Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Leaving Footprints

           I would like to tell you a sad story, the story of a single man, solitary and secular.  We were playmates at school together when I was young, both of us being the only children of our respective parents.  We got on well enough in the early days of public school.  In high school, our paths diverged:  he continued in his secular path, while I became caught up in the Jesus People Movement.  After sowing the usual wild oats of his day, he settled down to a respectable job, working in the school system as a janitor like his father.  He had work mates, of course, but no real friends.  After his father died, he continued to live at home with his aging mother.  But even so he lived a solitary life, and would go straight from work into his little basement apartment, taking his meal and spending the evening alone, while his mother ate her meal upstairs by herself.  She was lonely, and concerned about him, of course, and would've liked his company.  She was concerned that he was depressed, and that he said that he couldn't see any reason why he continued living.  She pointed out to him his good job, and his nice car, but to no avail.  He had no friends, no girl friend or wife, no “significant other”, and of course no children.  When he died, he died alone in his basement apartment, and was buried by his mother, his funeral attended by her.  Later, after several years, his mother also died.  He lived and died, leaving no footprints; it is now as if he never existed.
            Such a life is a tremendous tragedy.  Most people leave footprints—people who will remember us after we die and will bless our memory.  Children will remember their parents, pupils remember teachers who taught them wisdom, people remember friends whose love and laughter enriched their life.  The poor bless, even if just or a moment, those whose help and financial aid they receive.  But my old playmate never had children.  He never served as mentor to other younger men, never lit up the life another friend with the warmth of his love.  He attended no church or social group.  As far as I know, he never gave money to the poor or to any charity.  His refusal or inability to reach out means that his death effectively deleted every trace of his life from the world.
            The tragedy of such a life finds its echoes in the Scriptures.  One psalm laments that such men, even though they “name lands their own” and call their property after themselves in an effort to ensure some sort of immortality, still cannot abide, despite all their pomp.  They are “like the beasts that perish” (Ps. 49:11-12).  And by “beasts” the Psalmist does not refer to animals like our modern pets, named and loved their owners, but to the wild beasts, unnamed and unknown, who die unnoticed and unlamented, their bodies lying as carrion in the wilderness.
            While we yet live, we retain the ability to leave footprints.  Whether we are married or unmarried, single or divorced, whether we live alone or with others, we can reach out to those around us.  We can speak words of comfort to those in need; we can support a child through charitable agencies; we can cultivate friendship; we can learn the names of those asking for spare change as we put the money into their hand and ask them to pray for us in return.   Ultimately, of course, it is not about how many people remember us after we are gone, but whether God remembers us, making our memory to be eternal in His Kingdom.  But God asks us even now to reach out to others, and give ourselves according to ability and opportunity to the people He puts across our path and in our life.  There are many opportunities; we walk through soft sand.  In such sand, we can, if we choose, leave many footprints.
            One last thing:  I invite you to light a candle and say a prayer for my old playmate, for he has no one else to do so.  His name is Rick.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What's Wrong with Westboro Baptist Church?

                In answer to this question, one is tempted to ask rhetorically, “Where to begin?”  Westboro Baptist Church, as my Wikipedia friends tell me, is the independent Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas that has become famous for (in the words of Wikipedia) “its extreme ideologies, especially those against homosexuality, and its protest activities, which include picketing funerals of American servicemen and desecrating the American flag".  A Google search easily reveals their abundant use of protest signs, which declare, among other things, “God hates fags”, “Pray for more dead soldiers”, “God hates you”, “God hates Jews”, and “Israel is doomed”.  There is more, but you get the idea.  The general message is one of hate.  Given this insanity of what is essentially a cult, it is not surprising that Baptist organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention have taken pains to distance themselves from them, and to stress that they have no connection with Westboro Baptist.  
Westboro Baptist is part of the American culture war.  As a Canadian, I am happy to sit out the culture war raging south of my border, though I sometimes find myself being read as if I am taking part in it.  By “culture war” I mean the highly politicized dichotomy in America, which pits conservative against liberal, Republican against Democrat, and insists upon dividing all people into one of these two camps on the basis of certain issues, such as their stand on gun control or gay rights.  In this war, if one says something against gay marriage, for example, it is assumed that one therefore votes Republican, opposes public health care, and belongs to the NRA.  As a Canadian writing in a very different environment, I resist such a dichotomy, but often am still slotted into one of the two opposing camps.  This in itself sometimes makes me want to write next to nothing, and only offer up recipes for making prosphora. But my mandate as a preacher and presbyter compels me to speak the truth according to our Orthodox Tradition, even if my words are sometimes misunderstood as contributions to a political quarrel in which I am happy not to be involved.  It means looking at many things in our culture, trying to understand them, and to offer an Orthodox perspective.  So, what’s the deal with Westboro Baptist?
Their main message seems to be that America is involved in sin, and that therefore God will judge the nation for it.  It is true, of course, that God does judge a nation for its sins, and that events on the international stage represent in some way the outworking of God’s judgments.  We see this is Scriptures such as Amos 9:7:  “Have I not brought up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?”  That is, God was not only involved in the fortunes and founding of Israel, but also in the fortunes and establishment of the pagan Philistines and the pagan Syrians.  He was thus not only the God of His covenant People Israel, but also the God of all the earth, and whatever happened on the world stage reflected in some way His over-arching purposes.  
Moreover, the prophets declared that the judgments and disasters experienced by Israel were the result of His judgment on their sin.  Isaiah declared, “Your land is desolate, your cities are burned with fire, your fields—strangers are devouring them in your presence...If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land, but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword” (Is. 1:7, 19-20).  It is true, therefore, that God does judge a land, any land, for its sins.  The prophets have said so.
This is just the problem with the Westboro Baptist sign-carriers:  they are not prophets.  Amos, Isaiah, and the other prophets could declare to Israel that this or that disaster was the result of this or that sin, because God had told them so.  They could declare that the Assyrian victory over Israel was the result of northern Israel’s idolatry and Baal worship, because that was what Yahweh had said.  They could declare that God had brought the Philistines from Caphtor (i.e. Crete), because God told them that He had.  They could declare the Word of the Lord, because they were prophets, and had received the Word from the Lord.  But so far as anyone can tell, the Lord has never spoken a word to Westboro Baptist as He spoke to His prophets, and so they have no inside track on whether or not (for example) the deaths of American soldiers abroad represent the judgment and punishment of God.  They only have their own private opinions, and cannot presume to speak for God about matters of international or national judgment.  It seems to this writer that the Westboro Baptist people are expressing not the inner counsels of God, but rather only their own right-wing frustration with certain events taking place in America.  Rather than public protest, I would advise private (very private) prayer, and perhaps switching to decaf.  
Westboro Baptist in fact offers us all a cautionary tale.  Our task as a Church and as members of it is to proclaim the Gospel, by word and deed.  And the Gospel is not “God hates sin” (though He does), but rather “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”.  Our basic message to the sinner and outsider is, “Jesus loves you.”  All are called to embrace this Gospel message through repentance and faith, but the focus of our preaching is not on the heinousness of sin, but on the love of the Saviour.  All sin is sin, but who is to say whether or not God finds the sins of the homosexual in Hollywood more grievous than the sins of the greedy on Wall Street?  Not being a prophet myself, I have no idea, and the question itself has, I suspect, no meaning.  For the whole point of acknowledging the heinousness of sin is for me to repent of my own sins, and to help those committed to my pastoral care to repent of theirs.  As St. Paul says, “What have I to do with judging outsiders?” (1 Cor. 5:12).  Our task is to tell the outsiders that God loves them, that His kindness may lead them to repentance (Rom. 2:4) and that they may join us and become insiders, and heirs of the love of God.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Being On the Front Line

         From the days of St. Paul, the Church has been compared to an army.  Paul regularly used military language to describe the Christian life, talking about “taking every thought captive” using “the weapons of our warfare” (2 Cor. 10:3-5), and about “putting on the armour of God” in their “fight against principalities and powers, the spiritual armies of evil in the heavenlies” (Eph. 6:11f).  All this martial imagery reveals that the Christian Faith is not simply a philosophy, requiring of us nothing more than reciting timeless truisms and uncontroversial bits of moral advice.  Our message to the world is not “A little hard work never did anyone any harm”, or “A stitch in time saves nine”.   Our message is “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand”, and delivering this message requires our involvement in conflict.  As St. Paul and the martyrs who came after him all knew, preaching the truth is a bloody affair.  We are involved in a warfare, requiring spiritual weapons and armour, and when we preach the truth, some people are not going to like what we say.  There is nothing for it:  accepting baptism means enlisting in an army, and soldiers in an army are called to fight.   
That is the difficult task given to all of us as we give our witness around the office water-cooler or at school—to fight, but to be inwardly gentle, to speak the truth, but to do it in love, to be at the same time both serpents and doves (see Mt. 10:16).  Sometimes we find the task too much for us, and we cannot keep the proper balance of both truth and love.  We err on either one side or the other:   we speak the truth boldly, but with anger, or we keep a gentle attitude, but compromise our proclamation of the truth for fear of offending someone.  It’s hard to get the proper balance (as many websites prove), but that remains our task nonetheless.  And the first step in fulfilling the task is to acknowledge that we are involved in a war, requiring of us both truth and love.
Many Christians, dear gentle souls that they are, are simply not up for it.  They look at the controversy swirling around them in our society with all its sound and fury, its anger and denunciation, and want out of the whole thing.  I do sympathize.  Reading certain websites or blogs sometimes makes me also want to opt out of the whole mess and find a monastery garden somewhere to hide in.  But this temptation must be resisted, for it involves going spiritually AWOL.  The war is not over, and we do not have the luxury of laying down our arms before it is.   Regardless of how the others at the office or in the classroom react, we have to stay in the battle and continue to speak the truth in love.
The first question to be answered is:  What truth?  What challenge needs to be answered?  That is, in what areas might we be called upon to give our witness?  What is the main issue with which the Church must grapple today? Where is the front line?
The front line varies from age to age.  In the second century, the challenge came from the Gnostics, people whose rival systems of thought incorporated the person of Christ into their own essentially pagan view of the cosmos.  People like Irenaeus were on the front line to answer them (he was recognized as “Saint Irenaeus” after the battle was done).  In the fourth century and after, the front line was the Christological question of the nature of Jesus of Nazareth, and the main opponents to be answered were the Arians, who said that Jesus was not truly divine.  Later on the front line was drawn over the question of the legitimacy of images, and the iconoclasts were the ones who needed answering. 
It is important for the church leaders to know where the front line is today.  It is no use for them to keep on telling the modern World that icons are okay.  The front line has shifted, and icons are no longer the issue.  Leaders must identify the current area of challenge to Christian faith in order to successfully commend that faith to the world.  If we refuse to engage the world, fewer from the world will be converted to Christ, and we will lose our children, for the world is asking questions that our children are listening to, and we must provide both the world and our children with the answers.
Whether we like it or not, today these questions center around sexuality and gender.  The front line today is not drawn over questions of Christology or icons, and our children are not in danger of becoming Arians or iconoclasts.  The world’s frontal assault on our Faith is no longer theological.  Movies and magazines and columns and blogs do not revolve around the question of the homoousios or the Filioque clause in the Creed.  They do revolve around questions of sex.  Is gay marriage acceptable?  Is casual sex okay?  Is virginity unnatural?  May women be ordained to the priesthood?  Is homosexuality a valid alternative lifestyle?  What about trans-gender?  What about the explosive growth of the pornography industry?  What about the pervasive use of sexual images around us?  We may duck these issues and refuse to meaningfully engage in the debates, but the debate will continue in our society nonetheless, and will eventually make inroads in the Church, whereas we have been called to make inroads in the World. That is why this debate is not just a debate, but also the front line in a battle.  If we refuse to deal with these issues, the enemy will push us back and our children will fall prey to an alien ideology and a harmful way of life.
One thing is certain:  if we speak the truth, people will get upset.  Being upset, they will stigmatize us as narrow, talk about us behind our backs, and exclude us from the “cool” parties.  Depending upon the situation, they may also write letters, make phone calls, send emails, start Facebook groups, write blogs, and argue in online forums.  There is no use bemoaning this, or trying to speak in such a way that no one will be offended.  Truth always offends, and it always divides.  It divides those who are teachable from those who are not, those who respond to the call to conform their lives to the Gospel from those who refuse.  Ultimately it will divide the sheep from the goats.  But it always divides.  A Church which never says anything divisive or anything offensive is a Church which has failed its duty to speak the truth, and a Christian who is afraid of controversy is like a solider who is afraid of the sound of gunfire:  he may be a swell fellow, but he needs to get off the battlefield and stop calling himself a soldier—or a Christian. Before we open our mouths to speak, we must settle it in our minds that if we speak the Gospel faithfully, someone somewhere will be offended.  It is sad when our message offends the World.  But there is one comfort we may take from it—the offense taken confirms that we have said something worth saying, and that we have been heard.