Saturday, January 18, 2014

Crossing the Border

            Living near the U.S.-Canadian border and having friends in a northern border town in Washington State, I often cross the border.  This usually involves waiting in long line-ups, which gives even people like me who have nothing to hide plenty of time to get nervous at the prospect of stern interrogation.  I don’t know why I am nervous.  Perhaps it is my reaction to armed people in uniform asking odd questions (“Do you have any tattoos?”); perhaps it is their authority to disassemble my vehicle on a whim.  Anyway, I always take care to remove my sunglasses, look them straight in the eye, and have my story prepared as to why I want to enter their country.  The long wait gives me lots of opportunity to read the rules they have prominently posted:  I am not allowed to bring fire-arms into their country, or $10,000 without declaring it.  (No problem; I do not own a fire-arm, nor do I have $10,000 in spare change.)  On my last trip, I took the opportunity to think of the final border crossing, the one that all of us must make, whether or not we ever leave our home-town.    
            I refer of course to the passage from this life to the next, passing through the border between life and death, and ushering us into what Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”.  Concerning that final and compulsory border crossing, I would like to offer two brief thoughts.
            Firstly, like crossing the border into the U.S., there are certain things we are not allowed to take with us.  Money is the most famous one, as proverbial wisdom has always told us that “you can’t take it with you”, and that there are no pockets in a shroud.  (One Christian wag added that you can, however, send it on ahead through almsgiving, and store up treasures in heaven that way.)  But there are things besides money that we cannot take with us as we cross over.  Unforgiveness, for example.  The Lord was quite clear that unless we forgave our neighbour we would not be forgiven ourselves, and we are not allowed to drag our hatreds into the Kingdom with us and nurse them through all eternity.  Better to forgive now in this life and drop such wretched baggage before we reach the final border.   
Another item that will find no place in the age to come is the self-absorption that often dominates our life.  We often live as if we were the center of universe, and so will be unprepared to enjoy the age to come where we will find that God is actually the center of the universe.  If we do not retain and cultivate a hunger for Him, heaven will not be that heavenly for us.  Our eternal joy consists of transcending ourselves, and putting away once and for all our little obsessions with our rights, and looking to Him.  A self-absorption which refuses to re-direct our gaze from ourselves to Him has no place in that blessed undiscovered country.  None of this should come as any surprise to Christians.  Like the U.S. border at which I cross, the rules of the Kingdom are also prominently posted, and are read to us at every Sunday Liturgy in the form of the Epistle and Gospel.

            Secondly, we need not be nervous at the prospect of that final border crossing.  It is true that the quality of our life will then be revealed, so that we will hear our voices as they really sounded to others and find out a little more about what kind of people we really were (that is, I think, the point behind talk of heavenly toll-houses).  But if we have truly given our lives to God and have striven to repent of our sins as best we could, living as disciples of Jesus in His holy Church, we may face that final crossing in peace.  There will still be judgment, of course, so that we may learn the whole truth about ourselves and our actions, and “receive good or evil, according to what we have done” (2 Cor. 5:10).  But our repentant faith and God’s grace assure our entry.  That is why Christ’s message is called “good news”, for He has opened the Kingdom to all who truly love Him.  We have His word on it:  “He who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life; he does not come into condemnation, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:24).  When our time comes to wait in the line-up to cross over that final border (perhaps lying in a hospital bed), that will be a good word on which to dwell.  Our hope remains in the Cross of Christ, and the shining love of God.  It is the prospect of entering more fully into that shining love that makes even the final border crossing a good thing.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

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, Alleluia!" (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, January 5, 2014

Before Opening Your Bible

          Not too long ago I opened a Bible and was saddened by what I read.  For there, on the initial fly-leaf, were written in beautiful calligraphic script the words, “Presented to Cathy Ruth by Mom and Dad, April 18, 1993”. In the subsequent pages allowing space for the recording of marriages and deaths, I also found a number of names and dates, commemorating those events.  The reason I was sad to read the dedication to Cathy Ruth by Mom and Dad is that I found and purchased this Bible at the local Value Village for $1.99.   (I have altered the actual name, just in case “Cathy” is reading this.)
            Of course I have no idea of what might have led Cathy Ruth to junk her Bible, giving it to Value Village perhaps along with old Harlequin novels and tapes of (how’s your memory?) “Rhythm & News”.  Perhaps she is continuing in zealous service of her Lord and now has so many Bibles she needs to lighten the load on her library shelf, but given that this volume was given to her by her parents, I think this unlikely.  A more likely scenario is that Cathy Ruth has drifted away from her youthful faith and now values that Bible no more than she values old copies of Harlequin romances and tapes of the boys’ bands she once listened to.  How does this happen?  How does one go from opening one’s Bible and reading with compunction to throwing it into a box for donation to Value Village?
            It all depends upon how we read the Bible.  Do we read it like we are performing a chore?  Do we consider Scripture-reading a duty, something we do to please God, who for some inexplicable reason insists that we read religious literature we find boring as a kind of podvig?  If so, it is not surprising that we find persevering in that task difficult, and would be only too relieved to be done with it all.  If we read our Bible as a duty and nothing more, it is all but certain that it will soon acquire a coat of dust and end up at Value Village.  But there is another way to read the Scriptures.
            That way is to focus on love for Christ and not performance of duty as the central motivation of our life.  We then will not think in terms of duties (or “works”, to use Pauline terminology), or of things we must do to get on God’s good side.  Rather, we think only of Christ and of our relationship with Him.  The first question to be faced before ever thinking of opening a Bible is:  “Do you know and love Jesus?”  Is Jesus simply an historical figure, with whom you have no real relationship, and thus on par with other historical figures, such as Socrates or the Buddha?  Or do you really know Him, and find in His love for you the reason for your existence?  This latter is the only way for a Christian, and without this relationship with the living Christ our Orthodoxy is simply a sham.   This issue must be faced and resolved before beginning to seriously read the Bible, for the Bible is addressed only to those who have given their lives to God.  Reading Scripture seriously before we have given ourselves to Jesus is like reading someone else’s mail—it is no wonder that we can make little sense of it and quickly lose interest.
            When we have given our lives to Jesus we then find the Bible a different book than we first thought it was.  We now read the Old Testament to find Jesus there—hidden in typology and symbol, foreshadowed in Israel’s experiences, seen from afar by the prophets.  We read the New Testament to draw near to the Lord we have come to know—nourishing our hearts with His teaching in the Gospels, hearkening to the advice of His apostles in their letters which tell us how to serve Him better.  Once we have surrendered our lives to Him, our central aim will be to know Him more and more.  Reading the Scriptures will then be urgently relevant to our own needs and desires, for it addresses itself to our condition and tells us how to arrive at the destination we ourselves have chosen. 
            As we grow older and go through life’s stages, we of course undergo many changes.  Books we once read with interest now have little to say to us, and our taste in music and fashion changes.  (People of my vintage would not, I think, be happy to be seen wearing “bell-bottoms”.)  But not everything is subject to flux and change.  Some things abide and deepen with age—things such as appreciation of good music and literature, such as admiration for courage and self-sacrifice.   Our faith in Christ, if it is vital and real and if we nourish it so that it grows, will also abide—and with it, our joy in reading the Scriptures.  For those who truly know Jesus, it is unthinkable to turn away from Him and try to live without Him.  It is therefore equally unthinkable that we would discard as worthless something as important to our relationship with Him as our personal Bible—regardless of who gave it to us, and regardless of inscription on the fly-leaf.