Rebellion And Salvation

May I wish readers a happy and peaceful New Year. A New Year filled with the assurance of Almighty God, hope in Jesus, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we embark into a new Year New Year, we all need, a message of hope and assurance. What about a message of catastrophe? We have to understand the message of catastrophe first, before we understand the message of hope and assurance.

Let’s start with the facts. All parts of creation are damaged through the consequences of Sin; no one can argue with this fact. Everything has been affected, from a bumble bee, to polar bears and the Inuit, to rain forests and swallows. The once harmonious relationship between God and his creation has fragmented. The once original complimentary relationship between man and woman is darkened into rivalry and accusation.

The once intimate relationship between God and humans is distorted into evasion and rebellion. Instead all around us is, pain, travail, sweat, hate and death. Nothing is exempt from the catastrophe. Nothing is innocent in the catastrophe. Heaven and earth are implicated. Bacteria pollutes blood streams sickening both sinner and saint. Hailstones plummet out of the skies flattening the fields ready for harvest.

Liquid fire rips through the earth’s crust, engulfing, homes, animals, and birds. Rebel angels, disbarred from worshiping in the courts of heaven, infiltrate invisible world realms, twisting and deceiving the world’s nations. Gold and oil are more valuable than human life.  And human beings created in the image of God discover within themselves, often to their horror; they have heart’s that are desperately wicked and deceitful.

This is just a glimpse, a gloss of what goes on day by day. Month by month year by year. The catastrophe is beyond calculation; it is beyond man. Amazingly there is much beauty among the wreckage, such deep goodness, so much moral zest, blessing, active intelligence, good works; generosity of spirit that it is possible to live for long stretches, honestly unaware of the extent of the disaster. Just quietly getting on with life. Then suddenly it is inescapably upon us, around us, engulfing us, and we are in it. We feel utterly lost, we don’t know where we are, we don’t know who we are.

The catastrophe was caused Christians believe, by an act of disobedience and rebellion, going back to the beginning of time. An act designed to displace God with self. That is what most Christians believe. It is not a popular belief.

 The popular belief is that however bad things seem to be, there is no catastrophe. To face the fact of catastrophe would involve, at some point or other, dealing with God. Anything seems preferable to that. So, the devil doctors the report, and the world edits the evidence. Fake news surrounds us. People reduce their understanding of catastrophe to a level that is manageable without getting into the picture in any substantial way. The same act that caused the catastrophe, perpetuates it.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. If there is no accurate understanding of the catastrophe that we are each part of, there can be no adequate understanding of Salvation; for salvation is about God’s action that deals with the human catastrophe.

Salvation is about God’s determination to rescue his creation; it is his activity in recovering the world. What is salvation about? Essentially Salvation deals with a person’s soul; a family, even a community. It is widespread as it touches sin and sickness. Even the most unlikely people experience salvation across the world. This author being one of them.

Is there an alternative to God’s salvation? Well, it’s salvation by any other means. As we go into another New Year many are being optimistic after the New Year celebrations. It’s nice to be optimistic. But being optimistic is being hopeful without actually relying on God.

There are two types of optimist. Maybe you can identify with one of them.

One is a moral optimist, who thinks that well intentioned gestures of good will, will eventually overcome the mountains of injustice, racism, wickedness and corruption. Applied often enough good will put the world gradually to right.

The other optimist is; the Technological optimist, who thinks that by applying scientific intelligence to the problems of poverty, pollution, climate change, social reform the world will also be put to right.

Both types of optimism are very helpful and beneficial; but neither form of optimism Worships God. Neither sees God as central to the problem. Some tiny space maybe given to God from time to time, but its limited. Now It may seem a bit ungracious about all this intelligence and good will at work. These people after all, are at least doing something to help alleviate the problems. But the bible has a different take on it and this is why the world view will always clash with what the bible says. The bible discerns that a spiritual evil motivates these many good actions.

It is the evil of ignorance or trying to outwit or deny God. Their efforts to live well, to help others, and improve the world are fuelled by a determination, conscious or unconscious, to keep God out of who they are and what they are doing. If people can rationalise and interpret this catastrophe around us as something much less than what it really is; they can deny their need of God for salvation; either for themselves or others around them.

This is what the devil going into 2020 wants you to believe; things aren’t as bad as what they seem. The state of your soul is fine, you’re a good person. It was British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who said back in 1957; ‘most of our people have never had it so good.’ Even many of our television sets bear the logo of the manufacturer LG; Life’s Good.

This optimism is so pervasive. It advertises itself so attractively, and chalks up so many awards, honours and achievements, that it is difficult not to be impressed, and then actually go along with it. The hysteria concerning climate change is a classic example.

It is much easier to believe this falsehood, because then we don’t have to deal with God. Dealing with God, and submitting to him causes many people problems. Because when we deal with God, we soon realise very quickly that we might have to re order our lives by changing our mind, our attitude, changing the way we do things, and turning away from the things God hates.

John one of Jesus’ disciples and the author of the book of Revelation tells us that Salvation is made up of two things. It is made up of A Meal and a War. They are not two things I would have picked. But this is what Jesus revealed to John to record for us. The meal and the war represent two opposites. When you think about it, they are very good examples. War is man’s doing. We are also at war with God internally in our soul. Must people cannot see this. We prefer to do things our way rather than God’s way. Therefore, we create an impasse between ourselves and God. Salvation is God’s doing not ours; brought about through a Meal.

Salvation always begins with a Personal Invitation which leads to a meal.

‘Happy is everyone invited to the Lamb’s marriage supper.’ verse 9. This is the primary way Christian’s are to remember, receive and share in the meaning of our Salvation. Christ is our example; crucified for us, his blood shed for the remission of our sins.

In the sacrament of The Lord’s Supper, we take the elements of bread and wine in our hands. As we do so we maintain continuity with the killed and risen Jesus who is our salvation. This is what we do in response to an invitation concerning our Salvation mean. Salvation for anyone always starts with an Invitation. Jesus invites you to accept him as your Lord and Saviour. He doesn’t make you, because he respects you too much; he invites you to receive him. In some parts of the world people are born as Muslims, they are born as Hindu’s. They automatically enter that faith.

Christianity is different. While a person may be known as a Christian; they are not known as a Christian in the eyes of God until they accept his invitation of Salvation. Which means, to honour God more than anyone else, and to submit to his authority, not your own. That’s what accepting the invitation means. To reject the invite means to keep on going the way you are going along the broad road of life. We nearly all eat three meals a day as routine. But when we want to celebrate a great occasion, a wedding, birthday or anniversary we use a meal as means of expressing that joy to mark the occasion.

Salvation should be no different. On the one hand is Christ on the cross and risen from the tomb, and on the other hand, it is eating bread and drinking wine. The two cannot be separated.

At the Lord’s Supper eating together is an act of trust and love among friends and strangers. We do not, if we can help it eat alone. We come together with others, with family and friends. We show basic courtesies at the table. It is the place where we learn consideration and forgiveness. Grace and humility. Every invitation to the Lord’s Supper acts as a defence against reducing salvation as something that takes place in the strict privacy of the soul. The meal makes it impossible to keep salvation as a private preserve between God and us in the inner depths of one’s soul. The Lord’s Supper is a basic meal for basic people. It’s a level playing field for all present. It is an accepted invitation to equality with one another before God.

This vision of John gives us hope and assurance over catastrophe.  John comes to the end of the Revelation Christ has given him Chapter 19 verse 11. ‘I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called faithful and true. With justice he judges and makes war.’ Here we see Christ on a white horse splendid and victorious, leading Christian’s in a triumphant victory over the dragon Satan and his two beasts.

Salvation is being won here. The two beasts responsible for so much confusion, delusion and suffering are disposed of.

A thousand years later in Chapter 20, the dragon, Satan, responsible for the catastrophe since Eden and the martyrdom of Christian’s, is thrown into hell with them. Why all three are not thrown into the lake of burning sulphur at the same time I do not know. God has his reasons. The last action belongs to God, in that every form and source of evil is banished and destroyed from history for ever.  

Our struggle on this planet is not against flesh and blood, in other words people; our struggle is against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil which orchestrate the wickedness on earth. Do not be deceived into thinking that we live in a benign neutral world. Do not believe the lies of the world that with economic growth, high employment, better health care, it will bring lasting peace and prosperity. There is an evil at work around us intent to deceive and destroy us.

What Salvation does is that it attacks our enemy. When Jesus taught us to pray; ‘deliver us from evil’; he was arming us for a life of Salvation. Not a life of ease. When you look at the Apostle Paul’s life around the Mediterranean Sea, he did not set up moral or ethical societies. He set up churches. He fought battles against the forces of evil. Yet he did not seem to be the least bit frightened or phased. He was always working from a position of victory knowing that on the cross Christ has defeated the devil. Therefore, there is nothing to fear in the act of fighting. Paradoxically the safest place to be is on the battle field for there you will find that Christ is real and active.

Sadly, many Christians have thrown the towel into the ring before the battle starts. They aren’t interested. The devil with his superior intelligence has deceived, accused and confused them. John describes him as; ‘the deceiver of the whole world.’ Yes, we may get bloody noses as Paul and many others did. But are we prepared to fight for Christ in his power and grace this incoming year, or take it easy?

Be of good cheer. God’s redemptive plan is being worked out and he wants us to help him fulfill it.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The image shows, “The Fall of the Rebel Angels,” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1562.

Venerating Mary, The Holy Mother Of God

The most difficult part of my Orthodox experience to discuss with the non-Orthodox is the place and role of the Mother of God in the Church and in my life. It is, on the one hand, deeply theological and even essential to a right understanding of the Orthodox faith, while, on the other hand, being intensely personal beyond the bounds of conversation. I am convinced, as well, that the Orthodox approach to Mary is part of the apostolic deposit, and not a later accretion.

When I was doing graduate studies some decades back, I decided to concentrate my historical research on the “cult of Mary” (the veneration of Mary) in the historical Church. With that decision came a semester of intensive research, combing through materials of every sort. And throughout all of that research the question, “When did this begin?” was uppermost in my mind. I came to a surprising conclusion. It began at the beginning.

The historical evidence for Mary’s veneration is so obvious that it is simply overlooked: her place in the gospel accounts. I find much of the “historical” evidence about Christ to have a similar feature. It is amusing, and annoying, to read modern historical critics of the New Testament who come away from those documents arguing that the notion of Christ’s divinity was a later development.

Somehow they manage to read the New Testament and miss the most obvious thing: the writers all believe that Jesus is divine. They fail to notice that the very existence of the “Jesus material” of the New Testament exists solely because its writers believed He was God. Every line flows from that belief.

In a similar manner, Mary’s place within the gospels carries a message of veneration. Those who do not see this obvious feature of the New Testament generally get lost in the details, reading too much into sayings such as Jesus’ “Woman what have I to do with you?” and the like.

First, the stories of Mary hold an important place in the gospel narrative. St. Mark has the least mention of her, with no birth narrative. St. Luke has the most material, and St. John perhaps the most important. Biblical critics take a “least is best” approach and will say things like, “St. Mark knows nothing of a birth narrative,” a patently overstated claim.

For me, it is the seemingly “gratuitous” material that points to veneration of Mary. St. Luke’s account has the Magnificat hymn in which Mary declares, “All generations will call me blessed.” It is a phrase that can only be compared to God’s promise to Abraham: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).

In Mary’s encounter with her kinswoman Elizabeth (and with the child in her womb, John), the focus is on Mary herself rather than the child in her womb: “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (Luke 1:43-44).

Later in Luke, when the child Jesus is presented in the Temple, the elder Simeon prophesies: “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

Here, Mary is linked to the Cross of Christ in the piercing of her soul

I describe these stories as “gratuitous” in that they go well beyond the simple point of the Virgin Birth. Mark and John have no mention of the conception or birth of Christ (though they both include Mary in their narrative). The abundance of Marian material in Luke can only point to her veneration in the primitive Church.

She is not just the Virgin who gives birth to Christ – she is also blessed by all; she is the cause of joy to the Prophet John even in his mother’s womb; she is a unique participant in the sufferings of Christ, destined herself for a mystical sword that will pierce her very soul.

This is information that points to the unique place of Mary in the first century Christian community. How can the Church not venerate one whom John the Baptist greeted with a leap of joy when he was in the womb? How can the Christian community be rightly centered on the Crucified Christ and ignore the soul-pierced Mother?

The material in Luke isprima facie evidence of the primitive veneration of the Mother of God. That veneration never ceases in the Church, but matures over time as the Church considers the meaning and depth of Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection.

It is obvious that many Christians would prefer to read only Mark’s gospel and ignore the obvious implications in Luke and John.

John’s gospel seems to me to be marked with a profound understanding of the mystery of Mary. Of special note is his first mention of her. We meet her at the Wedding in Cana. John provides no introduction to her character – he presumes a prior knowledge on the part of his readers. At the Wedding, the wine runs out. And with no explanation of a practical sort, John simply relates that Mary tells Jesus, “They have no wine.”

It is profound. His disciples have seen nothing as yet. No miracles have been performed (this Wedding will be the scene of the first miracle). And yet Mary knows who He is and what He means. She is already fully initiated into the truth of His life and ministry.

Many Protestants have made much of Christ’s reply to her: “What is this between you and me?” They have treated the statement to mean: “What business is this of yours?” In fact, it simply asks, “What is this between you and me?” But St. John puts the statement in a context: “For mine hour has not yet come.” Christ says to His mother, “It’s not time. This doesn’t have to begin yet.”

They share the bond of the coming Cross. His life will be offered, a sword will pierce her soul. And once He begins, nothing can stop the movement to Golgotha. Her response is simple: “Do whatever He tells you.” It is a repetition of her earlier, “Be it unto me according to your word.” Her complete humility and self-emptying before God is a human reflection of the self-emptying of Christ on the Cross. With this new “fiat,” the inexorable journey to the Cross begins.

The mystery of her participation in Christ does not end with historical moments – for the sharing of those moments in the gospels are in no way merely concerned with the historical record. They are primarily theological moments. She holds not just a place in the history of salvation, but in its theological understanding and existential participation as well. The gospels are written for our salvation, and not as mere information.

And it is this theological and existential reality that are missing from many contemporary accounts of the Christian faith. The question is often asked, “Why do I need to venerate Mary?”

First, the Orthodox would not say, “You need to venerate Mary.” Rather, we say, “You need to venerate Mary as the Theotokos” (birth-giver of God). This is the theological title dogmatically assigned to her by the Third Ecumenical Council. She is venerated because she is Theotokos. To venerate the Theotokos is an inherent part of rightly believing in the Incarnation of the God-Man. To ignore her as Theotokos is to hold a diminished and inadequate understanding of the Incarnation.

But this is speaking in terms of mere ideas. The Incarnation is not an idea – it is a reality – both historical and now eternal. The Incarnation is the God/Man Jesus Christ. And, more fully, the Incarnation is the God/Man Jesus Christ born of the Holy Spirit and the Theotokos. This is what is asserted in the Nicene Creed.

The reality of this statement is not an idea, but a Person, both in the case of the God/Man, and in the case of the Theotokos. The act of believing in the Incarnation of Christ is made manifest in the worship that is properly directed towards Him and in the veneration that is properly directed towards the Theotokos.

And it is this that is so difficult to explain to the non-Orthodox. For doctrines are easily perceived by them as ideas, even factoids. In Orthodoxy, these doctrines are living realities. It is of little importance to acknowledge that someone is, in fact, my mother. It is of the utmost importance that I honor my mother (by Divine command) and love her.

We do not think doctrine. Doctrine is a description of the realities by which we live. We venerate the Theotokos because, knowing what we know, we cannot do otherwise.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Virgin of Deliverance,” by Ernest Hébert, painted 1872 to 1886.

What Are You Waiting For?

As Christmas approaches through Advent, we always seem to get busier and busier with jobs to do, gifts to buy, cards to write, food to prepare, events to attend. We push our way through crowded supermarkets and come home exhausted. Mind you there is shopping on line but it can be fraught as well especially when it comes up on your screen that the page has expired.

It can all become a burden as we wait for Christmas Day to arrive. How different it was for the Jews who waited for the Messiah to come that first Christmas. There is a story told in Luke Chapter 2 about two elderly people Simeon and Anna who were waiting.

Simeon was an old devout Jew who was waiting patiently for the promised Messiah. He had been told by God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. So, what did he do? He didn’t complain, or sulk. He didn’t give up when God did not answer immediately. Instead he went to the temple to worship God, the place where God met his people. He had been there many times over many years but this time was very different from all the others.

I wonder what Simeon was expecting to see. A vision, a revelation from God, an angelic warrior prince to drive out the Romans. Was he really expecting to see a baby? An eight-day old baby in his mother’s arms. Nothing is more helpless than an eight-day old baby. (we know Jesus was only 8 days old because under Jewish law a child had to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. Circumcision signified the separation of the child from a life of sin and death to a life lived for the Lord). Simeon being a regular worshipper would have noticed a young couple walk in and know immediately they were different.

Anyone who has been inside Westminster Abbey London will know that it would take you a couple of days to even find your bearings due to its sheer size. This temple in Jerusalem was on a 35-acre site. It was massive, filled with different courts, chambers, sacrificial areas, corridors and gardens. It would take very little to get lost inside it. But God leads his people to the right place at the right time. He does it even today. But sometimes we have to wait. Even for a long time.  Simeon appears and takes the infant Jesus in his arms and immediately sings a song about him.

He had given a lot of thought to the words he was going to sing as he had been thinking about this moment for a very long time. It is the last song he will ever sing. When you are happy, we sing a song generally don’t we. We sing in the shower, we sing in church, we sing when our favourite team scores a goal because we are happy. Singing is good for the soul. Simeon blessed the family and then he utters a prophecy. He did not question God about his choice of a Messiah coming as a baby. He thanked God for he saw in this helpless baby a light to reveal God to all the nations of the world.

In our society, the story of Christmas is represented nowadays as a sentimental happy one. But there is also a dark side to it. Simeon had difficult words to say to Mary and he didn’t refuse to say them. Simeon told her that the baby would be rejected by many; as well as bringing great joy to many. His words prepared Mary for the pain that she would suffer in the future. Life for us is often full of suffering too.

At Christmas, we cannot forget the suffering of others. In the birth of his Son, God was identifying with the poor, the weak and suffering of this world.It is very tempting to concentrate on our own families at Christmas and ignore the needs of others.  

Simeon was not the only one waiting for the Messiah. To the temple that same day came an elderly widow called Anna. She was over 90 years of age and a prophetess. Her reaction to seeing the baby was one of supreme joy. She began praising God and she talked to everyone she met in Jerusalem about Jesus.

A ninety odd year old going about telling others of Jesus; this is something all of us need to do more often. It is good news we should not keep to ourselves.

Anna like Simeon was also guided by the Holy Spirit at the right time towards Mary and Joseph. We are not sure how she would have seen this family in those days with no glasses and probably in a dimly lit area. But God led her right to them. What a moment that was for her after a ninety year wait. When she came in contact with the infant Jesus and his parents, she was over joyed giving thanks to God. And then we don’t hear anything more about Jesus or his parents for 12 years

What does this short story involving these two elderly people say to us today? There are a few things. Those who love God like Simeon and Anna need to be always tuned into God, and be ready to go where he wants them.  Because Simeon and Anna were tuned into God through their faith, they went to the right place at the right time.

If they had not responded to the leading of the Holy Spirit, they would have missed baby Jesus. And they would have still been waiting.  Its so easy to get distracted with other things that we might even consider important. 

Secondly to see Jesus is to see God; and his salvation. To see Jesus is to see God’s light and revelation. No other God, person, or thing can offer a person salvation apart from Jesus. When Jesus preached to the people, he told them that he, was the ‘light of the world, and whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.’

Jesus does not mention anyone else or any other method. Of course, we don’t see Jesus today the way Simeon and Anna or the 12 disciples or the woman at the well, or Pontius Pilate; saw Jesus physically in front of them. We see Jesus in a different way. He points out to us or speaks to us, in our inner being, in our mind and in our heart, that we need to come to him and love him for who he is. He tells us to repent and believe in him.  We need to be alert to God’s leading. To see Jesus is to see God; and thirdly what do we want for Christmas?

What do we want for Christmas? Simeon and Anna waited for a long time to get what they wanted and they got it. And when they got it, they were overjoyed. With salvation comes joy. Joy within your soul, knowing that God has forgiven you and granted you his presence every day of your life through his Holy Spirit. Is it any wonder Simeon sung a song, and was able to say;’ now dismiss your servant in peace’. Isn’t that lovely. I go to my grave in peace because of you God. I am content. How many of us can say that.?   

 Some of us old enough might remember the song; ‘All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, my two front teeth’. We can laugh at it. Mind you I wouldn’t mind getting a couple of new front teeth. What do you want this Christmas? What are you waiting for? Maybe its another relationship, maybe it’s the man or woman of your dreams, or the big house, or the exotic cruise, or the next party, or the insurance pay out.

Do you know that the devil convinces us that some of these things or even all of them can bring us true peace and contentment? It’s the greatest lie ever spun. Through this strategy he seeks to make us not content but discontent. That I believe is the greatest scourge in the world today because If we are discontent, there is no inner peace. We are not content with Brexit, we are not content with our salary, we are not content with our condo; we are not content with a court finding until we get the verdict we want.

We are not content with how a country operates; we want to meddle in it, which is how wars start. We are not content with our wealth, we are not content with our health and how we look, we are not content with our sexuality; we are not content with our lives. All of this impact’s society and our lives. And it’s killing people.

And if it’s not killing them its driving them to suicide, depression, despair and substance abuse.  I was talking to a school teacher a few weeks ago about Christmas. She has three primary school children of her own. She said to me, ‘you know I have no idea what I am going to buy my children at Christmas because they have everything they want.’ Not what they need; but what they want.

Imagine by the age of 10 you have everything you want. And then people wonder what’s going wrong in the world. And if you have everything you want you have no need of God. Why would you?  Read the bible it will tell you what’s gone wrong with the world and with people. It will also tell you how a person can have true peace in their heart not just at Christmas but every day of the year.

I hope that each of us will be able to say at some point in our lives; ‘for my eyes have seen your salvation’ and truly know the peace of God granted to us by the Prince of Peace.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The photo shows, “Christ Taking Leave of the Disciples,” by Duccio di Buoninsegna, painted between 1308-1311.

Exhortation And Praise

The Man-Made Machine

I.

Frail men, full formed but fallow,
unhallowed in hand-wrought harvest;
still, we dream.

But oh, what a mighty machine we are become!
What noble dreams dawned today,
and hereafter shall scrape sky and split atoms.

What boundless strength of sapien, what might of mind,
endless we stretch out our hand,
to grasp the sea and sky our birthright.

II.

High hollow human, great flesh golem,
made of the last men, manic in motivation,
misplaced prayers bind befouled flanks.

There you walk, wondrous idol-urn,
each arm wrought with people, their eyes glued
to cell phone screens, their bodies endlessly groomed.

See, each body finds abode in the sky-tall tyrant.
But watch the people sleep, sigh,
hold out on hallowed, unhelped hopes.

III.

I, in the still-small strains of rasped gospel songs,
in the white noise,
I see for me a small empty space
in the man-made machine;
I must fill it, or be forgotten.
And I am afraid.

For the Fleshpot Vessel, with its billion mouths,
and tongues like hairs upon its bare breast,
holds all power of bread, and homes, and names.

There is no fleeing from the man made machine,
who drains rivers and eats the dry land,
whose veins are lightning and mind of numbers,
and crushes those who will not fit their mold.

IV.

And still, I dream.

Yes, there was some oath of sand and stars,
of wine with bread, bought by some fey fairytale,
a person pincushioned to planks of pine.

Perhaps, such hopes are also man made,
and lead back again to the machine-beast,
but as my life expires before computer screens,
it is good, at least, to have some hope.

Antophon I

Father, we are your daughter,
sing to us and we shall sing.

The land lies quiet, desiring
cool dew wetting lips for kisses
winter fires reach their arms,
all flesh and fur and wings thrum,
hesitate between no and yes,
waiting for the angels to come.

Father, we are your daughter,
sing to us and we shall sing.

A virgin greets the morning temple:
soft sound of broom strokes on silence,
a bird thrills, cats look with startled eyes,
a dog barks, and the wind whispers,
“a messenger arrives, ave, ave,”

Father, we are your daughter,
sing to us and we shall sing.

The people gather to discuss pregnant things,
make pregnant choices, and the girls weep;
but for angel dreams and faith,
there is no holy family, only
broken homes.

Father, we are your daughter,
sing to us and we shall sing.

The women gather around their round bellies,
round faces, round smiles, and all is warm.
A baby dances, leaps, and a mother knows,
a bush on fire, unconsumed, carries,
light from beyond the world.

Father, we are your daughter,
sing to us and we shall sing.

At last, the sun comes, the sky breaks open,
the rooster crows, the cows low,
a child is born onto earth,
all heaven fanfares, a secret held by shepherds,
and God says, sings, at last, “all shall be well,
and well, and very well.”

Father, we are your daughter,
sing to us and we shall sing.

The photo shows, “Poem of the Soul,” by Anne Francois Louis Janmot.

Where Is God’s Space?

Is there a God “out there”? God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” we say in our Orthodox prayers, but is He “out there?” For what it’s worth, I want to suggest for a moment that He is not. Largely, what I am describing is what takes place in our imagination – that is, what we picture when we pray and how we think of God as we seek Him.

There are, to my mind, two primary ways of thinking and speaking about God. One is “juridical,” the other “ontological.” Juridical relationships are largely how we imagine relationships in our modern culture. We think of ourselves as individuals with rights and obligations, with a series of demands made on us by others and on others by us. The rules and laws of our society govern these forces. For us – everybody and everything is “out there.” Thomas Hobbes, writing during the years of the English Civil War, described this as the “war of all against all.” He opined that only a strong government could manage such a state of nature.

“Ontological” means “having to do with being.” My relationship with myself is ontological. I am not “out there” from myself. In the modern imagination, that is where ontology stops. There is my existence (“in here”) and everything else and everyone else is “out there.” The war goes on.

This is a deeply inadequate view of life. Consider the relationship we have with our parents. We are, quite literally, “bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh.” We share a biological reality that is itself our existence. This can be extended towards other human beings. We never(!) exist alone. We can be “considered” alone for the purposes of study and the like, but we are no more alone than any of the cells within our bodies. We are social beings, but social in a manner that has to do with our very being and not merely with juridical arrangements.

The story of Joseph Stalin’s death is an interesting case in point. His exercise of brutal force on all those around him (including members of his own family) was a triumph of juridical ideology. As he lay dying (so the story goes), no one goes to his aid. There is too much fear. In the end, relationships that are shaped along purely juridical lines fail to give life. Indeed, they foster death.

St. Silouan said, “My brother is my life.” Nothing better states the ontological character of our existence. If my brother is my life, however, what is this space between us? An image that comes to mind is leaves on a tree. The life of every leaf depends on the life of every other leaf, just as all leaves depend on the life of the tree. The “space” between the leaves exists only in an imaginary manner. They are connected in a single life. The life of one is the life of all.

The space between is part of our modern imagination. The language of rights, for example, seeks to assert connectedness by juridical means, but only increases the emptiness of the space between. It is little wonder that this juridical imagery, when turned towards God, fails to nurture the soul. What we know of “out there” is always surrounded with uncertainty and anxiety. The juridical depends, ultimately, on violence. We can only “make” (“force”) things to bridge the empty space between us. And, of course, the space remains empty, regardless.

The modern paradigm, composed of juridical relationships, is the mother of loneliness, teaching our hearts that they exist in a fragmented world of temporary, negotiated cease-fires in an otherwise war-of-all-with-all. The language of rights, rooted primarily in older warrior cultures of Northern Europe, have given us our world of contracts, but never a world of true being.

God is not “out there” in the sense imagined by the juridical mind. At its very heart, “everywhere present and filling all things” means that there can be no “out there” with regard to God. God is only “here.” The Scriptures commonly describe God as dwelling “in us.” St. Paul describes our bodies as “temples of the Holy Spirit.” The language of Holy Baptism is not one of establishing a juridical relationship. It is the language of union, as is the language of the Holy Eucharist: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (John 6:56).

All of this can easily remain little more than an intellectual distinction. My conversations over the years, however, tell me that our juridical imagination dominates how we see God. We long for a relationship with One who is “out there,” while remaining oblivious to the God who dwells in us. In a recent conversation with a young convert who was struggling with a sense of God’s absence, I said, “But you breathe Him!”

Life (and existence in all forms) has been reduced to science-facts, objects or properties of objects. In truth, all things have their existence in God (not in themselves). We live in a creation that was brought into being out of nothing – it has no being in and of itself. From an Orthodox perspective, the existence of anything is proof of the existence of God.

We recognize, however, an even greater union within human beings. Of us alone, it is said that God breathed into us and we became living souls. To know God is also to know oneself – and, we may say, we cannot know ourselves apart from God, for there is no such self.

Of all the writers in Scripture, the one who says the most about problems of being, existence, connectedness and such, is St. John. And, for St. John, the key within all of these things is love. Consider this classic statement:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

“…if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” This is the language of mutual indwelling that has no place within a juridical model of relationships. God is love. Indeed, in this passage there is a consistent blending of action and being. God not only does (He loves us) but He is what He does (God is love).

This manner of being is the image according to which we are created. Love constitutes our true being. “My brother is my life.” This is more than a moral statement: it is a reflection on the very nature of true existence. For this reason, the “space between,” must be seen as a delusional artifact of the juridical imagination. We are created to exist as love – love of God, love of the other, love of self. When we withdraw from the love of God and the love of other, then the love of self collapses into a solipsistic loneliness. Sadly, we have frequently structured the modern world to accommodate and promote the lonely self. Our neighborhoods, our cities, our mode of transportation, our world of entertainment and consumption thrive on the lonely self and seek to fill the space between. However, you cannot fill emptiness with emptiness.

“Out there” is “in here.”

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “The Eternal Father,” by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), painted in 1646.

The Persecuted Church

The situation is not a good one in the Middle East if you are a Christian family.

The chances are you will either be persecuted or you become a refugee and in most cases both.

Historically in Iraq there were up to 7 million Christians until the invasion of Islam in 633AD (then known as Mesopotamia) which was designed to wipe out Christianity, its culture and tradition. It has never recovered since. IS have recently added to the persecution.

In many towns and cities across the middle east the mullahs announce from the minarets that all Christian’s are to leave immediately otherwise every one of them will face consequences or death.

There are 5 million orphans in Iraq; with Yemen, Kuwait and Qatar etc giving them money to be terrorists.

In one of the cities in Lebanon there are many Syrian and Iraq refugee Christians.

The church started out with 75 then 750 and now averages around 1500 believers and growing, There are 40 mid-week prayer groups.

What is happening on the ground? Many Muslims are coming to faith in Christ. Their thought their religion was infallible but now Sunni and Shia are at war with one another. Deep divisions exist between the two. The god they believed in no longer seem to be the god they can trust. Many Muslims in Iraq are coming to Christians to see if they can pray in Christian churches and ask for healing especially for their children. When Arabs come for healing and are anointed by oil, they believe they will be healed by a Christian priest.

Many people including children in Iraq have genetic defects caused by the bombing and nerve gas used in the Gulf war of 1990 and the Iraq War in 2003 which lasted 8 years.

Christians are giving Muslims food and sharing with them The Muslims ask ‘why does our enemy do this sort of thing. Why are they giving clothes and food to us’?

More Muslims have come to faith in the last 5 years than in the last 1500 years. This is a fact. This is the key to the gospel and the key to how the people move on with issues concerning the past in Northern Ireland. The past haunts the country. The longer it goes on people become more entrenched in their stance. How do you make an enemy your friend? This is the conundrum that nobody can figure out.

Politicians don’t even understand this basic question. How do you make an enemy your friend? By bombing them?

By reaching out to them; what does Jesus says; ‘you have heard that it was said love your neighbour and hate your enemy; but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; so that you may be sons of your father in heaven. Is Jesus, right? Of course, he is. But it’s costly. It’s sacrificial.

Jesus says; ‘a person must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’. Taking up your cross is voluntary.

Local pastors say that many countries had withdrawn their ambassadors from Syria because of the danger. But they themselves are Christ’s ambassadors; they cannot leave. The church from those early days in Straight St must be kept going. Christians fed by the word of God. They must stay and deny themselves as they take up their cross.

But many leave to because they cannot take any more and end up displaced or in refugee camps, where they are often persecuted even in the camps.

Persecution is a ‘Blessing’ for many. It drives people to fasting for days and praying and begging the Lord to tear down the citadels and strongholds of Satan.

People coming to faith are being released from sin and darkness.

Coming to church hungry to hear the word of God. Not looking at their watches in church services, not wanting to leave the church.

Praying for Revival with God’s spirit blowing into the hearts of Arab Christians, revival blows away the cobwebs of apathy, and affluence and hate. Pray that God would call people to be prayer warriors as not all Christians are gifted in this way. Praying for Satanic strongholds to fall and they are falling.

Christians are thanking the Lord for persecution.

A Christian Teacher in Pakistan was appointed principal of a local school. He had the qualifications and ability way ahead of other applicants. Muslim Parents came and told him to mark their children present in class when they were absent. He refused.

They took him outside and beat him up badly. He had to stay off school. Then they spread rumours that he wasn’t fit for the job. Then they accused him with blasphemy. Blasphemy carries death penalty.

An 8-year-old Christian girl was locked in the toilet all day by the teacher when Muslim girls complained that she should not be allowed to use the toilet. Persecution is spreading across all of sub-Sahara Africa. Yet people are being spoken to through dreams and visions just like Acts 2:15-. New life is sprouting up after the forest fire. Revival, persecution, blessing.

The Berlin Wall came down through prayer; the Communist Wall came down through prayer;

The Roman Catholic church will be refined. The Arab Muslim wall is falling apart. Do you think God is behind this? This is unprecedented. We are living in unparalleled times. This has all happened in the last 25 years; that’s pretty quick, don’t you think? Let’s think about what is going on instead of being blinkered and duped by Satan. Persecuted Christians need our help.

Arab Muslims are lost; their faith is a sham, it’s totally false. Mohammed was a fraud and a trickster. Oil money cannot buy them eternal life. God is highlighting this to the world. Look at the state of their countries. Even Saudi Arabia the lynch pin of the Arab world is in a mess.

They are building a wall 600 miles long between themselves and Iraq to the North to keep IS terrorists out. And this is against their fellow Muslims not Christians. Sunni are fighting Shia and vice versa. Look at what happens at Mecca.Many have been killed in stampedes with a crane falling on them 4 years ago at the Hajj pilgrimage. Lightning struck the crane before it fell over at the biggest mosque in the world designed to hold more than 2 million people. Is this all just chance?Saudi Arabia has spent billions on creating a highway for the pilgrims to reach Mecca. The design of this concrete highway was supposed to bring more pilgrims into Mecca instead it has caused chaos.

 Rev Farouk believes we are living in the last days but not just yet. He is only one man but there are many Arab believers who have the same opinion.

Much of what he says is based on Isaiah 19 which talks about Egypt, Assyria and of course Israel. There are of course many other prophetic passages in scripture concerning the end times especially in the book of Daniel.

But one thing is certain; the future of the Middle East is going to determine the future of the world. The covenant God made with Abram still stands. Genesis 12 v 3. ‘I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ The sequencing of events and time scale we do not know. But read it for yourself. If you read Isaiah you will see a list of the Arab nations where God will bring judgment to each one of them. Arabia, Assyria, Babylon now Iraq, Ethiopia, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel. It’s all there in black and white. Israel in particular will endure suffering prior to her deliverance by the Lord.

Egypt like many Muslim nations will disintegrate from the inside the seeds have already been sown. But the Lord will make himself known to Egypt and heal that nation.We live in a time of great economic and political unrest and upheaval.

Europe is in a mess and the majority of British politicians’ post Brexit have decided they want the nations sovereignty to be solely in the hands of Brussels despite a vote by the people wanting the very opposite.

The leaders we elect really haven’t got a clue. One day they decide to bomb Syria, then they say no. Next week they say bomb some parts of it. Change their minds, They don’t know who to bomb. Now things have gone quiet and no one knows what’s happening. The international community is afraid to act now in Yemen. Meanwhile the innocent are slaughtered.

 ‘Nation will rise against nation’. Matthew tells us in chapter 24 that the disciples came to Jesus and asked him about the signs of the end of the Age. ‘Tell us’, they ask the Lord, ‘when will these things be and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age’. They were as interested and concerned as we are today.

Jesus calmly tells them in a general way; ‘you will hear of wars and rumours of wars’. See that you are not alarmed; for this must take place; but the end is not yet.’ It’s only the start, and it has started. All the beginning of global birth pains.

For Jesus to come again which he has promised repeatedly to do there will be thousands and millions of believers which he will gather up.

Jesus is not coming to gather up a few hard-pressed believers and a non-existent church. He will come in glory to gather his people up.

There will be millions and millions of Christians across the world he will take up to heaven. Will you be one of the many? Think carefully.

Jesus in the last 14 verses of Revelation 22 tells us 3 times that he is coming soon. Mark in your bibles where he says that. V7.12,20. He doesn’t say he will be coming in another 20,000 or 50,000 years. He is coming soon. The hour is near.

People will come to faith in the middle east. Millions of them. The cradle of Christianity. St Augustine of Hippo home patch. The Christian faith where it all began with Paul’s missionary journeys will return.

You see people think they can play God. They have always thought that. The Eurocrats in Brussels shake their fists at God and all that he stands for.

Their arrogance and intransigence can be traced even from the Tower of Babel. ‘Let us make a name for ourselves’, they said as they began building in defiance of God. The Lord in his mercy dispersed the people. Later during the Exodus God called them a ‘stiff necked people. Rev Farouk tells an amazing story.

At one of his prayer groups in the church attended by around 700 people. Yes, a prayer group of 700 people in Iraq. You see what happens with corporate prayer with this number of people. The devil’s strongholds fall down.

As he was speaking a small man came into his church. (Like Zacchaeus) Little tuna he called him.

He had body guards with him who ushered him to the very front pew of the church.

There he sat with 6 bodyguards around him. After he spoke, he asked people if they would like to be prayed for.

Rev Farouk went to the man and asked him would he liked to be prayed for. He said he would. And within minutes there was a pool of tears on the floor.

After the meeting Rev was told that a man wanted to see him in his office. When he went it was the little man with his body guards. He asked the Rev did he know who he was. Rev said no. He said I am the President’s personal advisor. I advise him in all his political affairs.

He went on and told Rev about how as a child of 6 years he was made to watch his parents being hacked to death by Saddam’s guards. He was so shocked he could never cry.

Later He was thrown into prison and tortured. Again, he was unable to cry with the pain. But now God was providing a way of healing for him and for his soul. He is now a member of the church.

This is a truly amazing turnaround for any individual. But all things are possible with God. Thank goodness.

Rev Alan Wilson is a recently retired Presbyterian Minister in Northern Ireland. He was a former Police Officer during the ‘troubles’ before going into the ministry. He is married to Ann and they are now proud grandparents of Jacob and Cora. He enjoys keeping Alpaccas, gardening, watching football and learning how theology relates to the environment and the world at large. He and his wife spent a summer Exchange in 2018 with a Presbyterian Church in Toronto.

The photo shows, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s “The Martyrdom of St Andrew,” painted between 1675 and 1682.

History’s Long Defeat

“Actually I am a Christian,” Tolkien wrote of himself, “and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory” (Letters 255).

History as a long defeat – I can think of nothing that is more anti-modern than this sentiment expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a thought perfectly in line with the fathers and the whole of Classical Christian teaching. And it’s anti-modernism reveals much about the dominant heresy of our time.

We believe in progress – it is written into the DNA of the modern world. If things are bad, they’ll get better. The “long defeat” would only be a description of the road traveled by racism, bigotry, and all that ignorance breeds.

And our philosophy of progress colors everything we consider. 19th century Darwinian theory wrote a scientific version of progress into his theory of evolution. Of course, using “survival” as the mechanism of change gave cover to a number of political projects who justified their brutality and callousness as an extension of the natural order. 

The metaphor of improvement remains a dominant theme within our culture. A few years ago a survey of young Americans revealed the utterly shocking conclusion that for the first time in recorded history, the young did not expect to be as well off as their parents. It was a paradigm shift in American progressive thought. It remains to be seen how that will play out.

But Tolkien’s sentiment bears deeper examination. For not only does it reject the notion of progress, it embraces a narrative of the “long defeat.” Of course this is not a reference to steady declining standards of living, or the movement from IPhone 11 back to IPhone 4 (perish the thought!). It is rather the narrative of Scripture, first taught by the Apostles themselves, clearly reflecting a Dominical teaching:

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. …Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was. But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra– what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived (II Timothy 3:1-13).

This is Tolkien’s warrant for the “long defeat.”

 And the thought is not that we wake up one day and people are suddenly boasters, proud, blasphemers, etc. Rather, “evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

It was a common belief among the Desert Fathers that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker, unable to bear the great trials of their predecessors. Indeed it was said that in the end, the simple act of believing would take greater grace than all of the ascetic feats of the earliest monks.

This is not a Christian pessimism. If history tells us anything, it is that this is a very honest, even prescient reading. The evils of the 20th century, particularly those unleashed during and after World War I, are clearly among the worst ever known on the planet, and continue to be the major culprits behind all of our current struggles. That first war was not “the war to end all wars,” but the foundation of all subsequent wars. May God forgive our arrogance (“boasters, proud”…). However, the Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.

It is that hope that sets the Christian gospel apart from earlier pagan historical notions. For the “long defeat” was a common assumption among the ancient peoples. The Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves to have exceeded the heroes who went before. They could model themselves on Achilles or Aeneas, but they did not expect to match their like. The Jews had no hope other than a “restoration of the Kingdom,” which was generally considered apocalyptic in nature. All of classical culture presumed a long decline.

The narrative was rewritten in the modern era – particularly during the 19th century. The Kingdom of God was transferred from apocalyptic hope (the end of the long defeat) to a material goal to be achieved in this world. This was a heresy, a radical revision of Christian thought. It became secularized and moderated into mere progress. It is worth doing a word study on the history of the word “progressive.” 

But Tolkien notes that within the long defeat, there are “glimpses of final victory.” I would go further and say that the final victory already “tabernacles” among us. It hovers within and over our world, shaping it and forming it, even within its defeat. For the nature of our salvation is a Defeat. Therefore the defeat within the world itself is not a tragic deviation from the end, but an End that was always foreseen and present within the Cross itself. And the Cross itself was present “from before the foundation of the world.”

Tolkien’s long defeat, is, as he noted, of a piece with his Catholic, Christian faith. It is thoroughly Orthodox as well. For the victory that shall be ours, is not a work in progress – it is a work in wonder.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “Galadriel,” by the Brothers Hildebrandt.

The Secular Quest For Eden

If you lurk around social media, particularly in conservative conversations, you will have undoubtedly seen something about recent statements on the part of a minor Democratic candidate for the Presidential nomination. I have no interest in the politics of the matter. However, the exchange goes to the heart of the modern impulse and serves as an excellent example of modernity’s dangers. The exchange:

Don Lemon: Do you think religious institutions like colleges, churches, charities, should they lose their tax exempt status if they oppose same sex marriage?

O’Rourke: Yes. There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone, any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights, that denies the full civil rights, of everyone in America. So as president, we’re going to make that a priority. And we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.

“We are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.” Of course, removing the tax-exempt status of selected religious institutions will do nothing to “stop” them from believing (and practicing) what they believe – not if their faith is worth its salt. Indeed, the comment might have been an ill-thought attempt to simply say that “we will punish those who deny these ‘rights’.” Religious people have a long history of being punished for their beliefs and a dogged propensity to dig in their heels when persecuted.

Modernity has an impulse to power that is, apparently, hard to resist. In the drive to build a better world (regardless of its definition) there is a deeply hidden belief and assumption that the world doesn’t want to be a better place. Thus, if the world is left to its own inclinations, it will lapse into a worse place. Modern thought is of a piece with the American frontier experience. The world is a wilderness in which civilization can only carve out spaces. The jungle always threatens to return and must be kept at bay – by force, if necessary.

It was a very interesting way to treat the buffalo, the trees, and whole tribes of people. Of course, it was (and is) a philosophy of devastation. It is also the most patently dangerous set of notions ever to have stalked the planet.

Technology has always been part of human existence. The first sticks were technologically improved by sharpening and we have never stopped. Modernity is the first philosophy, however, to imagine technology as the means of remaking the planet. Indeed, in a manner of speaking, technology itself has become the new planet, inhabited by minds expressed as 1’s and 0’s. In a world of artificiality, artificial intelligence, or intelligence that has been rendered artificial, is “naturally” at home. Of course, it is less than human, as well.

Human life is a traditioned event: it is handed down to us. Everything about us, down to the most microscopic level of our existence, is given to us from those who have gone before. We do not start with a blank slate, nor is the world around us a blank slate. The madness of those who are driven by the modern impulse is their refusal to acknowledge and respect what has gone before. To be the smartest generation is an arrogance unknown until rather recently in human time. Evidence continues to mount that such arrogance ill-serves our civilization.

The Christian faith, when rightly taught, has no agenda for the improvement of the world. It has the commandments of Christ, which, when practiced, certainly treat the world with kindness, mercy, love, and generosity. However, the Church has no mandate to exercise the sort of control that would nurture the modern impulse. The moments in history in which Christianity and empire have seemed to coalesce, represent temptations that have betrayed the faith as often as they have seemed to foster it. The naïve sentiment that such times were an ideal, much less, a goal, are maintained only through a refusal to look carefully at the facts.

The commandments of Christ point us towards His Father as the model for our life. He is “kind to the evil and the ungrateful.” He “makes His rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” If “making the world a better place” were the job description for the Father, then we would justly wonder why He fails to do so.

The work of Divine Love is a “mystery hidden from all the ages.” It is a “treasure buried in a field,” and “like a lost coin.” The death and resurrection of Christ point towards a triumphant love of God that, ironically, succeeds in failure. The modern impulse is a script for Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor

who suggests that human beings can do a far better job than God with the needs of the world.

The philosophy of control and the management of creation is deeply alluring for the simple reason that it seems to be the sort of thing that should work well and to our benefit. Indeed, there are any number of examples where such control has done quite well. The sheer power of technology creates a siren call to wield it – like a ring of power. Beto’s words, however, reveal the corruption of such power. “We are going to stop those…” Such words are not restricted to either the Left or Right: they are the voice of modernity.

The great struggles of modernity, culture wars, and ideological battles, have all been fought on the field of management. Each election cycle comes as an effort to seize power, only to find that the battle continues. Ultimately, only if the opposition is thoroughly vanquished (“we will stop them”) will the battle appear to end. The great masters of this application of power understood that weakness and gentleness with regard to power are useless. Only the ruthless win in the game of modernity. Thus, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, and their ilk, all enjoyed their moments of apparent victory. And yet, each of them is dead and their projects returned to dust.

In a quote that should be etched in stone and memorized by all, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had lived in the belly of modernity’s darkest beast, offered his wise observation: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”

There is “one small bridgehead” in the heart of every human being. That is perhaps the most hopeful statement of the 20th century. In point of fact, most human beings are not engaged in world improvement, or stopping the “improvements” of their adversaries. Most people live, work, eat, love, and die, within the relatively small margins of their existence. If the masses rush to the barricades, the madness overwhelms the world for a time. And yet, it always subsides.

There are, I think, limits set within the world that tend to protect us from our best intentions. First, we live for a limited time. Second, people would rather work, eat, love, and die rather than stand at the barricades. I have said quite frequently that in an argument with gravity, gravity will almost always win. There is a “gravity” in the world that tends towards stability rather than chaos, or that tends towards chaos when the gravity is of an unnatural form.

The New Testament speaks of two mysteries. There is the “mystery hidden from all the ages” that surrounds God’s work of gathering all things together into Christ. There is also the “mystery of iniquity” that is not so well-defined. We are told, however, that it has its own time and its own limit. One small bridgehead of good always remains.

The nations rage and imagine themselves to be the arbiters of history. The mystery of the Kingdom continues to work its way within the bridgeheads of the heart. That the world still stands is testimony to the vanity of the nations and the steadfast commitment of God to our salvation.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows a painting by Zdzisław Beksiński.

John Calvin’s Distortions

I grew up with Calvinist thinking. I spent my time reading Puritans and Spurgeon, checking things in Louis Berkhof, and promoting the books of John Piper. I was fully immersed! I made Mark Driscoll look like a soft Arminian.

Over the years I’ve questioned everything. Naturally. This is The Grit! And as I have, I’ve noticed some structural problems in my faith, some tensions, ways that it didn’t all hang together. I now hold my Calvinist heritage in a slightly more nuanced way. I’m thankful for the truth in it, but willing to acknowledge its weaknesses and critique it also.

I think some of the weakness in Calvinism occurs at a deep structural level. After a decade of thinking this over, I’m ready to sum it up. Here’s my critique:

Calvinism starts with the complete sovereignty of God. Whereas it should end there.

By starting where it should end, it collapses the space in which the story might unfold. It has an anti-narrative bent, a static tendency, built-in. There is no deep significance to time in the Calvinist worldview. Whatever time it is, at the deepest level all is well, for every molecule is following the predetermined will of God. And so all times are fundamentally the same time.

But we need space for the story. We need time for the story. Because the story is the gospel.

For Calvinists, God’s sovereignty is defined basically apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Whereas in the NT, I take it, that event is the defining moment for what it means that God is king. When Calvinists say, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, they don’t intend to be saying anything much about God’s sovereignty: that’s already been established long ago. Whereas for the apostles, ‘Jesus is Lord’ was pretty much all they had to say about God’s sovereignty.

For Calvinists, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t really change much. There is no room for a real coronation, and real victory of God at the cross. Because God’s victory has always been total anyway. He was King the day before, just as he is the day after. The main thing that changes is the appearance of the thing to us down here. But the underlying, unseen relationship between God and the world (i.e. complete sovereignty/submission to his will) remains the same.

In other words, God is not personally implicated or involved in the changes and events that make up the story, because there can be no real event for that sort of God. He is immutable in his utter sovereignty. Try making a story with a leading character like that!

This key aspect of the Calvinist world view, it seems to me, is ultimately anti-gospel.

I have another way I want to express my critique of the Calvinist thought-tradition I belong to. It’s another angle on the same thing:

Calvinism divorces God’s sovereignty from God’s kingdom.

These are metaphors. We can understand something about God by saying he is like one of our human rulers. He is King. He is in charge. He has a territory over which he holds sway. This is his sovereignty.

Or is it his kingdom?

Thing is, the two metaphors are not two, but one. It’s the same image. Therein lies the problem for Calvinism. Let me show you what I mean.

The first mention of God’s sovereignty in Scripture is at the Exodus:

…your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy…
You brought your people in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession,
the place, O LORD, that you made your abode,
the sanctuary, O LORD, that your hands have established.
18 The LORD will rule as King forever and ever.” Exodus 15

What does God’s sovereignty mean here? It means he came down and smashed Pharaoh, and created a people and gave them a land where he would rule over them. It’s not abstract, it’s very concrete. It’s about God’s presence and visible action.

In the Psalms, God’s kingship is introduced as a Messianic concept:

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” Psalm 2

Another classic ‘kingship psalm’, 29, begins and ends with the image of God hovering over waters:

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever. Psalm 29
This is a creation image. God asserted his power over the waters, in the creation. They obeyed his voice. In this sense he is viewed as ‘enthroned’ over the waters. This is his kingship, or sovereignty.

Psalm 74 bemoans that in God’s absence, foes have made a mockery of his land. But that is not the whole story: there is still hope of God’s kingship.

Yet God is my King from of old,
working salvation in the earth.
You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. Psalm 74

This is God’s kingship: his victory over the waters and the leviathan. His parting the Red Sea and smashing the ‘dragon’ Egypt. And it may return.

All of these psalms view God’s kingship as something concrete and visible that happens ‘down here’. We tend to overlay this with a framework of ‘God is already fully king, it just needs revealing‘. This is an abstract structure of thought which I suspect would be meaningless to the psalmists.

Seems to me the Jewish Scriptures have a view of God’s sovereignty which is pretty close to what we might call, ‘God’s kingdom’.

In the NT, of course, God’s sovereignty (or kingdom) is completely bound up with Jesus. Revelation 15 is typical: there the first mention of God’s sovereignty in Scripture, from Exodus 15, is transformed:

And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and amazing are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your judgments have been revealed.”
God can be declared ‘king of the nations’ because of his new victory, which brings all the nations to his feet. Which victory? The victory of the lamb. This is after all ‘the song of the lamb’.

In fact, the NT really has nothing to say about God as sovereign apart from what he has done in making Jesus King. This should give us pause for thought…

This kingdom is of course something that arrives. It means ‘God’s will starting to be done on earth, the way it already is in heaven, as people come under the leadership of Jesus.’ At Jesus’ resurrection and Pentecost, this starts to be a reality.

In Scripture, then there are not two concepts, God’s sovereignty and his kingdom/kingship. They are one and the same.

HOWEVER:

I am aware that systematic theology feels at liberty to use words in a different way from how the Scripture uses them. With its bent towards abstract thought, Calvinist systematics has constructed a whole theology of invisible ‘eternal’ stuff lying behind and prior to God’s action in the gospel, and labelled that concept ‘sovereignty’. Which of course, means ‘kingship’. But it uses this word in quite a different way from how the Scriptures use it.

This is a serious problem for ordinary Christians, as whatever contact they have with Calvinist systematics leads them to misread the Bible’s talk about God’s sovereignty. When they read in the NIV everywhere ‘Sovereign LORD’, they hear it as asserting the Calvinist doctrine of sovereignty. But Adonai Yahweh does not have that meaning. So we have this distortion.

It’s time for the two rival terms and concepts for God’s kingship in the Calvinist tradition to call each other out, confess that they are the same metaphor, go toe to toe and duke it out for the rightful title. This faith ain’t big enough for the two of them.

Historically, ‘sovereignty’ has packed the bigger punch, to the discomfiture of ‘kingdom/kingship’.

But I’m putting my money on ‘kingdom of God’. Coz it’s in the Bible.

Jonathan survived theological college, and now enjoys talking about books, scripture, theology, church, politics, mission, people, stuff like that.

The photo shows, “The Parable of the Blind,” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, paimted in 1568.

Having And Wanting More

Addictions are strange things. I have a friend who says that the problem with alcohol is that there “simply isn’t enough.” Non-addicts frequently misunderstand. I once heard someone say to an addict, “When you decided to go down that road…” There is very little decision within an addiction. The disease of addiction itself does the choosing. The person involved often watches helplessly as they go through the motions of yet another round, watching everything head in a direction over which they feel powerless.

First the man takes a drink.
Then the drink takes a drink.
Then the drink takes the man.

This is easily described in terms of alcohol and drugs. However, I believe we are a culture of addicts. Those on drugs and alcohol are simply lucky enough to be able to see their addiction more clearly.

Within the list of sins that come up in the Scriptures, “drunkenness” has its honorable mentions. However, there is a deeper addiction, far more pervasive, that plays a greater role, both in Scripture and in our own lives: greed. This little English word seems rather quaint. It sounds like something that belongs in a Dickens novel. Indeed, it is so removed from our working moral vocabulary that it can be proclaimed (without blushing), “Greed is good.” Greek has a much richer term: pleonexia. It means “the desire to have more.” And that definition suggests a much larger and pervasive problem indeed.

“To have more” lies at the heart of modern civilization. Wealth and prosperity at ever-increasing levels are held as promises to be desired. We often measure our economies by growth rather than any measure of well-being. Greed for us means nothing more than wanting too much. We fail, however, to challenge the wanting itself.

I am not concerned with economic theory here, except in the relations that can be called the “spirituality” of the culture. If there is a spirituality of consumerism, it is best described as pleonexia, greed. It is what drives consumers. It is sadly true that if greed were to cease tomorrow, the world as we know it would collapse. We have no inherent control on greed other than the limits of our credit cards.

If our desire to have more is to be maintained at its required level, we ourselves are required to believe in it and to agree to participate in it. And here our addiction comes to the fore. We not only desire to have more, we often find ourselves powerless to desire less. “Buyer’s remorse” is not a fiction – it is the consumer’s version of a hangover.

If the desire to have more were limited to material goods, it would, perhaps, be but a bothersome thing. However, the disease of pleonexia is spiritual and infects the whole of our lives. Pleonexia is not a disease that can be isolated to a single area of our lives. We want more of everything: more things, more sex, more food, more entertainment, ad infinitum.

In the Kingdom of God, self-emptying is the principle of true existence (cf. Phil 2:5-11). And so we find ourselves enthralled by a spiritual principle of the deepest irony: we crave more which draws us further and further away from our very being. The more we gain, the less we exist.

“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” This saying of Christ is daily being fulfilled in the course of our lives. It is worth noting that the great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn rediscovered his faith when he was in the Gulag prison system of the Soviet Union. Strangely, the emptiness of that bleak existence became a treasure for him. When he was first released into external exile, he managed to find a small shack in which to live. He had no money to furnish it. He found a couple of boxes to serve for a bed. When his circumstances later improved and he gained an apartment, he took the boxes with him for his bed. He feared the road of pleonexia and treasured the spiritual freedom he had found in poverty.

The Orthodox way of life purposefully asks us to renounce the spirit of Mammon. We fast, we practice generosity – and we do so as a way of life. We were not created for acquisition. Our life is found in the Cross. The Cross is both the place Christ accomplished our salvation, as well as the way of salvation itself. It is the wisdom as well as the power of God. The wisdom of the Cross is the self-emptying of Christ. This self-emptying is not anti-life, but the actual mode of true-existence. “Whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Mat 16:25)

There are many who concern themselves greatly about how a nation’s economy works (just post an economic thought on Facebook and watch the traffic). Most of our thoughts are generated by the same consumer/political/information conglomerates who press us towards consumption in the first place. For the time being, Christians should satisfy themselves that their own renunciation of consumerism will not bring the entire economy to a halt. But if we refuse to turn away from the manifold forms of pleonexia, then the whole of our soul will be in danger.

Thinking about the spirituality of pleonexia, we do well to examine the whole of our lives. Our desire to have more drives others away from us, or places them in the position of begrudging competitors. They interfere with my time, my plans, my interests, my pleasure, etc.

For Christ’s sake, lose your life. Why should you keep trying to gain the world?

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The photo shows, “Girl With a Basket in a Garden” by Daniel Ridgway Knight.