Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity


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The Cross is not a political slogan

Living in Montreal and two other Canadian cities in the 1970s I became aware of the politics that ruled the Greek Orthodox churches in Canada. As a matter of fact, it came to the point, at least in Montreal, that the Hellenic Community administration that governed all the Greek churches of Montreal was split along the lines of the political parties of Greece!

The politicization of the church has been a fact since the unfortunate transformation that the emperor Constantine initiated. We are still living in the Constantinian era. And not only the Orthodox Church! Even those churches that do not consider Constantine as a saint are nevertheless living under the shadow cast by his reign.

Consider the 20th century. The official Lutheran Church in Germany quickly capitulated to Hitler, leaving only a small remnant of German Lutherans who remained loyal to the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than Nazi ideology. The Catholic Church in Spain supported the dictatorship of Franco; and in most Latin American countries supported and blessed ruthless dictatorships throughout most of the 20th century. Even in the Greece, the church embraced the dictatorship of the colonels, 1967-73,  and the slogan, <<Ελλάς Ελλήνων Χριστιανών>>, loosely translated as, “Greece, [the land] of Greeks, Christians”. I inserted “the land” which is not present in the original but is one of the ways it can be translated – the other way being “Greece, [for] Greeks, Christians.” I also separated Greeks and Christians by a comma to capture more of the flavor of the original. For the meaning is not that there are Greeks who are Christians – but Greeks ARE Christians. If someone is not a Christian he or she is not Greek, and hence not part of Greece. It was a slogan that perfectly expressed the marriage of church and state and the nationalist identity of every embedded member of that society.

The colonels’ slogan can be equally well applied to other societies. There is a very sizable segment of the US population who would subscribe to something similar for American society. It is all part and parcel of the politicization of Christianity that we have inherited from the fourth century revolution in church-state relationship.

Today politics define the Christian experience in this country to an increasingly alarming extent. Once a label has been attached to a person’s form of Christianity, that person is only allowed to support the politics that go with that label. So, for example, a “liberal” Christian cannot be liberal if he or she is against abortion. A “conservative” Christian cannot be conservative if he or she approves of same-sex marriage. If you were “evangelical” in 2016 you had to vote for Donald Trump; if you were “progressive” you had to vote for Hillary Clinton – you were a traitor to your label if you voted otherwise! So your political or religious label puts you in a straitjacket – hence the polarization that is quickly destroying the social fabric and the possibility of reasonable dialogue.

Nazi insignia combining key symbols, including the cross (click to enlarge).

Typical piece of Nazi “Christian” propaganda (click to enlarge)

This is a frightful situation. Allegiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ is replaced by allegiance to a political slogan or ideology. This is what the church did in Nazi Germany. Nazi Christians even represented the Cross inside or with the swastika! But there were a few Christians who did not fall in line – and many of them paid with their lives. The most famous of the resisters was the theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent two years in Nazi prisons but was quickly killed by order of Hitler in the last days of the war, as the Allies were about to enter Berlin. During his two years of imprisonment, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters and theological essays that were collected after his death by his close friend and relative, Eberhard Bethge. They were published under the title Letters and Papers from Prison, a book which I consider one of the most important books ever written by a Christian. It is a book well worth reading as the line between the cross and political and racist ideologies becomes increasingly blurred.

Like all citizens of a nation, Christians will have their own political views and preferences – but we do not have God’s permission to turn the Cross into a slogan or marry the gospel of Jesus Christ to any political ideology, left or right. Political engagement is important and necessary for Christians. But political engagement is tricky and treacherous. Better to be wrong in your politics than to be wrong in defending your politics with scripture! Venture with fear and trembling. And never assume that God agrees with your politics.

 


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We are not neutrinos!

 

On a recent trip to Germany we visited friends in the city Karlsruhe, a typical German city of medium size. I did not know at the time – but found out just days ago – that Karlsruhe is the site of a very important experiment in physics: the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino Experiment, Katrin for short. Its purpose is to find the mass of the neutrino – the most insignificant entity in the universe. Insignificant because for a long time it was believed to have no mass, but scientists now know that it has an extremely tiny mass. What is significant about neutrinos is that they are present everywhere. Every second, right now, billions of neutrinos pass through your body! Uncountable numbers have been left over from the Big Bang birth of the cosmos 13.8 billion years ago. There are more neutrinos in the universe than any other kind of particle, but because they do not interact with any type of matter, they are hard to detect and measure. Because they are present everywhere in huge numbers, their mass could determine the future of the universe. Will it continue to expand for ever, to all eternity, until it dies a cold death? Or will it stop expanding and perhaps even contract and collapse again?

The main spectrometer of Katrin on its way to Karlsruhe in 2006. The project is set to get under way in June 2018.

You might think that the fate of the universe countless billions or even trillions of years in the future is hardly something for us to be concerned about. How about the fate of your grandchildren or great-grandchildren a hundred years from now? Is that something you might want to be concerned about? Although the current administration in Washington does not believe in global warming and human-caused climate change, the White House did release last Friday an exhaustive scientific report put together by 13 federal agencies that says humans are the dominant cause of the global temperature rise that has created the warmest period in the history of civilization. The report says that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” that anything other than humans — the cars we drive, the power plants we operate, the forests we destroy — are to blame.

Will it change people’s minds about climate change? Will it change the position of the current administration, which allowed the release of this report?

Change of mind is a hard thing for humans. And that is why in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) we hear Abraham say to the rich man: ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.’

It is hard for humans to change our minds. It will be interesting to see what impact – if any – this newest report will have on public opinion and the politics of Washington.

The rich man did not change his ways, though he saw Lazarus every day at his doorstep. So also his brothers will not change their ways even if someone should rise from the dead. The human heart can be very hard, implacable.

Do we go through life like neutrinos, not interacting with what’s around us? Do we go through life like the rich man today, not caring for those who need our compassion? Do we go through life not caring how our lifestyles might be ruining the environment and the future life of our children and grandchildren? Those are good questions to ponder on today.

May the Lord preserve us from hard-heartedness. May the Lord continue to work on us, to give us soft hearts, compassionate hearts. We are not neutrinos!


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An Ordinary Saint

Back in November 2014 I came to Patra, Greece, for the funeral of my mother. Father Andrew at my mother’s parish church ushered me into the sanctuary and gave me vestments to wear so I could preside at my mother’s funeral service. So there I was, a clean-shaven priest from America between two local priests, both sporting typical long beards. Not for one moment did I feel out of place.

The funeral service was followed by a procession to the cemetery where the burial took place. There I encountered Father Mihalis and another priest, who preside at gravesite services. When they learned that I was a priest, they immediately insisted that I do the gravesite service. I didn’t have a book with me, so I went from memory, and they helped when I stumbled on a word or two. Again, a study in contrast, and again total acceptance, accommodation and priestly fellowship such as I have never encountered back home.

The two cemetery priests in 2014. Father Mihalis is on the right, with white beard.


Today I was back in my mother’s home parish for morning Liturgy. At the end of Liturgy we had a memorial service for her. Father Andrew was as kind as in 2014, though I chose not to put on vestments and participate in the Liturgy and memorial prayers. Later in the afternoon we drove to the cemetery, and there was Father Mihalis making his rounds. I immediately accosted him and asked him to come to my mother’s grave.

He showed some signs of recognition. I took out my iPhone and showed him the pictures of the Nov 2014 gravesite service. We started walking to my mother’s grave and he began to introduce me to other people that we passed. I at one point told him to stop doing that, and he was surprised. Why are you nervous? You’re an Orthodox priest and it’s a blessing for people to know you! A woman went to kiss my hand – something very common among Orthodox people – and I pulled back. Don’t be like that, he gently said to me.

I completely surrendered to his loving care. Both in 2014 and today I worried that people would think less of me because I’m from America, clean shaven with short hair, looking nothing like a Greek Orthodox priest. And yet not a single person in 2014 or today even remotely looked at me with any disapproval. So who was more caught up with external appearances – I or Father Mihalis and the people he was introducing me to? The answer was clear!

Father Mihalis is very special. He is an ordinary saint. I couldn’t stop embracing him today. The church canonizes extraordinary men and women and calls them Saints. They might be martyrs for the faith, ascetics and great spiritual masters, renowned bishop theologians, etc. Father Mihalis is not extraordinary in any of the usual senses. He is a simple cemetery priest, making his rounds, responding to every call to go to a grave for a prayer service, and humbly accepting whatever small payment he might receive for his services. His priestly garments are old, worn out and not recently cleaned. His hand are brown from the sun and from handling incense and being close to the earth at every graveside. If Jesus were walking around the cemetery today, he’d probably look a lot like Father Mihalis, but probably younger and with a shorter beard.

He wanted to get vestments for me so I could do the service. I told him, No, I wanted him to do it! When we finally got to the graveside, where my wife and aunt were waiting for us, he immediately included all three of us and even pointed to me to do some of the priest’s prayers, though I was dressed in regular street clothes. Such a spirit of openness and inclusiveness I have never encountered in America. And here I was in conservative Church of Greece and I’ve been blessed to have experienced the love and welcoming spirit of Christ in the persons of Father Andrew and Father Mihalis. They are true priests in the service of Christ, not of worldly appearances.

Today with Father Mihalis I felt in the presence of a saint, an ordinary saint. We need more ordinary saints in the church. They are the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the meek who will inherit the earth. Which earth? The earth that Father Mihalis touches in his gravesite services and in which he will join his wife Ismene who died this past January? Or the earth that can still be made holy by men and women like Father Mihalis? I pray that he will continue to make the rounds of the cemetery for many years so I can meet him again and be touched by his gentle spirit. 


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Finally, our Archbishop speaks

Statement from His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America     

Feb 4, 2017

As Greek Orthodox Christians and as Americans, we express our sadness and pain for our brothers and sisters all over the world who find themselves in tragic circumstances of hostility, violence and war, where families have been torn apart, displaced and where people are denied basic human rights.

Following the example of Christ, we are called to offer unconditional love to our fellow men while starting immediately to pray for them.  In our great country, which has historically and practically welcomed people of every nation, tribe, and tongue, we have the distinct privilege and honor to offer philoxenia – love of the stranger – to humans from all walks of life.

The New Testament is replete with an ethos of philoxenia – love of the stranger – based not on fear but on care and on gratitude.  Welcome one another, says Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, even as Christ welcomed you (Rom. 15:7).  Christian philoxenia must not only be extended to those close to us, but must be extended to those near and far away, and even to those who will not reciprocate—to the poor, the stranger, even those who hate us.  For Christ says, if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? (Luke 14:14).

As a vital expression of love, we must continue to fervently pray for peace for the entire humanity, especially for those affected by difficult circumstances.  Our fellow humans who are suffering under terrible conditions and ordeals all over the world are expecting justice and begging for our love and prayers; even the least among them.  As Christ said, Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40).  In these most difficult times, the strongest expression of our philoxenia becomes a very urgent matter.

United as one people, as one nation under God, let us proceed courageously, prudently, and lovingly.  Always with the help of the Almighty God!


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The Church is Boring, You Say?

There is a false and pernicious idea that Liturgy is boring; that church is boring and irrelevant; and that is why people, especially young people, are staying away.

Personally, I’ve never been convinced of that argument. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Perhaps people find church and Liturgy boring because they are bored, and because their lives are boring! I’m not saying this to put anyone down or to imply that nothing about the Orthodox Church is boring. Far from it, I’m the first to point out the deficiencies in Orthodox church structures and ways.

But look around. People are bored. That is why we run to every new gadget, why we bury our faces in small and large screens, why we communicate with text messages and emojis and YouTube and Facebook. Because we are bored. Nothing Apple can produce will satisfy people’s boredom; we will always want more. That is why Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Sony, and other behemoths, are constantly updating their products. People need something new every day: because they are bored!

So should the church join the racket of the weekly updates? Is that what will bring people to Liturgy? Don’t be fooled. Why are there so many revolving doors in evangelical and non-denominational churches? They look full every Sunday, but how well do they retain people? These churches change their songs and videos every week, they look like they’re catering to the market obsession with “the new”; but they don’t retain members any better than we do, they’re actually doing worse. But they look full because there is a constant movement of people from one “relevant, up-to-date” church to another. It’s the secret of evangelical success in this country – the revolving door of “believers” who are often nothing more than bored consumers of religion.

Look at your own habits, as I look at my own habits. I don’t go anywhere, even inside the house, without my iPhone in my hand or in my pocket. How often in any 5-minute span do you/I look at the notification screen of your/my phone or tablet? Why? Because we are bored.

So don’t tell me church is boring. That’s a cop-out. But let me say it more clearly: Church is boring, you say? I agree that it is! But it’s boring only because WE ARE BORING!

So let’s get off our boring and bored lifestyles. Let’s turn off the electronic devices that are turning us into carriers of attention-deficit disorder. Take a sabbath rest from the market empires that rule our lives. That’s what two hours on a Sunday morning can be for you: an entry into a new kingdom, a kingdom of beauty and peace and attention-fullness. If all of us could come to Liturgy with such awareness and such need for healing from our scattered, bored lives, then the Liturgy will becomes more alive for us.

There is nothing more “relevant” in our lives than the need for release and freedom. God ordained a sabbath for good reason. God has known from all eternity that a sabbath rest from the daily forces that feed on our boredom and lack of freedom is the most basic need of human beings. But for the first time in human history, the sabbath has been eliminated and it has been replaced by enslavement to the Now of computer screens and smartphone notifications. Don’t be a slave to boredom. Join the battle for holistic, authentic living, rather than the fakery that aims to claim every moment of your life with false promises of “something new” but only makes you more bored and hungry for more escape from boredom. Reclaim your life from the machine of boredom! And then church and Liturgy will cease to be boring as well. It’s a good goal to strive for in 2017. HAPPY NEW YEAR!


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The movement beckons!

Meet John Doe is one of a groups of films that Frank Capra directed in the late 30s of the past century. The others are You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. And a few years later Frank Capra also made that Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. All of them are classic examples of how movies can inspire at the same time as they entertain us. No one makes movies like that any more, and I recommend all four of these films especially to families with children. The messages and values are timeless.

mv5bmtq2ndc5nzi4ov5bml5banbnxkftztgwodgxotyymje-_v1_sy1000_cr003951000_al_John Doe is a homeless hobo played by Gary Cooper. Barbara Stanwyck is a newspaperwoman who involves John Doe in pretending to commit suicide on Christmas night as an act of protest against unemployment and economic hardship. A national movement grows around the figure of John Doe, but behind the scenes D. B. Norton, memorably played by Edward Arnold, is using the movement for his own political purposes. When John Doe overhears Mr. Norton plotting with other big wigs how they will use the movement, John Doe decides to go through with the suicide after all. On Christmas night he goes to the top floor of an important building and prepares to jump off. The Barbara Stanwyck character has a gut feeling that he will do it and finds him just in time.

She pleads with him not to jump so they could rebuild the movement. She convinces him with words that bring the meaning of Christmas to the heart of the situation:

“You don’t have to die to keep the John Doe ideal alive. Someone already died for that once. The first John Doe. And he’s kept that ideal alive for nearly 2,000 years. It was He who kept it alive in them. And He’ll go on keeping it alive for ever and always – for every John Doe movement these men kill, a new one will be born. That’s why those bells are ringing, John. They’re calling to us, not to give up but to keep on fighting, to keep on pitching.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Have you ever thought of Jesus as a John Doe? But he was. He was not important in the eyes of the world. Even in the Gospels we read how many people considered him a fake. And there certainly have been many D. B. Nortons in the past 2,000 years who have misused and co-opted the name of Jesus Christ for their own egotistical purposes. The churches that carry his name have brought much shame to the purity of the gospel message. And yet, despite all this, 2,000 years later we still celebrate Christmas.

Yes, Christmas has been commercialized and turned into something often unrecognizable. And yet, it’s still Christmas; it’s still the celebration of Christ’s birth. And the movement is still alive, still changing hearts and minds and souls; still bringing healing and forgiveness to the many John Does and D. B. Nortons and Ann Mitchells.

I should also mention the other major character in the movie, another homeless hobo and friend of John Doe. He is known only as the Colonel. He is a cynic about human nature and he sees clearly long before John Doe what Norton and others are up to. There are cynics all around us, and there are plenty good reasons to be cynical. But cynics will never change any lives and they too need the healing that the Christ movement brings.

The four main characters in the film Meet John Doe - D. B. Norton, Ann Mitchell, John Doe and the Colonel

The four main characters in the film: D. B. Norton, Ann Mitchell, John Doe and the Colonel

Christianity is not an institution. It’s not a religion. It’s not a philosophy or a self-help course. It does not promote a feel-good narcissism. Christianity is a movement – an exciting, world-transforming movement. More than ever, today we need to recover the original vision of Christmas, the message of the original John Doe. Today the church needs to get off its comfortable place among the D. B. Nortons of the world and join the John Does who still have the naivety to believe that the world can be a better place, a holier place!

I want to be a John Doe. Do you? Let’s join the movement; it’s all around us; it’s in our hearts.

Merry Christmas!

CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!

Thanks be to God.


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From darkness to light

 

In today’s reading from Ephesians 5:8-19 Paul tells us to expose darkness and bring it into the light so it becomes light! This beautifully summarizes what was Jesus’ own customary way of healing and teaching, which was to bring people out into the open, where they could be healed and brought into communion with Christ. So in today’s Gospel reading. Was his purpose to destroy the rich man? No, his purpose was to expose him, to bring him into the light. The man walks away disappointed, but nowhere is it indicated that that was the end of the story. And after Jesus made is startling statement about how difficult it is for rich men to be saved, he followed up with more reassuring words: “With man this is impossible; with God all things are possible.” The rich man was brought into the light; we don’t know what was the result.

The gospel’s purpose is not to condemn people. The gospel’s purpose is not to separate people into ‘us’ and ‘them’. The gospel’s purpose is not to make some people puffed up because they are ‘saved’! The gospel’s purpose is to bring people into the light and to expose the darkness. And we expose the darkness not in order to humiliate people or to condemn them, but in order to make the darkness light – at least according to Paul in his letter to Ephesians (5:11-14).

Dear friends, the issue is not whether you go to heaven – however you visualize heaven. Like Jesus said, it’s impossible – but with God all things are possible. So let’s leave that business to God. Our purpose is not to worry about heaven. Our business is to be in communion with Jesus Christ, to participate in his life. As a matter of fact, participation is the way Orthodox theology likes to view salvation – participation in the life of Christ, becoming partakers of the divine nature, as 2 Peter puts – participants in the divine nature by being united with Christ, partaking of his life. Hebrews 3:14 calls us to be μέτοχοι τοῦ Χριστοῦ. I want to be μέτοχος του Χριστού. Don’t you?