we will attend Liturgy and say our prayers.
            In this second stage, we become particularly vulnerable to the devil, since we have defected from God in our hearts and voluntarily withdrawn ourselves from His protection.  In this stage, arguments against the Christian Faith that once struck us as absurd now begin to make sense.  Dan Brown in his The Da Vinci Code disquiets us, and we think that maybe Richard Dawkins makes some good points after all.  Note:  this is not a matter of one just beginning to sort out what he or she believes, but rather of someone who had decided that the case against the Faith was nonsense now beginning to doubt their first conclusion.  And that doubt is not caused by anyone producing any stronger evidence against the Faith.  Dawkins’ arguments remain as flimsy and nonsensical as ever.  Rather, the doubt is rooted in the doubter’s own life, and in an unacknowledged desire to find reasons to abandon the Christian Faith with its restraints.
            This leads to the third and disastrous stage, when one finally abandons the Christian Faith.  One once considered the Christians to be “us”; now the Christians are “them”.  In conversations by the office water-cooler, one no longer defends Christianity as one’s own Faith, but lets the others there deride it, and actually sides with them, either by one’s actual words of agreement or by one’s tacit silence.  It is a terrible moment, and one which Heaven catches on its own eternal video-tape.  That tape will be played back at the Last Day.  There is no escaping it.  The Lord said it:  “Everyone who denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:33).  That day of denial will have eternal consequences.
            How then to avoid such an eternally catastrophic conclusion?  By stopping the process before it begins, by greeting each waking morning with the determination to serve Jesus.  As we stretch and yawn and look for the morning coffee pot, let this be our waking cry:  “O Lord, I am Your servant, the son of Your handmaid; You have loosed my bonds”.  We will be safe from fatal drifting if we cling to Jesus and keep our spiritual edge.  Each day He has more things to show us, more things to learn, more ways in which we can grow.  Monday is not simply the beginning of the week; it is another day of discovery in the Lord.  If we begin Monday and every day with such a resolve, we will never drift.  Death when it finally finds us will find us ready for joy.  We will never slip slide away from Christ, but step boldly into His Kingdom.  Now is the time to make the decision about how we will begin each day, and therefore about what we will find at our life’s end.