Repentance (Reflections from a Funeral)

I went to a funeral of the parent of an acquaintance this week. My acquaintance is that flavor of Baptist that is very knowledgeable about the Bible, can slip his faith or God’s blessing into every conversation almost without fail (ie, “witnessing”), and has a very specific and narrow meaning of being a Christian and what’s required to go to heaven. By his standards, his father did not make the cut, and so the funeral was a bitter-sweet event.

The funeral itself had a distinct emphasis on the need for repentance along with a large dose of “we don’t know the hour of our death.” There was urgency in the service (including a couple verses of the hymn, “Just As I Am”). Fortunately there were no direct aspersions cast on the deceased. Instead there was a focus on using our time wisely while still on earth. (That is, by implication, taking the time to accept Jesus as our Savior.)

I’ve been away from Fundamentalism for a long time, and as a result, it didn’t occur to me that all my talk about repentance in recent essays might be put into this conservative evangelical context by my readers. When it comes to how we understand repentance, context is everything.

Orthodoxy begins with a belief in a generous God. God is for us (the affirmation at the heart of Paul’s rhetorical question in Rom 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”). God is doing everything in his power to help us freely choose him. Orthodoxy moves from the foundation of a generous God to framework of joy. The eucharist is the joyful feast and every week we enter into the joy of God’s presence.

Repentance is also a very big deal. Our understanding of the human side of salvation is structured around repentance. But because Orthodoxy begins with a generous God and the framework is joy, repentance is often called “the joyful sorrow.” We are sorrowful for our own sin and willfulness; we are sorrowful for the corruption of the world, but it is a sorrow that set in the context of the endless joy of the kingdom. The sorrow comes because we know we’re missing out on the fullness of what might be because of our sin.

Fundamentalism begins, not with a generous God, but with a holy God. Furthermore, divine holiness is understood in a particular way. According to this tradition, holiness is such that it cannot abide the presence of that which is not holy. It is a holiness that seems fragile because it can be sullied  by the presence of sin. God can have fellowship with humans only because our sin is hidden by Jesus Christ. When God looks on us, he does not see our transgressions, but only Christ’s holiness. This is why God can bear to be around us.

There is a great deal of joy within fundamentalism, but there is also a great deal of fear. Because everything starts and ends with this particular view of holiness, one must worry a great deal about unrighteousness. Judgment can never be too far away from unrighteousness because can’t bear to be in the presence of that unrighteousness.

It is hard to state how different this is from Orthodoxy. Fr. Sophrony was once asked if he believed that unbelievers would ultimately go to hell. His startling answer was, “I don’t know, but what I do know is that if anyone is in hell, Jesus Christ is with them.

Orthodoxy also has a very strong emphasis on the holiness of God. I would argue that it has a far deeper sense of divine holiness than fundamentalism. But God’s holiness is not fragile as it is conceived in fundamentalism. It is a holiness that gladly veils itself so that it can be in the company of sinners such as prostitutes and tax collectors. Of course Jesus, who embodied this sort of holiness, got into a lot trouble with the religious establishment (who had a view of holiness not unlike my friend’s view).

In this traditional view, holiness is frequently compared to fire. Fire doesn’t mind being in the presence of wood, it is wood that has a problem with being in the presence of fire because the fire will consume the wood. Repentance is the process of getting rid of the wood so that only the precious metal remains. Judgment does not destroy me, it only destroys the wood. But if I am in love with wood of my life, if I confuse the wood for the precious metal, when I enter into God’s presence it feels like I am being destroyed. Judgment is strictly a purification.

And this brings me back to the funeral, and funerals in general. I did not know the deceased and so I have no sense of who he was as a person. I do believe in hell, but my conception of it has changed dramatically from my fundamentalist days. I do not believe God sends anyone to hell. Those who go there do it by their own choice; they prefer the wood over the precious metal. Being absorbed by self and antagonistic to God, they would prefer an eternity in misery, holding on to the eternally burning wood of their false being.

Quite frankly, I have little sense of any other person’s eternal destiny. Some of the most wonderful people I have known have turned out to be truly terrible people. “Holy fools” are famous for being obnoxious people who are actually holy underneath the scabs of their humanity. The funeral is not, or at least should not be, a celebration of a person’s eternal destiny. It is, rather a celebration of Jesus Christ who is the Life of the World, the One who trampled Death by death and led the captives from the grave, the eternal Flame of God who burns away the wood of our false being so that all that remains is the precious metal of what God created and intended in the first place.

There is a “Where’s Waldo” sensibility to a proper funeral. Funerals are at the same time terrible and joyous. They are terrible because a dead person is laying there in our midst. They are terrible because funerals are inevitably a reminder of just how disastrous the corruption of the world truly is. But in the midst of this is the joy of Christ. Those who have eyes to see can find the life-giving Christ in any situation, even death. Funerals are an exercise in finding and focusing on the giver of Life and Light in the midst of death and despair. Whether the dead guy is a holy monk or a backslidden Methodist, the funeral is the same. It doesn’t revolve around the dead person; it revolves around Jesus Christ.

If I were in my friend’s shoes, how would I think about this guy in the coffin who apparently never repented. That’s not my problem. Every moment I am focused on someone else’s repentance is a moment I am ignoring my own repentance. This doesn’t mean that we should not spur each other toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). But after death, it is actually a holy discipline to focus on the reality that God is a generous God. All things work together for good to those who love God (Rom. 8:28). Tallying up the sins and lack of repentance of the dead guy in the casket is in truth a subtle way of avoiding the state of our own soul, or comparing my seeming goodness to the other person’s seeming badness (instead of God’s goodness) and thus coming out looking good.

God is generous and good. The kingdom is preeminently a place of joy. Don’t let anyone, even your loved ones, steal that reality from you. Even in the darkest moment, the good God, living, loving fire of Christ’s presence can be found for those with the eyes to see it. Amen.

What is Salvation and the Task of the Christian Life?

A review of Compassion, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, 1966, rev. ed. 1982, Image Books.

I read this book as part of a group book study. Very early in the study, one of my study partners commented that I was having a real problem with the idea of compassion and was clearly pushing it away, or at the very least pushing against it. That wasn’t true but at that point in the book, I couldn’t put my finger on just what I was pushing against. Eventually it became clear.

There are two very different ways of understanding our salvation. The one, most common in Roman Catholic and Protestant communions, is that salvation is a transformation of the heart and will and thus is worked out ethically (although I’m not sure this is the best word). God changes my mind allowing me to change my actions. The Orthodox understand salvation to be far deeper and more pervasive than that. Salvation is physical and encompasses the whole person, body in addition to mind and will.

There is a profound unity of body and soul, heart and will. In Orthodox anthropology the will would be classified as a bodily (or animal) function, and when Christ united himself with humanity, he united himself, even at this most primitive animal level in order that our whole being could be saved.

The differences between these two conceptions of salvation are often subtle and a bit hard to grasp. I will offer two examples from the book. The first comes in ch. 4, entitled “Community.” The foundation of the authors’ understanding of community is Phil 2:1-2. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

The Orthodox begin, not with the mind, but with the body. Community begins in communion, which is a process of union with Christ which is physical and spiritual (the word mystical is helps convey this profound unity). At the Table I eat his body and drink the blood of the covenant. As a result of this a union begins to be formed that is completely real, although invisible.

The call to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” is therefore not the goal, but rather a necessary warning. A body (in this case, the Body of Christ), that is mystically united cannot be warring against itself. In medicine we call this cancer. The unity that Paul calls for is thus an outworking of a far deeper unity that already exists objectively.

In ch. 7, entitled “Patience,” the authors consider the need for discipline. All three are Roman Catholic priests and they have a difficult history to overcome on this subject, because “discipline” in the form of misguided practices such as self-flagellation, has a long history in the Roman Catholic church. Instead of offering a classic or historic definition of discipline they opt for the Protestant version:

“In the Christian life, discipline is the human effort to unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden, and to put on a lamp stand what has been kept under a basket.” This is not a bad definition as far as it goes, but this understanding of discipline will result in a feeble light.

Again, we need to remember that salvation is not only mental but physical. We were created in God’s image, and from that starting point we need to grow into the fullness that this divine image allows. The word that’s used to express this is a Greek word that is problematic to translate. Nous, is sometimes translated mind and sometimes translated heart, and refers to the most inner part of our being. (Note: the word “like-minded” and “mind” that appears twice in Phil. 2:1-2, above, is a different word, phroneo.)

The most remarkable characteristic of the nous, is that after it is brought to life from spiritual death (the first step of salvation) is that it can grow … and grow. It reflects, to the extent possible in a created being, the infinity of God. Through the Spirit it is filled with divine love that shines out in the darkness, and as the nous grows, it is able to “contain” or “reflect” (here I suspect human language fails) more and more of the divine light.

But expanding or stretching out our nous requires discipline; not just an uncovering of what is already there, but a further development of what the divine image might become. Paul compares it to athletics (both a boxer and a runner) and military training. Thus, this process of discipline is called askesis (the Greek word from which we get the English athletic) and it is often compared to military boot camp.

I realize that at this point we get into an area of the spiritual life where there is a profound difference between the Latin west and Greek east. There was a great controversy in the 14th century, called the Hesychast controversy that had to do with this precise thing. The Orthodox and Catholics came down on different sides of this controversy. I therefore realize that Roman Catholic and Protestant readers might well have some heartburn over this. But that is not the question at hand, the question is, “Why do I find myself pushing this book away?” It’s not that I have a problem with their ideas about compassion, it’s that I find their conception of salvation, and thus the root and outworking of compassion, to be truncated.

This differing understanding of the expanse of our salvation truly comes to a head in ch. 9, entitled, “Action.” The chapter begins by saying that the discipline of prayer necessarily leads to the discipline of action. They turn to James to remind us that faith without works is dead. Thus, the goal of the Christian life is the active life. It is a very specific sort of active life to be sure. Christian action is not action for action’s sake, it is an outgrowth of the disciplines of patience, prayer, etc., but action – being in the world – is where all these disciplines inevitably lead us.

From an Orthodox perspective, this is quite a muddled version of salvation. All of these disciplines, this askesis, leads to the transformation of the person. The goal is not centered in “the other” and particularly in service to the other, the goal lies within the self. This is certainly an idea that service oriented Christianity finds troubling, so more needs to be said.

Since salvation is ultimately physical and not ethical, our disciplines need to focus on the preparation of our physical selves (through prayer, fasting, alms, the three classic disciplines of the church) so that God can transform us. This does not mean that Christians ought not care about the world, it rather puts into perspective how Christians ought to care for the world. As I am transformed, my nous expands and is filled with more and more of God’s love. Thus the actions that would be described as service to the world are not something I do, they are something that I am.

It does little good, from the perspective of God’s Reign, to help the poor because, as Jesus reminded us, the poor will always be with us. Helping the poor, in this context, is an application of the sort of “works” that Martin Luther and the Protestants railed against. Rather than being an expression of God’s Reign, it is an attempt to help it along or to bring it about.

I suspect most Protestants will disagree with me. Presbyterians are especially fond of the dynamic between grace and gratitude. God gives us his grace and we respond with gratitude. Our action in the world is not works because it is a response to salvation, i.e. gratitude, rather than attempt to secure salvation. My response to this is that it still sells the breadth of salvation short and therefore fails to faithfully describe what’s going on.

So I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of this than it is. There is plenty of room for ecumenical dialog and further nuance. But my starting point, if that discussion is ever to happen, is that this book failed to take seriously the depth of salvation and, as a result, reduced compassion to an activity that can never be a satisfying form of service.

The Really Hard Part

It started with a rereading of Tuomo Mannermaa’s Christ Present in Faith, I have re-engaged with Protestant theology and thinking in a manner that I have not done for over a decade. What I have found most striking is the differing emphasis on the individual and the society.

From an Orthodox perspective, the really hard part of salvation is the transformation of the individual. When that is taken care of the societal and cosmic effects of sin and death will take care of themselves. Orthodox theology prides itself in being a cosmic theology, and yet the cosmic implications of the gospel begin with the person and grow outward from there.

From a Western perspective (and this is largely true of both the Latin and Protestant branches of the Western church), the really hard part of salvation is the transformation of society while the transformation of the person is largely taken for granted as an act of pure grace. (For by grace you have been saved by faith, not of works, lest you should boast.) There is a perceived duality of divine and human, of grace and effort, that is largely absent from Orthodoxy, and the effect of this duality in Protestantism is to accept as a given that God will transform individuals apart from human effort. The human effort is then focused on serving the world, evangelism, and through these things, the transformation of society.

It is the epistle lesson for Dec 24/25, Proper I that brought this to mind. Titus 2:11-14 says,

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

One thing I love about this text is that the author calls Jesus Christ “the grace of God.” It’s not so much that Christ offers grace, he is Grace.

This is a text that I have run into quite often in Orthodox writing because it lays out the purpose and path of salvation. We must renounce impiety and passions and we must live a life that is self-controlled, upright, and godly. Those aren’t future things, but the expectation of the here and now as we await the revelation of the “glory.” The Hebrew word for glory is “shekinah,” is frequently used in this particular sense in Hebrew scripture as a synonym for God. The “Grace of God” has appeared, and it turns out that the “Grace of God” is one in the same as the “Glory of God.”

In the Old Testament the Glory of God is often a frightening thing implying potential judgment, but here there is no judgment in the angry or frightening sense, only “Grace,” accomplished through God’s purification of his people.

This is in contrast (and I think that in the context of the two very different approaches to the Christian life in the East and West that I described above, you could call it a stark contrast) to Titus that we find this in the Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 9:4-5.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

Back when I  was a Presbyterian I would have likely treated this as a social justice passage, but seeing it with Orthodox eyes, there is no command to do anything found here, it is rather a description of what Christ, the Glory of God, will do when he reveals his Glory. It is a description of the kingdom (ie, God’s pure grace) in contrast to Titus’ description of the things we’re supposed to do while we wait for for the pure grace of “the blessed hope.”

I don’t believe we should make the contrast too stark. The personal emphasis in Titus and the societal emphasis in Isaiah are two sides of the same coin. But as I have read these Nativity texts this week, what struck me more than anything else is the difference in primary emphases of the two great traditions of the divided Church.

Which is the really hard part of salvation and which is more a matter of patient waiting because it is a description of the blessed hope? Well, in fact both are. In the end the Gospel is simply too big for us to effectively comprehend. And we will not be able to just grow into it either, the bigness of the Gospel is so big that we will ultimately have to wait for the bigness of the Kingdom to see how it all fits together.

The Covenant of the Heart

I picked up a book expecting one thing but getting quite another. The book is The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher (d. 1655). What it turned out to be was a very early Reformed exposition on grace primarily using the frame of the Covenant of Works vs the Covenant of Grace (ie, classical Covenant theology). His argument is familiar. Doing good things is not the essence of Christian piety because doing good things will not get you to heaven.

Fisher recognizes that when Christians equate piety with doing good things, having a good attitude, etc., the Christian in question is slipping back into a Covenant of Works frame. When this happens the Christian is negating the Gospel of “free grace” (a phrase Fisher likes) that is put forth by Paul in Romans and Galatians.

This sort of language is not commonly used in the Orthodox Church, but it is the normative language used among the people with whom I most commonly have theological discussions. A book such as this leaves me with the question of how I explain why what I do is not the sort of works religion that this book is describing.

While reading Fisher, a new category occurred to me that might be helpful. Let me begin by saying that at this point I am wandering off into what might best be described as a fantasia (the musical genre); I’m riffing on a Reformed theological theme and using the covenant frame to explore the doctrine of theosis. What I propose is a Covenant of the Heart (or Nous). The best of Covenant Theology will emphasize that there is only one overarching covenant between God and humanity. It had various expressions (Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ) but each expression both offered more revelation of who God is and was based on a deeper understanding of God that those involved in the previous covenants did not have. Covenants are therefore a means of expressing God’s progressive revelation in a relational rather than rational context. I am proposing that the touchpoint of the Covenant of Grace is our justification while the touchpoint of the Covenant of the Heart is our sanctification.

With this in mind, my proposed Covenant of the Heart (Nous) – which I again want to be clear, is my own invention – is yet another expression based on better human understanding of God’s revelation. Here is a brief overview:

God desires, not only to reveal himself to us (knowledge), but enter into union with us. When God unites with us, we are transformed by what we might call the super-abundant life of God. But our dead, sinful, corrupt humanity resists this living transformation. We therefore need to make every effort to tear away the old skin, the scales, the shell (think of a snake shedding its skin so it can grow) so this process of transformation can, not only begin, but advance and even possibly near completion in this life.

The purpose of life is not only to be stewards of the earth … the purpose of life is not only to learn more about creation … the purpose of life is not only to know God and be known by him … the purpose of life is to be transformed into Christ’s likeness, to enliven the divine image which we all have, and thus allow it to expand and grow and ultimately to become united with God.

The potential of this process is best captured by Elder Sophrony’s contribution to Orthodox theology (as described by Fr Zacharias, his disciple). The true potential, in this life, of the transformation of our being by the Gospel is in the expansion of the “heart” (and here I come to that italicized word in parentheses). Nous is a Greek word that can be, and is often, translated as heart, intellect, or being. It is the true inner person. When we “invite Jesus into our heart” this is where we are inviting him. Similarly when Paul says our “mind” should be transformed (as most English translations phrase it), the Greek word is nous. It is a notoriously difficult word to translate because it has no English equivalent and is thus often left untranslated. Fr Sophrony, who despises the tendency of experts to use technical language that excludes people, almost always refers to it as “the heart.” Following his lead, I will speak of a Covenant of the Heart.

Elder Sophrony, through a lifetime of monastic experience, believed that the heart is the specific link between Creator and created, the divine and human. The heart therefore has the potential to be infinite, or like God. Through discipline, as the heart grows, it can “take in” (or “wrap its arms about,” or, “envelope”) an increasingly larger segment of reality. Thus, as we allow our heart to be expanded by the Spirit, we can love more of the world, pray for more of the world, actually care about more of the world, without losing the specificity of the particular. Ultimately, he surmises, a person’s heart can, through the enlivening power of the Spirit, become so alive and so stretchable, that it could expand to hold the whole world. If that were to happen, such a person would indeed become a “priest” (in the basic sense of the word, not in its ecclesiastical meaning) praying for and being an intermediary on behalf of the whole world.

But if this were to actually happen it would require every bit of dead and resistant “old self” (Eph 4:22f) to be stripped away … a painful and difficult process. This requires a remarkable amount of effort to prepare one’s own body, soul, and spirit to be transformed by the living power of the Holy Spirit. It’s why Paul, the champion of “free grace” is also the one who says we must be like spiritual athletes who force our bodies into submission in order to win the prize of the high calling of God.

And here’s the difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of the Heart: All this effort is not aimed at making me acceptable to God … in other words, it’s not effort in the Pauline sense of “works of the law” … this effort is aimed at preparing the ground (Mt 13:8) for the Holy Spirit to create the miracle of the ever-expanding heart. In so doing I am not trying to make myself acceptable to God, rather I am removing all the impediments (the “old self”) that cause me to resist and reject God. This is the irony of extreme effort to open oneself to pure grace … the more extreme the effort, the purer the grace.

There is an undeniable tension between the utterly free gift of grace and the tremendous effort required to not resist the grace. (And yes, the concept that God’s grace is irresistible is considered a heretical idea in Orthodoxy because it reduces us to automata. The greatest expression of God’s freedom is his own willingness to circumscribe that freedom in his dealings with humans who are made in his own image. This is the inevitable wound of love.) Distinguishing between the Covenant of Grace and my newfangled Covenant of the Heart does not remove the tension, it rather breaks it into its constituent pieces in order to better understand the tension.

Bonhoeffer on Cheap and Costly Grace

Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins The Cost of Discipleship with a rant.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?

In case you find the first paragraph to be ambiguous ;), I will finish this post with the opening sentences of the many of the remaining paragraphs in the chapter. In his succinct style they function like outline bullet points:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system … an intellectual assent.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. [ital. in original.]

The Sabbath Rest of Hebrews 4

One of the curiosities (at least from the American Protestant perspective in which I still function intellectually) of Hebrews 4 (which actually begins in the latter part of ch. 3 … wow, that’s a bad chapter division!) is that the Sabbath Rest (which the author is describing) can only be achieved and maintained by obedience, which smacks of works and not rest.

One of my cousins’ daughters took her children (by herself, without the assistance of her husband) on a nearly week long trip to northern New York to visit relatives. While enjoyable, the trip was exhausting. When she got home she had this to say:

We’re safely back home … together with Martijn, Blaze, and Oreo, our family is reunited and complete once again 🙂 Tonight it’s just us and our pillows–tomorrow will come the unpacking, laundry, mail, groceries and to-do lists.

This is the essence of the Sabbath Rest: We are in our proper place, we are with the proper people. We get to sleep in our own beds. Unpacking, laundry, mail, groceries, to-do lists … I contend that this is a metaphor for everything involved in the Sabbath Rest of Hebrews 4. The Rest is not about not doing things, it is rather about doing things in the proper context. Our wandering is over. (Or, in terms of the author’s other reference, the world is now created and complete in six days.) We can now strive to be obedient within the confines of place and people. This is the mystery of the Kingdom of God.