Ancient Answers


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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?


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Thank you

I apologize I haven’t written much in recent weeks. It’s not because I have nothing to say, but rather I have too much to say. On any given day I can’t quite make up my mind as to what subject to explore, and very often I end up opting out of exploring anything. One thing I am realizing is that I need to go back to the sources and the roots of my own existence as a child of God. This means going back primarily to the Jewish background of Jesus Christ. We Orthodox – with our technical and philosophical doctrines of Trinity and Christology – have practically forgotten about the Jewish roots of Jesus. And yet, it’s there in our worship and prayers. Jews come to wedding services and are deeply impressed by how much our sacrament of marriage refers to the patriarchs and prophets of the Hebrew Bible. This morning I conducted a funeral service and once again I intoned the names of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And the final prayer of our funeral service asks God to give rest to the departed “in the bosom of Abraham.” So with all these references to Abraham and the patriarchs, you would think that we would be more aware of the Jewishness of our tradition. I want to explore the Jewish character of Jesus – and more specifically, the actual social and economic setting of Galilee where he began and did most of his ministry. Look for some of these explorations in the coming weeks and months.

Today I want to thank the many people who do follow or occasionally visit this blog site. I started this blog site in July of 2014. In the thirteen months since, I have had about 11,000 visits from 125 countries! That’s right, 125 countries. It’s remarkable really, and it shows the power of the Internet to communicate and connect. Of course, some of these visits have been one-time hits, perhaps through a Google search or a link, but the majority of visitors to my blog site have made repeat visits, which shows there is an interest in what I write. I’m humbled by that, quite frankly, because when I started this I expected only people who know me would ever bother checking it out, and I thought that I would be writing primarily for my own interest. Clearly that has not been the case. And it shows how someone like me who is a total unknown outside of a small circle of church people can have a readership in 125 countries – all because of this thing called the Internet.

I encourage anyone who enjoys writing and thinking to get onboard and start your own blog. I use WordPress, but there’s also Blogspot and other providers. And it’s free! You’d be surprised what will happen, just as I have been surprised. From the very start last year, my second highest number of readers, after the US, have been in Brazil. Do I know anyone in Brazil? No, and yet, consistently day by day, week by week, I have people in Brazil who visit my blog site. Then come UK, France, Australia, Italy, Canada, Greece, Germany, and on down the list of countries. The only parts of the world from which I’ve had no visitors have been Iran, Afghanistan, much of Central Africa, and some of the countries in Central Asia, Quite amazing. Some of the countries from which I’ve had visitors I didn’t know existed. Actually, I shouldn’t say that; having grown up in Canada and gone through high school in Montréal I learned geography – but I’m still shocked at some of the obscure countries that show up in my stats page.

So I want to take this opportunity to say THANK YOU to anyone and everyone who visits this blog site and takes the time to read what I post. I will try to write more frequently and better!

You may also want to visit the two blog sites of my friend Mike Mair in Scotland. He is not Orthodox – and I don’t always agree with him – but he has a real biblical mind and writes beautifully, even poetically. I admire his gifts for bringing out the many meanings of Scripture. But be prepared to be challenged if you visit his blog sites. He is currently doing a daily commentary through the Book of Revelation. His two blogs are at:

http://emmock.com

http://xtremejesus.co


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A Prayer

After completing my post “It is good to be here,” I found this beautiful prayer that so wonderfully complements what I wrote. It is from the website Oremus. May it enrich your spirit and heart today.

Lord of glory, it is good that we are here.
In peace we make our prayer to you.
In trust we confirm our faith in you.
Help us to set our faces steadfastly where you would go with us.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, look with favour on your Church,
proclaiming your beloved Son to the world
and listening to the promptings of his Spirit.
May your Church be renewed in holiness
that may reflect your glory.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, look with favour on the nations of the world,
scarred by hatred, strife and war,
and crying out to be changed by the touch of your hand…
May they hear the good news like a lamp shining in a murky place.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, look with favour on those in need and distress,
suffering as your Son has suffered
and waiting for the salvation you promise…
May the day break and Christ the Morning Star
bring them the light of his presence.
Lord, look with favour.
Lord, transfigure and heal.

Lord of glory, it is good if we suffer with you
so that we shall be glorified with you.
According to your promise bring all Christ’s brothers and sisters…
to see him with their own eyes in majesty
and to be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.

To him be praise, dominion and worship
now and for all eternity. Amen.

O God,
in the transfiguration of your Son
you confirmed the mysteries of the faith
by the witness of Moses and Elijah;
and in the voice from the cloud
you foreshadowed our adoption as your children
Make us, with Christ, heirs of your glory,
and bring us to enjoy its fullness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

Christ Jesus,
the splendor of the Father
and the image of his being,
draw us to himself
that we may live in his light
and share his glory
now and for ever. Amen.


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Two Anniversaries

April 24th marks two very different anniversaries: the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Holocaust and Genocide and the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Telescope. The first anniversary represents the darkest side of human nature, while the second represents humanity at its most inspiring.

Armenian intellectuals who were arrested and later executed en masse by Young Turk government authorities on the night of 24 April 1915.

Armenian intellectuals who were arrested and later executed en masse by Young Turk government authorities on the night of 24 April 1915.

The killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks began on April 24th, 1915, and took over 1 million lives by the time it came to an end. Armenians call it Medz Yeghern (“the Great Crime”) and it is acknowledged by most historians and governments of the world, but it continues to be denied by Turkey.

An article by the New York Times dated 15 December 1915 states that one million Armenians had been either deported or executed by the Ottoman government.

An article by the New York Times dated 15 December 1915 states that one million Armenians had been either deported or executed by the Ottoman government. (click to enlarge)

Fundraising poster for the American Committee for Relief in the Near East. The United States contributed a significant amount of aid to help Armenians during the Armenian Genocide.

Fundraising poster for the American Committee for Relief in the Near East. The United States contributed a significant amount of aid to help Armenians during the Armenian Genocide. (click to enlarge)

As their empire faded into the dust, the Ottoman Turks also attacked other minorities, especially the Greeks and Assyrians. But the greatest tragedy was the one that befell the Armenian population. As the map further down graphically illustrates, the extermination of Armenians was conducted on a scale surpassed only by the Germans a couple decades later. Wholesale deportations, destruction of entire villages and communities, and concentration camps dotted the Turkish landscape. These killings were not a result of wartime, as the Turks continue to insist. This was a methodical attempt to exterminate an entire group of people. It was genocide by any definition! Armenian communities throughout the world – including our own state of Maine – are commemorating this great tragedy with many special events and memorial services.

An Armenian woman kneeling beside a dead child in field within sight of help and safety at Aleppo, an Ottoman city.

An Armenian woman kneeling beside a dead child in field within sight of help and safety at Aleppo, an Ottoman city.

The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit, as seen from the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit, as seen from the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

The launch of the Hubble Telescope on April 24th, 1990, opened up the eyes of humanity to the ends of the universe. For 25 years the telescope has orbited above the earth’s atmosphere and has returned photograph after remarkable photograph of the immense glory and stupendous wonder of our universe. How can we look at the immensity of the universe and yet act in such small, selfish and monstrous ways to our fellow human beings? Do we not know that we are made of stardust and to stardust we return? This is the point where one can say to the religions of the world – including most versions of the Christian faith – “your god is too small.”

A god who condones violence – whether directly or by interpretation – is not a god worthy of the universe. On this anniversary of Hubble I’m tempted to say this about the Christian Church throughout the past 2,000 4th_day_4Ayears. Would Jesus Christ identify himself with the hatred and selfishness that continue to be exhibited in his name? Or would Jesus tell us to gaze in wonder at every picture of space that Hubble sends down to the small-minded inhabitants of this earth? Yes, I can just hear the theologians object: But Jesus is the Word of God, he created this immense universe and all its wonders; he doesn’t need Hubble! You mean like he didn’t need this earth or a human mother? How easily we resolve everything by retiring to the divinity of Jesus! This is the monophysitic heresy of the church! Alive and well in every other sentence we speak or sing.

No, I prefer to stop sometimes and think of Jesus alone on a mountaintop or in the desert, gazing at the starlit sky and wondering how deep is this ocean of light and darkness above us. How many wonders will be discovered in the centuries to come as human beings learn to look upward instead of downward and inward to our own selfish motives?

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 image includes galaxies existing shortly after the Big Bang.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2014 image includes galaxies existing shortly after the Big Bang.

Human beings have continued in their inhumanity ever since Jesus looked up at the sky. And yet, scattered throughout our centuries of violence and hateful acts, great spirits have dared to look beyond our darkened hearts and look to the skies for glimmers of light and hope. Today, our machines and ingenuity have enabled us to look into the very depths and origins of creation – 14 billion years ago – and, at the other extreme, into the tiniest domains of existence, where strange particles and mysterious forms of energy are joining the dance of continuing creation. The Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, Switzerland, is doing for the extremely small scale what Hubble is doing for the extremely large scale of creation. The maps of existence they are creating are enough to blow away every fundamentalist lie and deception.

One of Hubble's most famous images,

One of Hubble’s most famous images, “Pillars of Creation,” shows stars forming in the Eagle Nebula.

There is creation all around us – the antithesis of our destructive urges. This is why the two anniversaries on this day pose such huge questions to us. Do we continue killing each other, often in the name of a god who is too small? Or do we join the galaxies and the subatomic particles in the dance of unity that many great scientists have tried to encapsulate in that ever-elusive “theory of everything”? Perhaps because it is a dance that unites all levels of being is the reason why it is so difficult to reduce it to a single theory or equation. Perhaps by trying to find a “theory of everything” scientists are making the same mistake that religions have made with their gods. Perhaps scientists are trying to make the universe too small, like religions make god too small.

NASA Just Released This Image To Celebrate The Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th Anniversary. The image shows a star cluster with some of the most massive stars ever discovered.

NASA Just Released This Image To Celebrate The Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th Anniversary. The image shows a star cluster with some of the most massive stars ever discovered. (click to enlarge)

Then again, after many years or centuries, perhaps scientists will have their “theory of everything.” But in the meantime we can enjoy the spectacle that unfolds before us thanks to the good use of human ingenuity. Have you ever wondered why religious fundamentalists are against education? Because they don’t want their god to be exposed as too small. But the map of the universe is growing ever larger and more detailed. Science presses on, to replace the maps of human hatred with maps of incredible beauty and mystery. Consider the two maps below. Don’t they look similar? Yet, the first represents the evil of men, while the second gives us a glimpse into our neighborhood in the amazing universe. Psalm 8 sings with these words:

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens… When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of us, that you care for us? (slightly paraphrased)

The universe is the great equalizer. It puts our human acts in proper perspective. As we remember one act of human evil, let us celebrate the goodness of a God who is not too small and who beckons us to look at the heavens above.

Map of massacre locations and deportation and extermination centers

Map of massacre locations and deportation and extermination centers (click to enlarge)

Map of the Nearby Universe, showing our own galaxy, the Milky Way, in relation to other galaxies and galaxy clusters. The motions of galaxies are also illustrated.

Map of the Nearby Universe, showing our own galaxy, the Milky Way, in relation to other galaxies and galaxy clusters. The motions of galaxies are also illustrated by directional cones. (click to enlarge)

A diagram of Earth’s location in the Universe in a series of eight maps that show from left to right, starting with the Earth, moving to the Solar System, onto the Solar Interstellar Neighborhood, onto the Milky Way, onto the Local Galactic Group, onto the Virgo Supercluster, onto our local superclusters, and finishing at the observable Universe.

A diagram of Earth’s location in the Universe in a series of eight maps that show from left to right, starting with the Earth, moving to the Solar System, onto the Solar Interstellar Neighborhood, onto the Milky Way, onto the Local Galactic Group, onto the Virgo Supercluster, onto our local superclusters, and finishing at the observable Universe. (Click to enlarge!)


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The Gospel of Touch

The place of the Gospel of John relative to the other three Gospels.

Its use in the Orthodox Church in the cycle of readings.

Midnight service of Pascha: We begin with Mark 16:1-8 and that amazing conclusion that trails off into the night: εφοβούντο γαρ. But at the Liturgy that follows we read John 1:1-17 with the climactic affirmation, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. More properly and literally: The Word became flesh and pitched his tent with us.

stthomasxcIt’s all about touch. The Word became flesh. And now that flesh is the one Thomas is invited to touch – that divine flesh that took upon itself all the pain and suffering of humanity.

When responding to Thomas, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” He didn’t say, “Blessed are those who have not touched and yet believe.” He couldn’t say that, because that’s what the Christian gospel is all about: it’s all about touch.

The rest of my thoughts today are in the audio clip here: