Saturday, October 29, 2016

The God of the Old Testament

In the rough and tumble world of online discussion of just about any current theological issue, eventually one is sure to come across a denunciation of the God of the Old Testament.  His detractors deride Him as cranky, vengeful, wrathful, unreasonable, arbitrary, blood-thirsty, and (in the always colourful words of Richard Dawkins), “as the most unpleasant character in all fiction”.  And, I am compelled to admit, I have no clue as to what they are talking about.  The very first time I seriously read through the entire Old Testament as a teenager and new convert to Christ, my initial impression of the God revealed in the Old Testament was one of love, condescension, compassion, and almost infinite patience with rebellious sinners.  And that impression has endured and (if anything) has grown deeper with the passing of years. 
            I understand some of this denunciation of the Most High on online forums and the like—some people are simply angry at Christianity and happily use any stick with which to beat Christians.  They take some Old Testament verses out of their literary context and entirely out of their cultural context and start shouting.  What is more perplexing to me is finding some Christians arguing that the Old Testament deity is insufficiently Christ-like.  I expect the unbelievers to throw large chunks of the Bible angrily across the room.  But I expected believers to be more respectful of what is for them, after all, Holy Writ.
            My perplexity is increased at finding some Orthodox Christians talking as if the Old Testament painted a picture of an unworthy and wrathful God.  After all, the Orthodox are the ones who supposedly value history and Tradition, and the heresy of Marcionism was soundly condemned a long time ago.  It is late in the game to be taking pages out of his playbook.  Marcion (as described by the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church) held as his central thesis “that the Christian Gospel was wholly a Gospel of Love to the absolute exclusion of Law. [For Marcion] the God revealed in the Old Testament had nothing in common with the God of Jesus Christ”.  In this reading of the Bible, the Old Testament God was vengeful; the more Christ-like God of the New Testament was not at all wrathful, but only ever loving to everyone. 
            One may object to Marcion and his modern disciples therefore on two counts:  1. that the Old Testament God is not at all as His detractors portray Him; and 2. the portrayal of the God of the New Testament is entirely consistent with His earlier portrayal in the Old Testament.
            On the first count:  the Old Testament God is one who unfailingly and tenderly cares for His people, even when they betray Him, deny Him, turn away from Him, and generally act abusively towards Him.  Look at the histories recounted in Judges, and 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings.  One could summarize this centuries’ long and lamentable history of apostasy as God Himself did through His prophet Jeremiah:  “They turned their back to Me and not their face, though I taught them, rising up early and teaching, they would not listen and receive instruction.  But they put their detestable things in the House which is called by My Name to defile it, and they built the high places of Baal to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech” (Jeremiah 32:33f).  Or listen to the cry of divine hurt through His prophet Micah:  “My people, what have I done to you and how have I wearied you?  Answer Me!  Indeed, I brought you up from the land of Egypt and ransomed you from the house of slavery” (Micah 6:3-4).  Or read the whole sorry indictment of Israel’s unfaithful betrayal in Ezekiel 16:  here God says that He found His people like an abandoned baby, left to die in an open field, and took them in and cared for them, only to have them grow up and abandon Him for others.  Salvation history is the history of heartbreak, of a God who has done everything possible for His people only to have them turn away to other gods, gods which could not possibly save them, gods which commanded that they sacrifice their children in the fire.  You can almost feel the divine perplexity at such perversity, like an open and bleeding wound in the heart of God:  “My people have committed two evils:  they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).  Here we see an abandoned and broken-hearted God.  The shadow of the Cross begins to loom even before the birth at Bethlehem.
            We can also see how truly Christ-like is God’s character in the Old Testament—He is a God who commands that when His people take eggs from a nest, they may not take the mother along with the eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). He is a God who commands that every seven years all financial debts be forgiven, and that one must take care to loan money to a neighbour even if the year of forgiveness approaches and the loan therefore cannot be recovered—“for the poor will never cease from the land, therefore I command you, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land’” (Deuteronomy 22:7f).  He is a God who cares for the poor, commanding His people to leave some food ungleaned in their fields so that the poor might have it (Leviticus 19:9-10).  In Facebook forums people often scream about how Christians should not be guided by Leviticus, but this aspect of Leviticus and the Law seems to escape them.
            On the second count:  this Old Testament deity continued to reveal Himself in the New Testament through His Son.  In ancient times God took no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11f), and in later days He continued to prove Himself the God of love, and called the whole rebellious race of man back to Himself through the proclamation of the Gospel.  If despite their monstrous sins (see Nahum 3:19), God still cared for the people of pagan Nineveh (Jonah 4:11), it is not surprising to see Him later calling back tax-collectors and prostitutes to His mercy.  Indeed, though the whole human race had defected from His love and preferred idolatry and sin to serving Him, He still sent His Son to die for such ungodly rebels.  
Yet His kindness is balanced by His severity (see Romans 11:22)—judgment will fall upon the impenitent if they resist to the end His call to repentance.  In the New Testament as in the Old, our God is a consuming fire, and it is a terrifying thing to fall into His hands (Hebrews 12:29, 10:31).  In fact, given that God’s love is the more abundantly poured out in the New Testament dispensation, the cost of rejecting it is correspondingly higher:  “If the word spoken through angels [in the Old Testament] proved unalterable and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Hebrews 2:2-3)  The one who set aside Moses’ Law died without mercy—how much severer punishment will he deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God and insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:28-29)  Ananias and Sapphira discovered this to their cost—when they lied to God, they were struck down dead for it (Acts 5:1f).  St. Luke concludes his telling of their story by remarking that “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (v.11).
Here, I submit, is our problem today, for great fear no longer comes upon us when we read of such things.  We have driven a wedge between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New and have distorted the features of both.  The God of the Old Testament is all severity; the God of the Gospel is all kindness.  This latter is no longer a father, but a grandfather—old, indulgent, toothless, and harmless even when defied and ignored.  It is not a fearful thing for impenitent rebels to fall into His hands.  If any neglect the great salvation He has provided, it will all come out fine in the end.  Love wins, and the fires of Gehenna will be extinguished in the end.  Ananias and Sapphira (and with them Hitler, Stalin and all others like them) will be tremendously relieved for, as it turns out according to this view, righteousness and justice are not the foundation of His throne after all (Psalm 89:14). 
It is a natural temptation to want to remake God into our own image, and it is not that hard.  Marcion did it superbly.  But it is a temptation we must resist.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

“Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other”

Lately I was watching an old favourite British television series, “The Prisoner”, starring Patrick McGoohan.  The series ran for a mere 17 episodes, ending in 1968.  In its time it was ground-breaking, combining psychological drama with biting social commentary and allegorical symbolism—perhaps a little too ground-breaking, which is why it ended after a mere 17 episodes.  McGoohan had previously starred in the spy series “Danger Man” (shown in America under the title “Secret Agent”), and viewers were looking for more of the same.  They wanted another Danger Man with spy gadgets and fist fights, not a Kafkaesque critique of society.   
The series featured McGoohan as someone who had suddenly resigned from his government spy job.  He was abducted and woke up in a place called “the Village”, a self-contained community purporting to provide its happy contented citizens with all they needed, but in fact was a political prison where people like McGoohan were kept—a kind of up-scale luxurious gulag.  No one had any names there, but simply numbers.  McGoohan was Number Six.  The head administrator, replaced at regular intervals, was Number Two.  No one ever saw Number One, though he ran everything.  The series revolved around Number Six’s attempts to resist indoctrination and to escape.  Under the image of the Village the series offered a critique of our own society, which depersonalizes and offers pleasure and security in exchange for true freedom.  I only noticed much later that there was no church in the Village.  The dead there were carried out to burial to the accompaniment of a brass band, which only ever played marching songs.
            Its second episode was entitled, “Free for All” and featured Number Six running for office in the Village—in particular, for the job of being Number Two.  The current Number Two argued that lack of political opposition was not good for their community:  “These people don’t seem to appreciate the value of free elections.  They think it’s a game.”  Number Six, though sceptical that anything could really change if he won, was persuaded to run in hopes of changing the system and freeing other citizens.  The episode ends with him winning, but discovering that in fact the election was indeed a sham and simply another attempt to demoralize and break him.  Another Number Two succeeded the old Number Two, but the totalitarian grip of the Village on its citizens remained intact.  The election turned out to be a game after all.  Someone made an ironic pun at the expense of Number Six with words of the old saying, “Six of one, half a dozen of the other”:  it didn’t really matter who one voted for—the real power remained in the fact of the Village itself. 
            McGoohan’s point was that all societies program their citizens, and feed them only the information they want them to have, thus pre-determining their choices within certain parameters.  True freedom in this age is largely illusory, unless it is rooted within the human person who is able to see through the lies which pervade society.  It was hard for me not to think of current events as I watched the old series, for some of its lessons are timeless.  For a Christian, the lessons learned from Number Six’s struggles within the Village are threefold.
            Firstly, all human societies form part of the World, which lies under the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19), whatever political system that society utilizes and whichever leader it follows.  That does not mean, of course, that it is a mere toss up between a liberal democracy which allows dissent and a totalitarian regime where dissenters disappear overnight into a gulag.  The former is definitely preferable, and I am happy to inhabit one.  It also does not mean that it does not matter which leader we choose, for some leaders if chosen will do more harm than others.  But it does mean that we must not mistake our liberal democracy for the Kingdom of God, or think that it is somehow exempt from the power of the Evil One.  If Satan is the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4) then in some sense he is a god in America as well as in Russia, Syria, or any other part of this world.  We should vote, and may debate (politely, please), and maybe even campaign for the political candidates of our choice.  But we must do so knowing that no leader will bring in the Kingdom of God, and that our ultimate allegiance lies with Jesus Christ, not with any earthly leader or system.  At the end of the day, the World is still the World.
            Secondly, we can expect then that the World will lie to us and offer us a steady diet of falsehood from the father of lies.  We cannot always know which bits we find in our media are the lies, but we can be sure we are being lied to somehow.  All the more sensible to sit rather lightly on all that we think we know.  We must constantly remind ourselves that in this age, “we see through a glass darkly” and “know in part”— knowing perhaps even less than we imagine we do.  At best the World offers us half-truths, and the problem with half-truths is that one usually fastens on the wrong half.  It is only in Christ and the Holy Tradition of His Church that fullness of truth can be found, unmixed with any error.  I used to think it was a tad irresponsible of C.S. Lewis not to read newspapers on the basis that they contained so many distortions and lies.  Now I am not so sure that he wasn’t on to something.  I still read papers and listen to the news, but I believe less and less of what I am told. 
            Thirdly, our hearts must be set on the day of our escape from this World at the Second Coming and on our entry into true freedom, for such an attitude is the only path to true interior freedom and authentic personhood here and now.  One problem with becoming immersed in politics is that we run the risk of forgetting what the true and lasting issues of life and death really are.  We are meant to keep at least one eye on the horizon, with the prayer “Maranatha!” in our heart, for our true citizenship is not here but in heaven (Philippians 3:20).  A very early prayer said, “Let grace come and let the world pass away!”  I often think of that prayer whenever I vote, and am sometimes tempted to write it on the ballot.  But whether I utter the prayer or not, the world certainly will one day pass away, and grace certainly will one day come.  “Six of one, half a dozen of the other”?  Certainly that seems true in this age.  But there remains a third option, what St. Paul called “the Blessed Hope”.  May that hope be realized soon.          

Thursday, October 13, 2016

An Insignificant Sound

           When I was converted to Christ through the Jesus People movement, there were no praise bands.  (A "praise band", for those unfamiliar with the term, is a band with electric guitars and drums which plays "contemporary Christian music" at the front of evangelical churches.)  In those happy and innocent days, young Christians would meet together in a variety of venues such as the beach, a hall, or someone's home, and pray and sing to the Lord, often using musical compositions or choruses written by themselves.  It was all very informal and spontaneous.  There was then no "Christian music industry"; enthusiastic young believers just played the guitar out of joy and sang to God.  In those post-hippie days, such singing often resulted in a crowd gathering to listen, and the one singing would then share the Gospel with them.  The contemporary praise band evolved from such early and unsophisticated spontaneity.
My involvement in this movement centred on a meeting of young people in Toronto, the so-called "Toronto Catacombs", led by Merv and Merla Watson.  Like many in the Jesus Movement, some of the young people would bring their guitars to the meeting as well as their Bibles, and would play them as everyone sang choruses.  The group of players up front grew, and came to include some people playing the flute and the accordion.  And--this is important--one young man playing a single bell.  Yes, a bell.  At certain times he would strike the bell, producing a sweet note.  Of course with people playing guitars, flutes, and an accordion, to say nothing of the many voices singing loudly with spiritual gusto, he was utterly drowned out.  You could see him striking the occasional note, but could never hear him.  One time, someone asked him about this.  Why did he continue to strike the bell and sound notes that no one else could hear?  "I'm not playing for you," was his reply.  "I'm playing for the Lord.  He can hear me.  And that's all that matters."
I have never forgotten this reply, and it has become more and more important to me throughout the years, especially when I am tempted to become discouraged with my own poor attempts at prayer.  St. Seraphim praying with power on a rock for a thousand days, or St. Mary of Egypt levitating a foot off the ground in her communion with God are all very impressive, but at times these things leave me feeling very keenly the inadequacy and poverty of my own prayer life.  I cannot pray for a thousand days nonstop.  And never mind about levitating--most of the time it's all I can do to keep my mind from wandering.  Why bother?  What do I have to offer?  I can picture the angels looking down from heaven at me and saying to each other, "What does he think he's doing?  You call that praying?"  
It is then that I remember the insignificant sound of the bell.  It might have been insignificant in the estimation of others, but not to God.  Let others play the guitar or the flute or sing as melodiously as they could.  My friend with the bell would offer what he had to offer, even if it were but the single sweet sound of an almost inaudible note.  He was playing for the Lord, and he refused to compare his contribution to that of others.  It is the same with us.  In heaven, a deafening thunder of praise, a continual cataract of doxology, pours forth from the angels, from the vast army of cherubim and seraphim, "the voice of a great multitude and the sound of many waters, and of mighty peals of thunder, saying, 'Allelulia!'" (Rev. 19:6).  We are privileged to add our few and little notes to this vast chorus.  It might not sound impressive.  It might be as nothing to the prayers of the saints and the praises of the angelic powers.  It might be all but lost in that thunderous swell--an almost inaudible sound, a single note added to theirs.  But to the Lord our note is not lost among the others, nor is it insignificant.  God delights in our prayers, when we offer them to Him with a heart of love.  As my nameless brother said long ago, we are singing for the Lord.  He can hear us.  And that's all that matters.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Remembering Fr. Pihach

Saturday morning began with a thunderbolt:  a dear fellow-priest from my diocese began his phone call to me early that morning with the words, “Did you hear about Fr. Alexander?”  I had not heard about Fr. Alexander Pihach, but soon was informed that he had died suddenly and unexpectedly earlier that day.  After travelling to Toronto from Saskatoon on his way to Moscow where he served as priest at the Representation Parish of St. Catherine’s, and arriving in Toronto very late, he had been picked up at the airport and was eating at the home of a fellow priest in Toronto when he suddenly collapsed afterward on his way to bed and died.  He had been lately been given a clean bill of health after his cancer treatments, and was looking forward to many more years of fruitful ministry.  He was 64.
            I was not the only one who felt as if he had been struck by lightning.  Fr. Alexander (or “Fr. Dennis” as he had been known for years) had served as Chancellor in the Canadian diocese for many years, and as Rector of parishes across the country.  He was well-known, and even more well-loved.
            I met him when I was still an Anglican priest investigating Orthodoxy.  I had travelled three hours from northern Saskatchewan to the city of Saskatoon to observe the odd phenomenon of an Orthodox Liturgy being served in English.  Dennis was a deacon at the parish there.  I had many questions, most of them dumb.  I also asked him, “What’s the deal about this ‘jurisdictions thing’”.  He and his priest exchanged a meaningful glance, and then Dennis answered, “The only place to talk about Orthodox jurisdictions is either on your knees or in a bar.”  I didn’t understand it then, and could only later appreciate the combination of wit, wisdom, pragmatism and humour that characterized Dennis Pihach.  It was a combination that would later help keep many people sane when he served as Chancellor for the diocese through some interesting years to come.
            If I had to pick one phrase that described my friend of many years, it would be the phrase “holy pragmatism”.  Fr. Dennis was above all things a holy pragmatist, determined not to die on any hill but the one chosen by God.  He knew how to roll with the punches (and there were many punches), to find the one thing needful, to keep both his integrity and his sense of humour—no mean feat—and to share his wisdom and perspective with those who needed it most.  He had the gift of friendship, of connecting with people very different from him in both point of view and temperament, and of enriching them by that gift.  He had no time for pretentious unreality (what the world calls “BS”), and sat lightly on worldly honours.  If Fr. Dennis/ Alexander thought that something was nonsensical or that a man was an idiot, the thing in question probably was nonsense, and the man probably was an idiot.  He had a judgment and discernment that could be relied upon, and yet he despised no one.  He saw the Church with all its flaws, and loved her just the same.

            Fr. Dennis/ Alexander was a big man, and his big frame contained a big heart.  Those of us who knew him well knew that we had a place somewhere in that heart.  He would sometimes call me from Moscow (across heaven knows how many time zones) just to talk and connect and encourage.  Alas for me and for us all:  our phones may now ring many times, but he will never again be on the other end of the line.  We are all the poorer for his passing, and will not soon see his like again.  May his memory be eternal.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Concerning Burning

     The burning of books is objectionable on principle.  Indeed, whenever I hear of books being burnt, I always think of the famous quote by Heinrich Heine, who was born a Jew but converted to Christianity, and who died 1856.  He said, “Where they burn books, in the end they will burn people.”  (There is a fine irony in his far-sighted wisdom, since his books were among the many consigned to the flames by the Nazis in the 1930s.)  The reason that book-burning is objectionable is that consigning something to the flames means not just its destruction, but many circumstances its renunciation, and asserts its total lack of value.  And pretty much all books have value—even the books the contents of which we disagree with.  We may disagree with the ideas some books contain, but the idea of a book itself—that is, offering ideas from one person to another—is valuable and good, for all books involve sharing and dialogue, and all human dialogue has value.
            In the same way that burning books is bad, burning people is bad also.  Put another way, cremation is not a part of our Christian Tradition.  Asserting this flies in the face of much modern North American culture, where cremation is rapidly becoming the preferred method of dealing with the bodies of the dead, but Orthodoxy continues to make this assertion nonetheless.  As far as the historic practice of the Church is concerned, cremation involves the burning of people.
            Modern secular culture denies this.  It says that people—human persons—are to be sharply differentiated from their bodies, so that cremation burns not the person, but the body of the person.  The person—the real person—is identified with the soul, and this soul resides in the body in the same sort of way that a letter resides in an envelope.  In the case of letters and envelopes, the envelope has no real and lasting function apart from the safe delivery of the letter, and after the letter is received, the envelope may be thrown away.  After all, it is the letter which is of value, and it is the letter which we keep.  In the same way, modern secularism holds that the soul is the real person, and the body only the temporary container or vehicle for the soul.  When the soul departs from the body at death, the body has no more lasting value than the envelope has after the letter is removed.  Both may be thrown away, or burned. 
            Over against this, the Church asserts that the body is not simply the container of the soul but, along with the soul, also partakes of the beauty and image of God.  It is therefore not so much the case that we have bodies, but that we are bodies—as well as being souls and spirits.  The body is made by God, and shares His image—not of course that God has two eyes and a nose and ears, but that the body’s beauty and grace have their source in God.  And not only does the body partake of God’s grace in its creation, but also in its redemption, for it is the body which is baptized and chrismated, the body which receives the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the body which will one day be raised to new immortal life at the final resurrection.  In a word, the human body is holy, and is central to our total salvation.  Like all holy things, it must be treated reverently.  As said above, consigning something to the flames speaks of its lack of value.  This practice made sense in paganism, for pagans denied that bodies had ultimate value (that was why the philosophical Athenians scoffed when St. Paul began asserting that bodies would rise again; see Acts 17:32).  Pagans could cremate and burn their dead and be consistent with their religious beliefs.  Christians cannot, for Christians believe that the body has too much value to be consigned to the flames.
            There are other problems as well with the present practice of cremation.  For one thing, some in the funeral industry who promote cremation do not tell the whole truth about it.  In particular, they fail to mention the truth that bones do not burn.  Flesh burns, and hair burns, and fat burns, if the fire is hot enough.   (When it does, it is not an edifying spectacle.  Indeed, some people who have witnessed it have said that if many knew exactly what occurs in the process of cremating a body, they would not have gone through with it.)  But bones do not burn, however hot the fire may be.  What then is done with them after cremation?  They are put through a grinder, and ground down to tiny bits.  I am told that cleaning such grinders is not easy to do, and the bits from one body can get mixed the bits from another.  Some have told me that talcum powder is sometimes added to make the bits look more like ashes.  This of course is an attempt to hide from the truth that bones do not burn.
            There are other problems as well.  I have been present when the ashes were deposited in their designated place in burial grounds.  Prayers were said for the departed, referring to the dead in personal terms, as a “who”.  The worker from the funeral crematorium then came, bringing the ashes in a plastic bag.  The departed had now become not a “who”, but a “what”, for the worker said, “Where would you like me to put it?”  Note:  not “him” or “her”, but “it”.  The worker was not heartless, and I’m sure meant no disrespect.  He was only doing his job, and stating the obvious:  cremation had turned a person into a thing, something able to be carried in a plastic bag under one’s arm and stuffed into a small funerary cylinder.  Cremation meant depersonalization.
            Here then is the main difference between cremation and the historic burial practice of the Church—the latter alone does justice to the personhood of the departed and to the sanctity of human flesh.  This is not to judge or condemn anyone who has allowed the cremation of loved ones, for we all do the best we can, and times of bereavement and grief are not the best times to relearn and rethink.  But though the Church does not judge, it does offer a better way.  We do the most honour to our beloved departed when we avoid cremation, when we commit them reverently in the ground.   We need not burn the bodies of those we love.  Instead, we place their bodies in the good earth, and their souls in the hands of the good Lord.