A Prayer

This lovely prayer is from today’s Morning Prayer:

Lord,
  be the beginning and end of all that we do and say.
Prompt our actions with your grace,
  and complete them with your all-powerful help.
I love the idea that it is God who prompts, and then, when we respond with action, it is God who completes.
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Looking for God’s Image

Do not forget yourself in looking upon the beauty of the human face, but look upon the soul; do not look upon the man’s garment (the body being his temporary garment), but look upon him who is clothed in it. Do not admire the magnificence of the mansion, but look upon the dweller who lies in it and what he is – otherwise, you will offend the image of God in the man, will dishonor the King by worshipping his servant and not rendering unto him even the least of the honor due to him. (St John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ).

Growing up, this was a principle that was drilled into me: don’t look at outer appearances …

and here’s where what was drilled into me as a child differs from John

… because outer appearances can be deceiving!

Mine is a negative judgment from the start. One is worried about deception, about being fooled, and so this advice is subtly and powerfully confrontational.

John’s advice comes from a very different place. Looking at the outside (the clothing, the beauty, the wealth) dishonors the divine image and thus dishonors God himself.

As a child, when I was busy trying not to be deceived, I was looking for the bad that was covered over by beauty and wealth.

St John of Kronstadt is looking for God, is looking for true beauty, is looking for truth, that might be hidden behind earthly artifice.

Faith in God’s Existence

The following extended quote is one of the sayings from My Life in Christ, the spiritual memoir of St John of Kronstadt (loc. 383 in the Kindle edition):

Faith in God’s existence is closely connected with faith in the existence of our own souls, as a part of the spiritual world. God’s existence is as evident to the pious mind as its own being, because every thought, good or bad, every desire, every intention, word or act of such a mind is followed by a corresponding change in the state of the heart, peace or trouble, joy or grief, and this is the result of the action upon it of the God of spirits and bodies, Who is reflected in the pious mind as the sun is reflected in a drop of water; the purer the drop is, the better, the clearer will be the reflection; the more turbid the drop, the dimmer will be the reflection; so that in the soul’s state of extreme impurity or darkness, the reflection entirely ceases and the soul is left in a state of spiritual darkness, in a state of insensibility. In this state the man having eyes, sees not, and having ears, hears not. Again, in relation to our souls, God may be likened to the out air in relation to the mercury of the thermometer – with this difference, that the expansion and rest, rise and fall of the mercury proceed from the change in the state of the atmosphere; whilst, in the first case, God remains unchangeable, everlasting and eternally good and just. Whilst the soul, changeable in its relation to God, suffers changes in itself, thus it unavoidably expands and obtains peace of heart when it draws nearer to God by faith and good works, and unavoidably contracts, becomes restless and wearied, when it withdraws itself from God by unlawful acts, want of faith, and unbelief in God’s Truth.

A Cold and Broken Hallelujah

I am a fan of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah, in spite of the fact that it is an utterly incomprehensible jumble of mostly biblical images that are mashed up in an illogical manner. It still, somehow, comes together into a truly great and mournful “love is hard and confusing” meditation.

One of the things that makes the song so incomprehensible is that, beyond the canonical four or five verses, Cohen has written scores (the New York Times has tracked down 80) of other scattered verses to the song that grew out of other scattered life experiences and emotional traumas, some of which he evidently makes up on the fly during performances. As a result, an artist can pick and choose three or four verses from the multitude and turn the meaning around or make it even more incomprehensible than the original.

My favorite version is from k.d. lang’s Hymns of the 49th Parallel (2004), which we picked up years ago so Brenda could use it as soothing background music in the baby room where she worked. The album’s been on my playlist rotation ever since.

Coming home from Omaha last night, it popped up on my rotation. The third verse hadn’t caught my attention before like it did last night. It sounds a lot like what the monks of Mt Athos have to say about the Christian life.

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch / But love is not a victory march / It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Silouhan the Athonite was gifted with seeing the Uncreated Light shortly after he became monk and saw it again a handful of times throughout his life. He said the gift was both a blessing and a curse: A blessing because he received a foretaste of heaven. A curse because his everyday life was marked with deep longing (and the accompanying sadness) to live eternally with the perfect Love and Light he had experienced. He told of watching children playing at a park and being overcome with grief and unstoppable tears because this glimpse of joy, beauty, and love that he witnessed at the park was such a dim shadow of the reality he had experienced. For Silouhan, love was not a victory march; it was a cold and broken hallelujah of faithfulness and obedience.

Previously for me, the arresting line in “Hallelujah” was, “the fourth, the fifth, / the minor fall, the major lift.” It is (all at the same time) a beautiful piece of poetry, a wonderful musicology pun (because the accompaniment moves from a major fifth to  a minor fourth at this point in the song), and an apt description of life (a new take on “two steps forward, three steps back).

The next line (after the fourth/fifth pun) is “The baffled King composing Hallelujah.” It’s this third verse that explains the bafflement. Even victory is something less than all that. It’s not a Pyrrhic victory, because it’s not a matter of winning or losing or the greatest win being transformed into the greatest loss. It’s rather that even our greatest victories fall short. It’s a “Hallelujah moment,” but it’s a “cold and broken Hallelujah” when considered in the larger context …

Well, actually, in the context of the song, since Cohen is singing about love lost, it is a Pyrrhic victory. But while the ongoing struggle in the Christian life is remarkably similar, it’s not a loss precisely because God remains faithful. This is the nature of Christian hope. It is being able to recognize the “Hallelujah” in the midst of the chill brokenness. It is the ability to mourn what’s not quite there because of a sure hope of what lies behind the veil: the true Secret Chord.

The Downside of Community

We just celebrated Pentecost (Western calendar) and I especially love the pairing of texts that we find in the Common Lectionary. On the one hand we have the story of Babel, where God confuses the languages. On the other hand we have the story of the first Pentecost after Christ’s death and resurrection, where the language barrier is healed by the Holy Spirit and all sorts of people understand the apostles in their own language.

Pentecost is a foretaste of what real salvation is; it’s not a simplistic “Jesus in my heart” sort of warm feeling, but a healing of the cosmos, a process of redoing all that was undone by sin and corruption. Salvation is not so much about heaven and my ticket to get in, salvation is a reordering of creation so heaven and earth can be united.

This is the part of the story where the new is the opposite of the old. But there’s another part of the story (months after that first Pentecost) where the new is just the same as the old. We still begin with Gen. 11:9. “Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.” And from the latter part of this verse, we jump ahead to Acts 8:3-4. “But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.”

Pentecost is an opportunity to be reminded that community is to be practiced and celebrated. As the Holy Spirit gathers us, we can enter into fellowship, not only with Christ our Savior, but also with fellow believers, as we put into practice the union God has brought us into.

But community has a down side. The downside is not spelled out scripture, so we have to speculate a bit. I propose that, for all its strengths, community allows us to too easily succumb to the the tendency to look inward. Such inwardness stifles creativity because new and contrary ideas are not given consideration. Communities also tend to begin to look alike after awhile, because we are comfortable with those like us. I once read a description of a person’s experience at a new church. He said there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, just a mass of middle class white bread.

Something along this line happened in Jerusalem. Christ commissioned his disciples to go into all the world. But after the glories of Pentecost, they were comfortable in Jerusalem. Something had to happen, and it happened in the form of Saul and company ravaging the church. What Christ’s command could not do Saul’s persecution did. The church was scattered and Christianity began its amazing conquest of the Roman Empire.

Community is one of the great strengths that we have and we should therefore nurture it. But community can easily get reduced down to the comfortableness of togetherness rather than actual fellowship. The springboard of “go into all the world” is the sending community, but if the community fails to send, God will see to it that his community scatters one way or anther.

Chanting and Drumming and Culture and Christ

Once again this year at Pascha, a YouTube video of the Ghanaian Orthodox faithful singing “Christ is Risen from the Dead” (the hallmark song of Pascha) is making the rounds. I love this song and I love East African drumming (just look at the music collection on my phone!), so when the drummers start drumming a few refrains into the song, it is fabulous! Obviously other Orthodox think so too, because it has been a popular Pascha video since it was recorded in 2011. But the video and its popularity raises an interesting question:

There are two quite fundamental principals of Orthodoxy (that the church has never been especially good at, so, although they tend to be ignored, they really are fundamental principals) that  come into conflict in this instance. The first is that the Divine Liturgy is prayed (ie, chanted or sung) in human voice only with no instruments. The theological sensibility behind this is not about instruments being bad, but rather about the nature of what we offer to God – ourselves. We don’t offer our talents in the Divine Liturgy (ie, instrumental expertise, etc) because, inevitably, the focus and glory gets turned toward the performer rather than God. Of course real life is never quite this simple, so this is not an iron-clad rule, but rather a guideline with some important theology backing it up.

The second principal is that Orthodoxy should always be incarnated into the culture in which it is planted. Thus, Romanian liturgical music tends to be lilting and sing-song while Serbian music is downright depressing. American and Australian Orthodox music, on the other hand … oh yeah, there isn’t any to speak of … and this is an illustration of why some impatient Orthodox theologians claim that the Orthodox Church in the so-called Diaspora (North America, South America, Australia) are heretical. What we do not find in these places is Orthodox Christianity pure and simple, rather what we find is adjectival Orthodoxy with all its adjectival trappings: Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ukranian Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox, ad nausem. To be fair, Orthodoxy is still very young in these cultures (only about 300 years old) and for a variety of significant reasons hasn’t had a chance to become truly local.

Wherever Orthodoxy goes I suspect these two principals end up in conflict, because music is such a fundamental part of culture. Reflecting on this, one of the things that I do find offensive (in the sense that it is a true stumbling block for me) about my own experience in Orthodoxy is how utterly Byzantine it is, although that culture has been dead for a thousand years. I can’t help but think we’re incarnating a corpse. (Fr Tom Hopko, of blessed memory, had some wonderful riffs and outbursts on this subject, especially about the silly Turkish – yeah, those Turks, the sometimes evil Overlords of Orthodoxy for 500 years who are responsible for the Armenian Genocide, which is mourned to this day throughout Orthodoxy … anyway, back to the point … Hopko frequently complained about the silly Turkish costumes the Greek and Arab clergy wear to this day, because back in the day clergy were forced to wear the Turkish bureaucratic uniform in order to shamefully remind them that the Turks, more so than Christ, were their Overlords. Sort of like The Rebellion opting for a Storm Trooper costume for their religion.) Eventually the costumes became habit and now clergy defend them as if they were appointed by Christ.

Of course ancient Turkish bureaucratic uniforms posing as contemporary clergy costumes have little to do with music, but they point to the fundamental difficulty of incarnating a culture without being subsumed by it. I’ll offer a local illustration. In my opinion, The Jesus Movement and Jesus Music, back in the Days of Larry Norman, and the music emanating from Calvary Chapel (Barry McGuire, Love Song, Second Chapter of Acts, Randy Stonehill, etc.) was an authentic incarnation of Charismatic Christianity into the culture of post-Hippie California. Of course, that eventually grew into the abomination now simply identified as CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) by the industry, a style of bland and derivative country-pop music that facilely appears to drive and be driven by the worshiping needs of the emerging church, but on a deeper level is a function of profits, performance, fame, and a market driven industry that is no different than the larger secular entertainment industry upon which it is based. Talk about getting subsumed by culture!

But getting enslaved by culture when we’re supposed to be incarnating it and thus transforming it is what we do! It is a testament to the power of sin in the world. We need to be ever vigilant and call it out when we see such enslavement happening. At the same time, we cannot use it as an excuse to abandon the church because it isn’t doing what it is supposed to be doing. This difficulty of overcoming the overwhelming power of culture is why so many of the canons of the Orthodox Church are not treated as iron-clad rules but rather as principles with serious theology behind them that should be incorporated into our ecclesiastical life. Our real Christian existence in the actual world is a matter of three steps forward and two or three steps back. Even at our most faithful we look shockingly worldly. (Consider the Patriarchs and their many concubines and treatment of women in general.) Furthermore, our biggest victories always come in the form of massive failure. (Sort of the point of Pascha, right?) So while I regularly observe and kvetch about the failings of the church, I am not particularly concerned about them.

And I suspect it’s one of the reasons why the video of Ghanaians chanting “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death …” to the accompaniment of East African drums is so popular here in the West. It’s because it is so hopeful in its ambivalence. It has all the hallmarks of being authentically incarnated while at the same time having all the hallmarks of breaking the rules. Not only is that sort of thing fun to observe, it’s strangely reminiscent of our Savior himself, who broke the rules to such a massive degree that he broke death itself, and upon those in the tombs, bestowed life. Thanks be to God.

Liberal

This morning I attended a “liberal” Episcopal church where the liturgy that was prayed was codified 500 years ago, although this liturgy (it is based on the Liturgy of St. Gregory and/or the Tridentine Mass) is actually at least another 500 years older. Structurally it follows the same pattern with much of the same content that the Eastern Church Divine Liturgy has been praying for 500 years before that, probably longer, but the records to prove it one way or the other don’t exist. They do this because Sunday morning worship is not a free-for-all, but rather a divinely appointed service where we worship God in the manner appointed by the church for the purpose of pleasing God, and not humans.

The week before I was hounded by a co-worker to attend a local “conservative” church called RiverzEdge (yeah, a “z” and no space before the “E,” which is capitalized – this too may be divinely appointed, but I can’t find the exact reference, which I think is in ezEkiel … I’ll get back to you on that). The worship block was going to be cut short a bit (he mentioned this because he knows I despise praise music) to provide plenty of time for the comedian who was top billing at this particular Sunday morning service. RiverzEdge does this because the believer is free to express their faith in the manner that they like, and evidently what they like is to be entertained, even more than singing praise music. (I declined the invitation, by the way.)

Definition of Liberal:

of, pertaining to, based on, or advocating liberalism, especially the freedom of the individual and governmental guarantees of individual rights and liberties.

Okay, let me get this straight. Which of these is the liberal church?