Thursday, 18 August 2016

Angel's Aisle Part 7

Angel's Aisle Part 6

Angel's Aisle Part 5

Angel's Aisle Part 4

Angel's Aisle Part 3

Angels' Aisle Part 2

Film: Angel's Aisle Part 1

Film: Archimandrite

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Compelled by love

The following short homily was given this morning at our midweek Holy Communion and focused on one of the readings from Trinity 11, Paul's second letter to the Corinthians:

"The love of Christ controls us."  (2 Corinthians 5:14)

The word "control" seems out of place here as it suggests some kind of compulsion that works against our wills. We have all heard of a controlling husband who manipulates or dominates his wife making her life a misery. The same picture arises when we read the word ‘control’ here. It suggests something happening to us against our will.

An alternative word some translators use is the word "constrain". "The love of Christ constrains us" (King James). But again that has an element of being bound in some way. A dangerous prisoner is rendered harmless by a set of constraints he wears as he is led to the courts. These limit his ability to move and restrict him. Can the love of Christ be really seen in those terms as limiting or even restricting us?

There is a third alternative. The word 'compel'. "The love of Christ compels us" (New International version). This is probably the best. We have all been caught up watching a compelling film or reading a compelling book which we have found it hard to put down. Something about it draws us in and keeps us watching or reading. We are fascinated in a positive way by the object of our attention and we give ourselves to it freely.

I think that word is closer to the meaning that Paul is trying to convey here as he talks about being caught up in the love of God for him as he has come to know that love through Jesus. And it gives us an interesting insight into how the Christian life works or should work. There should be no compulsion in religion that works without or against our will. If we do not freely love God, but are made to do so, then that contradicts the very nature of love and God himself, who is says John, love (1 John 4:8).

And yet how many people operate as Christians without an understanding of that God loves them, REALLY love them, and has demonstrated this so wonderfully in Jesus? How many see their religion as something they have to do out of fear, or habit or custom, or because they have been told to follow by parents or under pressure from relatives? The Christian faith must run on love—God’s love for us and ours for God - or it is not Christianity. It is a soulless, empty and potentially soul-destroying thing which the new atheists and others are quite right to condemn and criticise. Without love at the very centre it will not work.

Take for example worship.  How often have I heard some people describe worship as boring? So much so that for them, when they are told that in heaven we will be worshipping God all the time they are quite put off by the idea. What is going on here? What is missing? It is love. Why would you worship a God you don't love or whom you are not convinced loves you?

The same applies to evangelism which is what Paul is talking about here in our passage when he talks about his work of reconciling people to God. Why would anyone talk to another person about the love of God unless they were convinced - as Paul was - that God really loves them and that that love had changed and transformed their lives and their understanding of God?

If this is so then, how can we come to the place where we gain a better understanding of the love of God? How can we know the love of God in or hearts and loves?

St. Isaac the Syrian was a 7th century saint who lived as a hermit for part of his life until he was made bishop of Ninevah. In one of his wonderful homilies he gives this advice. He says:

"Thirst for Jesus, so that he may inebriate you with his love.” (Hom 3, B 34)

If we will seek Jesus—thirst for him, read about him, reflect on his life, pray to him, open our hearts and lives to him - then, says Isaac, he will inebriate us with his love. In other words we will become so full of his love that it will be as if we were tipsy—that time when you feel warm and light-headed but still in control. There will be a liberation in the way we feel about the Christian life and it will have a positive effect on everything we do as Christians—how we worship, pray, speak about God and see the church, his body. When we fully know this love for ourselves, then we will discover the truth of what Paul is saying here in his letter. So let i.e. allow the love of God compel you says Paul. That is true Christianity.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Where love is, God is

"Where Love Is, God Is" is a short story by Leo Tolstoy about a shoemaker named Martin Avdeitch. The story begins with a background on Martin's life. He was a fine cobbler as he did his work well and never promised to do something that he could not do. He stayed busy with his work in his basement that had only one window. Through this window he could see only the feet of people. He was still able to recognize most people by their shoes as he had worked with most of the shoes at least once. He had a wife, but she died, and all their children had died in their infancy except a three-year-old son.

After he thought about sending him off to live with his sister he decided to care for the child himself. Martin however, was not destined to have a child as his son died a few years later with a fever. In grief, he denied God, wondering how He could allow such a thing to happen to him. One day a missionary visited Martin and Martin told him of his hardships. This missionary told Martin that he should live his life for God and not deny Him because God's will is the ultimate deciding factor and as humans we cannot question that. The missionary's words sank deep into Martin. After this encounter Martin went out and bought a large print Testament.

He began to read the Bible, at first only on holidays, but as he read more and more it became daily. His life became full with peace and joy. After his day of work he would sit down with a lamp and read. One night Martin read a passage about a Pharisee had invited Jesus into his house, and in the house a woman anointed and washed Jesus' feet with her tears. Martin thought of himself as the Pharisee in that story as he was only living for himself. As Martin slept he thought he heard the voice of God telling him that He would visit him the next day.

The next morning Martin skeptically watched out his window for God. While he was searching for God he saw Stepanitch shoveling away snow. Martin invited him in for a warm drink and they talked for a while. Martin told Stepanitch about Jesus' and the Pharisee and Stepanitch was moved to tears. Stepanitch later left and thanked Martin for the food, both for the soul and body.

Martin later saw a young woman outside with a baby not properly dressed for the cold. He invited her in for some food and gave her warmer clothes and money. Martin also told her about Jesus and she thanked him and left. Then he saw a young boy stealing from an older lady. He went outside and settled their argument as he extended love and compassion towards the both of them.

That night while Martin wondered why God had not visited him three figures appeared in his home, the three people he had showed hospitality to that day. They said that when he helped them he was helping God. Martin then realized that God had indeed visited him, and he accepted Him well.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Original sin

As an Anglican and an evangelical I have been brought up to accept the doctrine of Original Sin - as formulated by St. Augustine - without submitting it to any serious scrutiny or examination. However reading what Orthodoxy teaches on the subject I have come to appreciate it's more nuanced approach. Here is what I read about the difference between 'Original' and what the Orthodox call 'Ancestral' sin:

"The term Original Sin (or first sin) is used among all Christian churches to define the doctrine surrounding Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, in which Adam is identified as the man whom through death came into the world. How this is interpreted is believed by many Orthodox to be a fundamental difference between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Churches. In contrast, modern Roman Catholic theologians would claim that the basic anthropology is actually almost identical, and that the difference is only in the explanation of what happened in the Fall. In the Orthodox Church the term ancestral sin (Gr. προπατορικό αμάρτημα) is preferred and is used to define the doctrine of man's "inclination towards sin, a heritage from the sin of our progenitors" and that this is removed through baptism. St. Gregory Palamas taught that man's image was tarnished, disfigured, as a consequence of Adam's disobedience."
OrthodoxWiki

A fresh approach to evangelism

I came across this quote from "An Introduction to God: Encountering the Divine in Orthodox Christianity" by Andrew Stephen Damick" which takes a really fresh approach to evangelism:

"The point at which the book finally made sense to me was when I had the opportunity to ask a new friend, an actor and musician who was in the process of being received into the Orthodox Church, what he would say to his fans, what message he would give them about Orthodoxy if he could sit down and talk to them about it. I fully expected a sort of “elevator speech” in response—a slogan or one-paragraph summary to attempt to hook them into buying into Orthodoxy. What I got instead rather surprised and even shamed me. His response was not an “elevator speech.” Instead, the first thing he said to me was that such an encounter would have to be preceded by intercession.

What would he say to his fans? He would first have to pray for them. Why? Because he was not there to explain God to them. Rather, he wanted to provide them space for an encounter. In other words, he wanted to introduce them to God. That’s what shamed me. Why? There I was, well into my second decade of being an Orthodox Christian—and a clergyman and pastor, to boot—and I had just had the core of Orthodox evangelism communicated to me by a catechumen, someone who was a beginner in the faith. I had become so convinced that I needed to explain God, to provide an introduction to the subject of God—contrary to the whole attitude of Orthodox Christian theology—but what is actually needed is an introduction to God Himself, just as you might introduce one friend to another."

Friday, 29 July 2016

More on the Atonement

More on East v West

Changing perspective

It is a very sobering experience to spend the majority of your Christian life in one tradition,looking at the Bible and the Christian faith from one perspective, only to discover that there is another, older, way which held sway for the first thousand years of the Church. I am of course referring to the Eastern Orthodox Church or, as some have come to refer to it, as the undivided Church. And yet that is what has been happening to me over the last 5-8 years.

First came the shock to discover that in 1987 over 2000 dyed in the wool Evangelicals from Campus Crusade for Christ had suddenly - so it seemed - decided that they wanted to become members of what I thought was an obscure Eastern branch of Christianity called the Orthodox church. (I have since discovered that there are over 225 million of them as opposed to some 80 million Anglicans worldwide). What happened? I decided to investigate and read the only book I could find on the subject at the time called "Becoming Orthodox" written by Peter E. Gilquist who appears to have been one of the leading figures behind the move. (Since then many many more books have been written and, in the case of The Orthodox Way and The Orthodox Church by Kallistos Ware, been rediscovered and re-read.)

What has emerged from reading this and others has been, to say the least fascinating and deeply challenging, and, quite frankly uncomfortable. For example I came across the following advice of one of my favourite authors, C.S.Lewis. He one told his students:

“(If you must) read only the new or the old, I would advise…to read the old.”

His reasoning?

“A new book is still on trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages.”

Second, through my reading I have discovered that this ancient faith has, from the beginning, taken a completely different approach to nearly all the main doctrines of Christianity which I had come to believe - and preach - during my 28+ years of ministry. Things like sin, redemption, prayer, atonement, worship, sacraments etc. Let me take just one of the above. The atonement.

The classical, and reformed Evangelical theory - called the Substitutionary Theory of Atonement -argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive the sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus' death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.

The Eastern Orthodox Church from the beginning has never held to this as, among other things, it emphasises God's wrath and anger at the expense of his love.  Rather the Orthodox approach is to emphasise the love and compassion of God, rather than his anger against sinful humankind, and his longing to heal not punish, thus rendering any requirement on Jesus' part to absorb or deflect the wrath of God, unnecessary. God looks on us then in the words of Julian of Norwich, "with pity not with blame".

The Eastern Orthodox theories of atonement tend to centre more on Christ's victory over sin, death and evil (the Christus victor theory as made known in the West by Gustav Aulen) or the Ransom Theory where Jesus' death is offered as a ransom sacrifice on our behalf.

Following on from this (or preceding it) is the Eastern Orthodox view of sin which also differs from the West which is so caught up with ideas of honour and law-breaking. For the Orthodox sin is viewed primarily as:

"a terminal spiritual sickness, rather than a state of guilt, a self-perpetuating illness which distorts the whole human being and energies, corrupts the Image of God inherent in those who bear the human nature, diminishes the divine likeness within them, disorients their understanding of the world as it truly is, and distracts a person from fulfilling his natural potential to become deified in communion with God."  (See Wikipedia here

The work of Christ then is one of healing, compassion, reconciliation and restoration, not satisfaction, punishment or payment for transgression etc. The overall picture is not then of the law courts but the hospital.

Thirdly, reading the great spiritual writers of the Eastern Orthodox Church prayer has come as it is seen as one of the primary means of achieving the goal of the Christian life which is union with God. in the well-known phrase of Athanasius: "God became man so that man may become god". Of course this is not to be taken literally and to make it clear writers have inserted the word 'like' god. But the idea is that the goal or aim is nothing less than, in Peter's words, to become "partakers in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4 ESV). Here is what Wikipedia says of this doctrine:

"In Eastern Orthodoxy deification (theosis) is a transformative process whose goal is likeness to or union with God. As a process of transformation, theosis is brought about by the effects of katharsis (purification of mind and body) and theoria ('illumination' with the 'vision' of God). According to Eastern Orthodox teaching, theosis is very much the purpose of human life. It is considered achievable only through a synergy (or cooperation) between human activity and God's uncreated energies (or operations)."

Prayer at its simplest is often seen as asking God for things, or praying for the salvation of family, friends etc. All that is of course true. But more than that - or as a means to that - is the belief that it brings us ever closer to God so that in union with him, he is able to change us and the world around. One of my favourite quotes about this is from St. Seraphim of Sarov:

“Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”

So these are just a few of the new and challenging insights the Eastern Orthodox church has given me. On the plus side it has significantly refreshed my faith and helped answer a few of he more difficult questions that life has been raising over recent months. On the minus side, where, if anywhere is this leading?

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Conversion story of actor Jonathan Jackson

In 2012, Jackson and his family were baptized into the Orthodox Church. Jackson cited a trip to Romania and Rome that first brought his attention to learning about the history of Christianity. In his acceptance speech for his 2012 Daytime Emmy Award, he thanked the Holy Trinity as well as the monks on Orthodox monastic enclave Mount Athos. Jackson later explained in an interview, "These people (are) dedicating their lives to prayer, and not just praying for themselves, but truly praying for all of us. And then the thought kind of crossed my mind: with all the destruction, chaos and insanity that goes on in this world, if their prayers weren’t happening, what would this world be like? I felt personally like I just wanted to thank them because I really believe that their prayers mean a lot."

Former Evangelical Minister talks about his conversion to Orthodoxy

Simon Barrington-Ward on the Jesus Prayer

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Origen 185-254

The following article is from Christianity Today:

"We who by our prayers destroy all demons which stir up wars, violate oaths, and disturb the peace are of more help to the emperors than those who seem to be doing the fighting."

This third century "religious fanatic" gave up his job, slept on the floor, ate no meat, drank no wine, fasted twice a week, owned no shoes, and reportedly castrated himself for the faith. He was also the most prolific scholar of his age (with hundreds of works to his credit), a first-rate Christian philosopher, and a profound student of the Bible.

Child prodigy Origen Adamantius ("man of steel") was born near Alexandria about A.D. 185. The oldest of seven children in a Christian home, he grew up learning the Bible and the meaning of commitment. In 202 when his father, Leonidas, was beheaded for his Christian beliefs, Origen wanted to die as a martyr, too. But his mother prevented him from even leaving the house—by hiding his clothes.

To support his family, the 18-year-old Origen opened a grammar school, copied texts, and instructed catechumens (those seeking to become members of the church). He himself studied under the pagan philosopher Ammonius Saccas in order to better defend his faith against pagan arguments. When a rich convert supplied him with secretaries, he began to write.

Origen worked for 20 years on his Hexapla, a massive work of Old Testament analysis written to answer Jewish and Gnostic critics of Christianity. An examination of Biblical texts, it had six parallel columns: one in Hebrew, and the other five in various Greek translations, including one he found at Jericho in a jar. It became an important step in the development of the Christian canon and scriptural translation, but unfortunately it was destroyed. So massive was it that scholars doubt anyone ever copied it entirely.

This first Bible scholar analyzed the Scriptures on three levels: the literal, the moral, and the allegorical. As he put it, "For just as man consists of body, soul, and spirit, so in the same way does the Scripture." Origen, in fact, preferred the allegorical not only because it allowed for more spiritual interpretations, but many passages he found impossible to read literally: "Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day … existed without the sun and moon and stars?" In any event, Origen's method of interpretation became the standard in the Middle Ages. Origen's main work, De Principiis (On First Principles), was the first systematic exposition of Christian theology ever written. In it he created a Christian philosophy, synthesizing Greek technique and biblical assumptions. Add to these massive works his homilies and commentaries, and it's clear why he was reputed to have kept seven secretaries busy and caused Jerome (c.354–420) to say in frustrated admiration, "Has anyone read everything that Origen wrote?"

Origen has always been controversial. His reported self-mutilation, in response to Matthew 19:12 ("… there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven….") was condemned as a drastic misinterpretation of the text. In Palestine he preached without being ordained and was so condemned by his bishop, Demetrius. When on a second trip, he was ordained by the same bishops who had invited him to speak the first time, Demetrius sent him into exile.

While some of his writings are thought to have been hypothetical, Origen did teach that all spirits were created equal, existed before birth, and then fell from grace. Furthermore, "those rational beings who sinned and on account fell from the state in which they were, in proportion to their particular sins, were enslaved in bodies as punishment"—some demons, some men, and some angels. He also believed that all spirits, even Satan, could be saved. "The power of choosing between good and evil is within the reach of all," he wrote.

Most notably, however, Origen described the Trinity as a hierarchy, not as an equality of Father, Son, and Spirit. And though he attacked Gnostic beliefs, like them, he rejected the goodness of material creation.

Three centuries after his death, the Council of Constantinople (553) pronounced him a heretic: "Whoever says or thinks that the punishment of demons and the wicked will not be eternal … let him be anathema."

Some contend that Origen was merely trying to frame the faith in the ideas of his day; still his works were suppressed following his condemnation, so modern judgment is impossible.

Despite such condemnation, Origen said, "I want to be a man of the church … to be called … of Christ." His Contra Celsum, in fact, is one of the finest defenses of Christianity produced in the early church. Answering the charge that Christians, by refusing military service, fail the test of good citizenship, he wrote, "We who by our prayers destroy all demons which stir up wars, violate oaths, and disturb the peace are of more help to the emperors than those who seem to be doing the fighting."

The authorities, however, were not convinced: in 250 the emperor Decius had Origen imprisoned and tortured. He was deliberately kept alive in the hope that he would renounce his faith. But Decius died first and Origen went free. His health broken, Origen died shortly after his release.
http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/scholarsandscientists/origen.html

Prayer before reading the Scriptures

Origen (184-253 AD) wrote the following prayer for praying before reading the Scriptures:

Lord, inspire me to read your Scriptures
and to meditate upon them day and night.
I beg you to give me real understanding of what I need,
that I in turn may put its precepts into practice.
Yet, I know that understanding and good intentions are worthless,
unless rooted in your graceful love.
So I ask that the words of Scripture may also be not just signs on a page,
but channels of grace into my heart. Amen.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Reconnecting

Occasionally my spiritual life hits a dry patch and no amount of prayers etc seem kick start things into action again. Although they are not as regular a part of my life as I would like - because my spiritual life as an Anglican centres on the Daily Offices - when I struggle I turn back, inevitably, to the Orthodox Prayers (see below) and up the number of the Jesus Prayers i normally say. I tend to find that this refreshes me and helps me get into that place where I am able to reconnect with God again.

I know that this is all very subjective and I don't recommend this as a cure-all for spiritual laxity.  But there is something 'earthy' and yet mysterious about the prayers and they speak very much to the heart more than the head which is the downside of Daily Offices I guess.

Anyhow here - again - are the prayers of the Orthodox Church which are part of a sample Prayer Rule put on the web by the Greek Orthodox Church:

A Sample Prayer Rule
A prayer rule is the outline of our daily prayer routine. It is important to have a thought out rule. Casually going to your place for prayer and simply talking with God is not the best way to begin to develop your prayer life. We will find that we end up babbling in front of our God. We can take advantage of the centuries of wisdom and being by using proven prayers that will lift us up in our way of communicating with God.

A prayer rule should first specify the place and time of prayer (see this link). 
Then it should outline the sequence of your prayers and the specific prayers you will say.

Below is an example of a beginners prayer rule. Always consult with your spiritual father about your prayer rule. He will help you develop one that fits your level of prayer.

Outline for Morning and Evening Prayer
Place: In the icon stand in the spare bedroom.

Time: 6:30am and 11:00pm for 20 minutes each time.

Begin by lighting a candle, and making three prostrations and then stand quietly to collect yourself in your heart.

Introductory Prayers - Prayer to Holy Spirit, Trisagion Prayer and Lord's Prayer
One of six Morning or Evening Psalms
Intercessions for the living and the dead
Psalm 51 and confession of your sinfulness
Doxology and the morning or evening prayer
Personal dialogue with God
Jesus prayer - repeat 100 times.
Reflect quietly on the tasks of the day and prepare yourself for the difficulties you might face asking God to help you or in the evening reflect on the day and the difficulties you ecountered and how you dealt with them.
Dismissal prayer

Remember to stop mid-morning, noon and mid-afternoon to say a simple prayer.
Repeat the Jesus Prayer in your mind whenever you can throughout the day.
Offer a prayer before and after each meal thanking God and asking for His blessing.


Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The need for the physical

Hi folks, long time no write, but I am 'back' and writing again. I suppose the problem I was experiencing was that I was investing so much time in reading Orthodox books, listening to Orthodox podcasts and writing about my love for Orthodoxy that my own Anglican ministry was beginning to suffer a little, and given that that is what God has called me to in the first place, I owe it to Him to give that the priority.

Having said that I want to continue to write about Orthodoxy because I love it so much and so if I disappear for a while it may be because that love is getting in the way of my serving God as an Anglican again.

But to today. I am reading a lot of Dallas Willard at the moment and was very struck by something he wrote at the end of his book "In search of guidance" also published as "Hearing God". This is what he wrote, talking about the difficulty of hearing (and therefore relating to) God:

"...I am painfully aware of the one great barrier that will hinder our efforts to make (a life of divine guidance our) own.

This barrier is what Henry Churchill King many years ago called "the seeming unreality of the spiritual life" and could equally well be termed "the overwhelmingly presence of the visible world."

The visible world daily bludgeons us with its things and events, which pinch and pull and hammer away at our body and the bodies of those we love and care about. Few people arise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes or toast and eggs. Instead of shouting and shoving, the spiritual world whispers at us ever so gently and appears wraith-like at the edges and interstices of events and things in the "real" world of the visible. "

Later on he adds:

"God is not insensitive to our problem of overcoming the power of the visible world. He invades the visible. The elaborate visible provisions dictated to Moses by God - the rituals and equipment of sacrifice, tabernacle, and so forth - provided a point of constant interaction IN the visible world between the invisible God and the people he had selected to reconcile the world to himself. There was to be a continual sacrifice, morning and evening, at the door of the tent for meeting between God and the Israelites, "where I will meet with you, and speak to you." This is the form in which God chose to "dwell among the children of Israel and be their God." (Exodus 29:42-46)
In search of guidance: Dallas Willard page 234-235

Now is it me, or isn't that precisely the strength of Orthodoxy which has taken that understanding into its life of worship? Every temple - Orthodox Church - is chock full of images of angels, the Trinity, saints and martyrs, candles, incense and so on, that assault the senses and shout out that God has indeed "invaded the visible" because He knows how very difficult it is to relate to Him as a spiritual entity - which is surely the point behind the incarnation - that he first commissioned the tabernacle and later the Temple? Isn't it that matter can be, in some way, inhabited by God so much so that to touch a holy relic or be plunged into sanctified water is to somehow physically engage with the Divine or at the very least 'see' or somehow engage with Him? Is that where the Puritans and Protestants - the lower end at least - all fall down, especially in our more touchy feely times when the need to see, touch, smell etc is greater than ever before?

And in fact isn't that what so many modern worship services are doing through Powerpoint, dance, ambience creating light displays and in some cases a return to candles and some kind of liturgy?

We have much to learn from the Orthodox. Maybe that is why now seems to be their time?