Ancient Answers


3 Comments

The Times They Are a-Changin’

 

Yesterday, March 24th, the nation saw hundreds of thousands of young people rally against gun violence. The largest rally was in the nation’s capital, where perhaps as many as 800,000 turned out. I started watching just as Ryan Deitsch was addressing the rally in Washington. As I watched this young man, I said, I need to DVR this, this is sermon material. And it was sermon material. And it is my sermon today. I rewound the DVR several times to transcribe part of his statement: “I know a lot of people out there are saying we need to make America safe again, and I know that we can. We cannot make America safe again until we arm our teachers”- and here there was a brief moment of confused reaction from the crowd, which then turned to growing cheers as Ryan Deitsch continued – “We need to arm our teachers! We need to arm them with pencils, pen, paper, and the money they need to support their families and themselves before they can support the future in those classrooms, to support the future that sits down in those desks waiting to learn. And we need to arm our students too, we need to arm them with the facts and the knowledge and the education that they need to live in the real world, not just some fantasy.”

He raised his cell phone as if to tell the world, watch out, we are connected to each other and truth. Teenagers are masters of social media, and if social media can elect a president in 2016, social media can create a revolution. And teenagers can do it.

He concluded like this: “Thank you. And hello Uncle Miron.” Leave it to teenagers to be real, and they were all real. A young woman worked up so much emotion that she threw up! After she recovered and returned to the microphone, she laughed as she shouted, “I just threw up on international television, and it feels great!” As I said, these young people were very real. She then led the huge crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to a young man who had been senselessly murdered in front of her at the Parkland high school. And she still had marks on her face from shrapnel at the high school shooting.

I admire every single young man and woman who spoke yesterday. Their eloquence and passion were beyond anything adults are capable of. And we had a large rally here in Portland, and in 800 other cities and towns. I hope some of these young people will go to Washington some day and really drain the swamp!

I watched a young man from Chicago, a survivor of violence in that great city. And he spoke with the fervor of a black preacher:

Violence cannot drive out violence. Only peace can do that.

Poverty cannot drive out poverty. Only resources can do that.

Death cannot drive out death. Only proactive life can do that.

Wow! And he went on to quote Ephesians and 1 Peter and called for loud responses from his listeners. For a moment those 800,000 youths were in church! A black church, to be sure.

The silence that Emma Gonzalez led in remembrance of the 6:20 time span during which the shooting rampage lasted at the Parkland high school was powerful, emotional and intense, prompting occasional outbursts from some of the young people present, probably to release the pent-up anger and grief. Moments like that are rare on television.

Speaking of television, two news channels covered the speeches by the young people without commercials. One other news channel preferred to show adults talking about the march. Perhaps they were concerned that the young speakers would say something that would offend the sensitive ears of their viewers. Most adults prefer to listen to adults instead of the young.

Many of us wonder why young people are leaving our church – our churches! Because churches also do not listen to youth. Yes, we enjoy their Sunday School and Greek School presentations. But then what? And I’m not asking what programs we have for them. The kids are a program to themselves! They’re not interested in what dances and entertainments we can organize for them. As Marjory Stoneman Douglas senior Delaney Tarr put it, “We are not here for breadcrumbs, we are here to lead.”. That’s their message to the churches as well. Are we listening?

The Archdiocese organizes the St. John Chrysostom Oratorical Festival every year – a well-meaning event and some of our young people have participated. But the topics are handed out from which young people are to choose – instead of letting them speak whatever they want to speak about. So the results are the same – young people parroting what old men speak and want to hear back. And I too am an old man now.

As the rally drew toward its close, Jennifer Hudson sang the great Bob Dylan song, The Times They Are A-Changin’. Dylan wrote the song 55 years ago, but it is just as relevant today. Listen.

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

My generation, the 1960s generation, rebelled, but the rebellion quickly turned to drugs and abortions. Even Bob Dylan threw in the towel, and turned into something else…and something else again… and something else again…and something else again. See, my generation liked to reinvent itself every few years. It’s part of the self-realization nonsense that so many Baby Boomers bought into. Find your bliss, and all that. I hope and pray that the young people I watched yesterday will not need to reinvent themselves any time soon. They are already fully mature and they don’t need any adult to tell them how to make their message more effective, more balanced, more acceptable to the adults, to those 60s rebels, my age group, who are now the swamp. I have great hope for these young people as they become politicized. They could bring the change the world needs – if they resist the pull of the swamp. Because as David Hogg, one of the leaders of the rally, put it yesterday near the end, everyone can be corrupted. I pray that these kids will not be corrupted.

They are the generation that knows how to use technology and social media. This generation make up 25% of the population at present and will make up one third of US population in 2020. Washington better start paying attention to them. Will the church pay attention, or will we close our doors when our populations die out? Will the church be a place where young people can find spiritual support? Not advice, support! And if not, then the church should do what Bob Dylan sang:

Your old road is
Rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.


1 Comment

Stephen Hawking is now one with the Universe

No scientist since Albert Einstein has captured the public imagination and spotlight like Stephen Hawking. Diagnosed with ALS at the age of 21, doctors gave him two more years of life; he defied all odds and lived another 55 years, during which he transformed our understanding of the universe. He is now one with the universe that he roamed and explored with his mind.

 

It was close to midnight last night. I was working on some Bible Study notes with the TV playing in the background, on a so-called “news channel” that talked on and on about Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump and other such non-entities, when suddenly Brian Williams interrupted his own unimportance to announce that Stephen Hawking had died. I immediately went to my favourite source for news, The Guardian newspaper of London, and already there was a front page story on their website. It is well worth reading.

I referred to Stephen Hawking last Sunday in my sermon, which I also posted here. I referred to his search for a “theory of everything” with the hope that he and his fellow physicists will indeed discover such a theory. It will have to be other physicists who will continue the search. As a follower of Jesus Christ – I’m trying to avoid over-using the term “Christian” as it has become so defamed and trite in contemporary American society – I find the Cross at the heart of the universe. There is a spiritual heart to the universe that goes beyond the theories of physicists. Hawking, like Einstein before him, never achieved the dream of finding the “theory of everything”, but he is now one with that “everything”, and I bet he now sees the “cross” that is at the heart of everything.

Hawking was to all intents and purposes an atheist, and he cared nothing for what the Evangelical thought police would say about him. He roamed the universe with his brilliant mind and enabled us to roam with him. That was one of his greatest gifts to us: he opened our imagination to the infinite reaches of the cosmos. One famous Christian rebel of the 1960s coined the phrase, “Your God is Too Small.” Indeed, the Christian god had become too small for Stephen Hawking to believe in. Just think of the meanness and narrow-mindedness of the Evangelical god; or the Orthodox god whom we call upon to bless our ethnicities. Can I blame Stephen Hawking for rejecting what most “Christians” call “God”? I believe that now that he is one with the universe he finds there a God more worthy of his belief. The cross of Jesus Christ is an invitation to lay aside all our pre-conceptions of God and to throw off the mental shackles of religiosity.

Hawking had a beautiful mind. He stated what his own goal and purpose in life was: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” His children quote him as saying, “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.” Amen to that. He probed the universe with his intellectual powers, and beyond all the intricate mathematics that he worked with his brain he found love at the core of the universe’s meaning and purpose. That is the love that moves the stars. At the very end of the Divine Comedy, in Canto 33 of Paradiso, Dante wrote:

ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle. (Par. 33.143-45)

but my desire and will were moved already—

like a wheel revolving uniformly—by

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Dante, writing his massive 3-part “poem” 700 years ago, saw the unity in diversity that exists in the universe, a unity manifested and sustained by God. The universe is our home, and love is at the heart of the universe, the reason why the universe exists. Hawking saw that as he reflected on his own loved ones. God sees Love at the heart of the universe as He contemplates His Son and the Cross of His Son. There is mystery upon mystery… and beauty.

“Hawking was driven to Wagner, but not the bottle, when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 1963 at the age of 21.” Nicely stated by the Guardian article. I love Richard Wagner’s operas more than any other music or any other intellectual pursuits, and it warms my heart to know that Hawking was a fellow Wagnerian. But the same man who loved Wagner also became a pop-culture star, appearing in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, where he appeared in a holodeck poker game with Einstein and Isaac Newton, and several episodes of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where he enjoyed hilarious interactions with Sheldon Cooper and his nerd friends. He even appeared in animated form on The Simpsons. YouTube has a great compilation video of Hawking’s appearances in these shows. He lived according to his own motto: “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”

Stephen Hawking with the cast of The Big Bang Theory

The Guardian website has a great collection of pictures to illustrate the life of Stephen Hawking: here.

And the official obituary in The Guardian today was written by a fellow great physicist, Roger Penrose: “Mind over matter

I conclude my own homage to Stephen Hawking with some of his memorable quotes:

  • “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus”.
  • “People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
  • “I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first.”
  • “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
  • “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

Hawking lost his ability to speak and had to communicate through computerised voice synthesis. In an age such as ours where fewer and fewer people bother to communicate with coherent thought and sentences, Hawking was a master communicator, able to express the deepest mysteries of the universe in ways that even children could understand. At a time when talk has become cheap or is being replaced by social media and trivial texts and tweets and when people don’t talk but shout at each other from inside their political and religious bubbles, Hawking’s advice is more needed than ever:

  • “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Rest in the Love that moves the stars, Stephen Hawking!


1 Comment

The Community Approach

 

How do we recognise Jesus? Do we expect him to look like we see him in our icons?

Icons are a very important part of our Orthodox tradition – so important that this First Sunday of Lent commemorates the restoration of icons in the year 843, after a long period of iconoclasm. But icons can also limit our ability and freedom to recognise Jesus! “When did we see you, Lord?” we might end up crying out, as they do in the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46)

The answer Jesus himself offers in that parable is that we see him in the least of his brothers and sisters. But he is not only a brother to the least; he is also our brother. We need him as much as any of the least!

Let’s pick up the story of the Emmaus walk on that first Easter afternoon, from where we left off last week. The two disciples are walking to Emmaus and Jesus joins them on the road, but they don’t recognise him. They are sad and confused about what has happened to Jesus those last few days…

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Walking with the two disciples, still unrecognised by them, Jesus responds to their sadness and confusion by going back to the scriptures – meaning, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. The two disciples are intrigued by how this stranger understood the scriptures, so they ask him to spend the night at the inn where they are staying for the night. They sit down for dinner. And that’s where it happens. “He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them” – and their eyes were opened. They immediately recognised him – but just as immediately he vanished from their sight.

“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” Yes their hearts burned on the road, he touched them deeply as he opened their eyes to the meaning of the scriptures. But they only recognised him at the table, when he blessed and broke the bread and gave it to them. They immediately remembered how he did the same when he fed thousands, every time he sat down to eat with his disciples, and how he took the bread, blessed, broke it and gave it to them at the last supper.

It was at dinner that they recognised him. It’s always a dinner at the heart of Jesus’ teaching – a communal meal. We recognise Jesus when we are a community. When two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with you,” he promised. The two disciples going to Emmaus were two, and he came to them. We are two, three, fifty-three… We are a community, a communion – koinonia. Not just a community as an incorporated entity,. but a living organic communion of people – diverse in so many ways, but united by the presence and bread of Christ.

This past week I considered many reactions to the recent school shooting in Florida. One came in a New York Times column yesterday. The writer made an interesting connection between gun massacres and the opioid crisis. He concludes that the root cause of both crises is isolation. Specifically with respect to guns, over many years of research, he found the same description of assailants: a lost, isolated, unbalanced (usually white) young man with legal access to firearms. Isolated, rootless. And this NYT writer points to what is lacking: Community! “All this, in other words, is a community approach to a plague feeding on our isolation. Mass murder calls for the same.”

“A community approach”! When the “failing” New York Times starts talking about “community”, you know some important awareness is growing in our society of individualism. Drugs, mass shootings – “symptoms of our culture of isolation, in which we’ve lost the habit of collaborating with our neighbours.”

Dear friends, fellow believers in Christ Jesus. For many years my friend Leon Nicholas, a child of our churchcommunity and one of my altar boys years ago, has been telling me exactly the same thing: Rootless, isolated teenagers and young men are the ones most likely to go on a shooting rampage and the easy availability of deadly weapons makes it all too easy for them. Imagine, teenagers can’t drink legally but they can buy weapons of mass destruction. Of course they still drink – illegally – but that’s not an excuse for not changing some of the laws applying to gun purchases.

No, Leon has been right all these years that we have discussed social problems, and we talked again yesterday over coffee. Community is the key. An actual eucharistic community, that meets regularly, shares the same meal that Jesus shared with those disciples, and works together to manifest the grace and peace that only Christ can give. The peace that is beyond human understanding (Philippians 4:7).


Leave a comment

An Ash Wednesday of Sin and Horror

Among the most poignant scenes from yesterday’s carnage in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday were grieving and anxious parents with ashes on their forehead. Yesterday, of course, was Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent for Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. This is how the website bibleinfo.com summarizes the meaning of Ash Wednesday: Roman Catholic churches of the Latin Rite use this service to prepare church members to better appreciate the death and resurrection of Christ through self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial. Ashes from the burned palms of the preceding year’s Palm Sunday are blessed. With these ashes, the priest marks a cross on the foreheads of worshipers, saying, “Remember, man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19 KJV). Besides showing sorrow for their sins, those who honor Ash Wednesday add an additional meaning; the need to prepare for a holy death.

Yesterday was indeed a day of huge sin and a horrible encounter with death. So many young lives, full of promise and energy, cut down by the bullets of one angry, hate-filled youth! The images of parents with ashes on their foreheads were a blunt reminder that we are very much a human race that is still sunk in sin, despite the salvation and grace that God poured upon us through the death and resurrection of his Son. Lent is the time in which we prepare to confront the death and resurrection of Christ every year. But Christ told us last Sunday that he is in every one of the least of his brothers and sisters, and what we do to the least of his brothers and sisters we do unto him. It was Christ who was murdered yesterday in those 17 lives. Not just a liturgical commemoration of his death this time; but an actual, dark reminder that we live in a death-culture society. Yes, I’m sorry if that strikes some of you as an exaggeration or unnecessarily pessimistic, but there is no other word for it that I can think of. We are a death-culture society!

Death has become a constant in our society: Gun deaths, terrorist deaths, drug-induced deaths, poverty-driven deaths, refugee deaths, unborn deaths, environmental death and deaths…and the death of morality, of civic responsibility, of communication, of accountable political leadership…Need I go on? Flags at half mast. Have you noticed how many times flags are at half mast every year? Yes, half mast. It doesn’t cost anything to fly flags at half mast. A sign of national humility? Perhaps. But the arrogance comes right back up a few days later. And the forgetfulness. We shrug our shoulders and move on – until the next round of bullets at a school or at a concert or a party or a troubled home. Nothing changes, except the statistics which become more brutal every year. Second Amendment they say. I can assure you that the Founding Fathers of this nation never envisaged a future such as ours or weapons such as ours in the hands of teenagers and people with mental problems.

Talk about gun deaths in this country and you’ll be criticised for now getting “political”. “Political” – a nice label people resort to when they don’t want to confront reality. I weep with those parents with ashes – and the many others without ashes – in Parkland, Florida. I wish the Orthodox Church had an Ash Wednesday to start Lent. Every year, it’s becoming more and more clear that there are forces that aim to foreshorten human life and to return us to dust and ashes prematurely. Let’s make this Lent a time not for self-improvement and weight loss, but a time for reaching out to this death culture to transform it in any small way we can. Make this Lent a time to reach out to anyone who is troubled, to someone who is alone and needs the human touch, a kind word, a positive vision of life. Although I’m pessimistic about the death culture around us, I’m very optimistic about our power to transform it. Let’s make this Lent a time of resurrection power in the midst of sin and death.

Agape and Shalom to you today.


Leave a comment

Jesus, the Good Samaritan

In recent weeks we have seen a constant stream of allegations of sexual misconduct against prominent men. One of these is Judge Roy Moore who is running to be elected to a Senate seat in a special election in Alabama next month.

It’s not for political reasons that I mention him. I mention him because of the way the Bible has been used in defending him! One of his supporters, the Alabama state auditor, Jim Ziegler, offered this shocking defence: “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

Did you ever imagine the Bible – the Gospels specifically – could or would be used to defend possibly criminal behaviour? I don’t know whether Roy Moore is guilty or not, and that’s not my point here. I’m just shocked that the story of Joseph and Mary could be used in such a way. In fact, the Bible does not give Mary’s age, but she could very well have been a teenager according to the norms of her society. But again, that’s not the point. Before we dump on the Bible illiterates of the Bible Belt let’s be honest with how Mary has been used in our own Orthodox tradition to keep women in subjugation.

As one commentator put it, when Christians cite the Bible to defend child molestation, Jesus should sue for defamation.

And an attempt at defamation is what led to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer, νομικός, approached Jesus to test him – the verb ἐκπειράζων can mean to test – as in the standard English translations of the Bible – but it can also mean to trap, as in an argument, to tempt, to incriminate. All the meanings are negative, confrontational. This lawyer was a member of the segment of society that was always out to attack and catch Jesus in his words in order to incriminate him and defame him. This was not an innocent questioner.

When Jesus dialogues with him in the conventional manner that any rabbi would have done, the lawyer goes further and asks the provocative question. “And who is my neighbor?” I imagine a cynical tone in the lawyer’s question – like Pilate’s “What is truth?” He asked in order to justify himself, Luke’s Gospel tells us, δικαιῶσαι ἑαυτὸν.

The question Who is my neighbor? is satanic, in Bonhoeffer’s opinion:

“Who is my neighbor? The whole story of the Good Samaritan is Jesus’ singular rejection and destruction of this question as satanic. It is rebellion against God’s commandment itself, [as if to say] I want to be obedient, but God will not tell me how I can be so. The question What should I do? was the first betrayal. The answer is: do the commandment that you know. The question Who is my neighbor? is the question in which disobedience justifies itself. The answer is: You yourself are the neighbor. Go and be obedient in acts of love…

It is the question of disobedience that seeks to justify itself. Who is my neighbor is precisely the lynchpin upon which the gospel of Jesus Christ hangs. It is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, the teaching aimed at reforming the human heart. Because the neighbor is not just the family next door on your street with whom you exchange the occasional greeting. The neighbor is the complete stranger, the foreigner, the one whose religion you don’t respect. Samaritans were hated by the Jews, and vice versa. And yet, it was a Samaritan who stopped to help a wounded Jew.

An icon of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, showing all the events in the parable and with Jesus as the Samaritan!

Jesus as the Good Samaritan.

In many icons of this parable, Jesus himself is represented as the Samaritan. And there is profound truth in that. He is the stranger in our midst. He is the foreigner. We have moved so far from his teaching that we wouldn’t recognize him if he stood among us. But he comes to us every time we read one of his parables. He comes to us and knocks at the locked doors of our hearts and asks to enter. To become the neighbor who will take care of our wounds and lead us to wholeness. He is the Good Samaritan and we are the wounded by the side of the road.


Leave a comment

Our privacy for sale

In case anyone still has doubts as to who rules our lives, consider this: Today the US Congress voted to kill privacy rules which would have prevented Internet providers from selling our online habits and personal data. Because of this act of Congress, there will be no limits to the amount of advertising that will clutter our computer screens or pop up while you’re trying to read something online. Our medical information, our political preferences, and much more can now be sold to any corporation at any price. Privacy is gone forever. This is just another example of how deeply corporations control our lives. I wrote about powers and principalities the other day. Here is a perfect example of the powers and principalities at work. Corporations working with Congress and White House to undermine what is left of our democratic ideals. And all for what? Money.

The Guardian newspaper – one of the best newspapers in the world – has two excellent articles about what all this means for every one of us:

US consumers lose privacy protections for their web browsing history

Your browsing history may be up for sale soon. Here’s what you need to know