Monday, June 30, 2008

Why Did Jesus Die? (01) To Heal God’s People

There’s a rather strange story in the Old Testament about an incident that occurred as Israel was journeying from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land:

Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses: "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread." So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.

Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live."

So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:6-9)

What’s curious about this story is the method God uses to cure His children. A bronze serpent on a pole, what’s with that?

Christian readers, though, see here (as in virtually every page of the Old Testament) a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. And where do we get this idea? From Jesus Himself! For this is one of those times when Scripture does interpet Scripture. Jesus said:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:14-17)

All Christians are fond of quoting John 3:16, but for some reason, few quote these verses just before and after it. But when we do read the context, we notice two or three very interesting things. One is that the phrase, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” occurs twice within three short verses. Jesus repeats Himself, as if for emphasis. I have come to heal you, who have all been bitten by the ancient serpent of Eden. I am like that bronze snake Moses lifted up. As those who looked upon the bronze serpent lived, so those who look to Me in faith shall live forever.

This theme of destroying death and giving of life, the Lord’s own analogy (though not His only one), is the central, guiding motif of Orthodox teaching about the Cross: Jesus died to bestow upon the world eternal life. Every other thing we say about the atonement is one or another facet of this gem, is another way of getting at the fathomless mystery of how Christ destroys death and gives immortal life. This is the framework into which all the other pieces are fitted: that by death, Christ trampled down death and bestowed life upon those in the tombs.

We notice, in passing, that the story in Numbers gives no hint of that bronze serpent being punished in the place of disobedient Israel! It was raised for their healing, for their life. That’s what Christ twice says. In fact, it lifted their punishment. When Moses prayed, God simply forgave, without punishing anyone. The serpent on the pole was the form His forgiveness took. He demonstrated His forgiveness by healing the people. In just such a way, Christ, too, while on the Cross, prayed to the Father, "forgive them, for they know not what they do." And the Father did, still without having to punish anyone, and the Cross is the form His forgiveness takes, for upon it, our death is healed.

And yet, in an entirely different sense, that bronze serpent mounted on the pole definitely implies punishment; see the next post in this series, in which we will also examine how Christ's death could heal anybody else of death. How does that work?


Sunday, June 29, 2008

90 Years Old!

Our friend Vada turned 90 on Friday, and we celebrated with her family last night.

Vada is remarkable. She does her own housework, in a large house, too. She does most of her own yard work and gardening, on more than an acre of land. She swims laps for half an hour, five days a week. A music major in college, she plays piano, organ, and a harpsichord she had custom made. She paints excellent pictures in oil. She reads a lot and is a lively and interesting conversationalist with a first-class intellect unimpaired by the years. The only concession she has made to being 90 is some hardness of hearing.

Her house is like a museum full of artifacts, each with a fascinating history. She has a white linen tablecloth with a Nazi swastika woven into it, and another one with the White Star Lines logo woven in. (That's the cruise line that owned Titanic, although the cloth is obviously not from her.) She has the hat of some famous bishop and letters from relatives written in World War I, and a painting that just may be an undiscovered Corot...and on and on!

She's a loving person, too. When my husband came to America, peniless, she found him his first apartment, paid the deposit on it, and gave him $200 to last until his first payday. That was 12 years or so before I ever met him.

When we became engaged, Vada and her wonderful, late husband Sloan were the very first people we told.

We didn't ask her secret of longevity, but she offered it last night anyway: don't overeat.

Thank you, Vada, for blessing our lives in so many ways for so many years, mostly just by being you!

Thank You, God, for Vada!


Friday, June 27, 2008

Coming Soon...

…to a blog near you!

Many non-Orthodox, hearing the Orthodox take issue with Penal Substitutionary Atonement, have been scandalized and suppose we have rejected the notion of atonement altogether, or that we have emptied the Holy Cross of all meaning. Or at most, they think, we ascribe to the Cross some sentimental meaning, or admit that it showed forth exemplary love.

Of course the reverse is true: we recognize layer upon layer of deep, theological, personal meaning in the Cross, as attested by the fact that the Orthodox Church has not one, but two days devoted to the commemoration of the Holy, Precious, Life-giving Cross – and those are in addition to Thursday and Friday of Holy Week! (I refer, of course, to September 14, when the feast of the Cross kicks off the entire ecclesiastical year, and the Third Sunday of Great Lent.)

In fact, the Cross is so rich in meaning for us that I estimate it may take somewhere between 8 – 12 blog posts just to touch on them all, as well as to clear up some of what we do not believe happened there.

I’m going to try. And I'm going to try to make it readable, unlike (I'm told) some of the other things I've been writing.

Look for the first in this series on about Monday, God willing and there are no family emergencies. I'll call it, "Why Did Jesus Die?"

P.S.) Tad's comment to the previous post reminds me that we also recall Chist's Passion and Crucifixion every week as we fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.


How to Send Someone to Heaven

Yesterday, my daughter sent me this account of the funeral of her husband's grandfather, and I thought it was so touching that I asked, and received, permission to post it here.

Luckily for me so far, I do not have a lot of experience with funerals. I went to several when I worked for the Sheriff's Office, when a fellow officer would be killed in the line of duty, and I went to my grandmother's and my uncle's funerals many years ago. Just recently my aunt died, way too young, and I went to her funeral. Yesterday, I went to Jeff's grandfather's funeral and now I know HOW TO SEND SOMEONE TO HEAVEN!

First, a little background on Grandpa N. (aka "The Fossil")....He was 87 years old, had 5 children, 12 grandchildren, and 15 great grandchildren--almost all of whom still live in or nearby the small town of Winsted where Fossil was born and raised and chose to raise his family. Grandpa N.'s number one passion in life was baseball. He umpired right up into his eighties and taught his son Dickie (Jeff's dad) and grandson Todd (Jeff's brother) how to ump too. Just 2 weeks before he died, Todd arranged for his grandpa to get to the town team's (Winsted Wildcats) ballgame in a special wheelchair and throw out the first pitch! That would be Grandpa's last game (on this earth anyway)! There was an article and a picture of him in the town paper, which was later displayed at the funeral home.

Grandpa N. was quite a character! He loved to go to the bar in town to hang out with other locals and tell dirty jokes. The one he told me EVERY time he'd see me was, "Do you know where they found the missing nurse? Underneath the Doc!" He loved to flirt with girls. But he loved his wife, a sweet Southern Belle from Alabama, and they were married for 65 years.

I imagine everyone dreads funerals, and admittedly, when I heard the arrangements I dreaded this one, particularly because I knew I had to somehow keep a 3 year old entertained during all of this. On Tuesday, there was a wake for Grandpa at the nursing home for an hour. All of the residents of the home who would be unable to come to the funeral and the staff wanted a chance to say goodbye and pay their respects. Grandpa's long time friend and roommate for the last 2 years at the nursing home, Henry, sat in the back of the chapel in his wheelchair and just bawled the whole time. So we did that hour--not so bad. Then we were supposed to go to the funeral home from four until eight. WHAT? Four hours?? Now I know why. That was barely enough time for everyone who came out to get through! I knew there'd be a crowd but HOLY COW! It seemed like a never-ending parade of people, each with their own funny stories about the Fossil. The Winsted Wildcats all came by in their baseball uniforms to pay their last respects.

It was open casket and I wondered how to explain this to my 3 year old. One of Sydney's second cousins, 5-year old Jack, walked into the funeral home and asked his mother, "Is this heaven?" His mother had told Jack, before coming to the funeral home, that Grandpa had gone to heaven and when Jack walked in and saw Grandpa, he figured he was in heaven! His mother said, "No Jack, we are in Winsted and that is DEFINITELY not heaven!"

Grandpa had told Grandma before he died that if she put him in a suit, he'd roll over and take it off! So the family decided to dress Grandpa in his umpire uniform and in the casket they placed a baseball, a bat, an umpire mask and an indicator (something umps hold in their hand to count balls and strikes, I think). Everything he'll need in heaven to umpire a game! Each of the children and grandchildren went up to Grandpa, one at a time, and talked to him, touched him, thanked him, told him how much they loved him and lastly, goodbye. I realized then how important an open casket was for everybody. Before this, I had mixed feelings about it but I think everyone really got a better sense of closure.

So after this long process, it's off to the bar! Grandpa would haved love to come too! Just a couple of years ago, Todd, who has always had a very special relationship with his grandpa, picked grandpa up, put an "Old Man" mask on him and took him to a Halloween party with all his (Todd's) friends! Still partying in his 80's! Everyone knows the N.s party hard, but love harder!

The next day, the family again gathered at 9:30 at the funeral home for one last chance to see Grandpa before the casket would be forever closed. Then we proceeded to the church for mass. The six oldest grandsons were the pall bearers and every one of their eyes were filled with tears as they carried their beloved Grandfather from the car down a sidewalk lined on both sides with uniformed men from the American Legion, all saluting, and into the church. (Grandpa had been in the military) There's just this awesome feeling you get when you walk by those men in uniform.

As we entered the church, I couldn't believe how crowded it was, especially for an 11:00 am weekday funeral. I'm sure if the funeral had been held on the weekend, there would have been standing room only, and Holy Trinity is a large church!

The entire service was absolutely beautiful. The music brought tears to your eyes. The priest was wonderful. He spoke so kindly to Grandma N. and then to the grandchildren. At the end of his speech, he looked at Grandma and said, while gesturing to the huge family surrounding her, "You two started all of this! I hope you're satisifed!"

The last, and hardest, part was taking Grandpa to his final resting spot. The American Legion men fired off shots. Taps was played. Not a dry eye anywhere. Finally the priest let each of the family members sprinkle holy water on the casket. Then it was all over. It felt like we had given him the greatest send-off to heaven! And I said to myself, "Now that's how you send someone to heaven!"

We were told that there would be a light luncheon after the funeral at the church. "Light" was definitely incorrect. I think every person in Winsted and the surrounding towns must have made food! It was a huge spread and everyone who came to the funeral also came to the luncheon! Small towns know how to do it right!

I didn't expect to feel this way at all. I've just never before seen a family and an entire community come together this way. I was overwhelmed with a wonderful feeling of love that's just hard to describe, so that's why I decided to write all of this.

And, of course, it was off to the bar again that night!

A family friend wrote a poem that was displayed beside Grandpa's casket and I liked it so much that I got a copy:


We little knew that morning
God was going to call your name
In life we dearly loved you
In death we do the same.

It broke our hearts to lose you
you did not go alone;
for part of us went with you,
the day God called you home.

You left us peaceful memories
Your love is still our guide,
and though we cannot see you
you are always at our side.

Our family chain is broken,
and nothing seems the same,
but as God calls us one by one,
the chain will link again.

P.S. This is a good description of a proper Orthodox funeral, as well -- minus the Winsted Wildcats, of course!


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Your Own Sun Room

We love our sun room so much that I’ve become convinced everybody who can ought to have one. Even if you can’t afford one today, you can hope and plan for when times get better. Even if you have to convert some other room, you can never go wrong with a sun room, even if for the time being you must use it for a bedroom or living room. You'll like it better, sleeping or dining in a sun room. (And let's face it, a formal living room, these days, is superfluous anyway.)

Here’s what I consider desirable for a sun room to succeed in bringing you a great deal of pleasure.

If at all possible, it should face south. (But if it cannot, do not let the necessity of some other orientation deflect you from building it!)

It should have three glassed-in walls, ideally, but even if it can only have two, or one, making the sun room is still well worth doing. If you can't have three glassed walls, make the glass of the remaining walls floor-to-ceiling. If you can glass in only one wall, consider a giant bow window, perhaps with French doors in the middle. I don’t know why a bow or bay window lets in so much more light, but it does.

Walls, in my humble opinion, ought to be painted some very light color and the ceiling should be white – again, to maximize the sense of light. (Dark just doesn’t seem to go with a sun room.)

A high ceiling adds to the sunny, airy, outdoor feel.

The floor should be of some durable material: tile or laminate or high quality vinyl. If it’s tile, be sure your structure is strong enough to support it. You may need to reinforce the floor by, for example, adding pilings underneath. Tile is fun because you can make your own design with it, using accent tiles, borders, mosaic inserts, whatever. Also, with tile, keep in mind that it will either soak up a lot of warmth from the sunshine (dark tiles) or reflect a lot, so you may like to take your climate into consideration.

Climate control. If this is a new room, you may need a separate heating and cooling unit. We have a heat pump to do both, with which we are very pleased. It’s called a “mini-split ductless system”. (Google those words to find some.) There’s an inside unit that mounts high on the wall and looks a little like a window air-conditioner but much better, sleeker. It is controlled by a remote gadget. Then there is the outdoor unit that sits on the ground. Cost can be as low as $700 plus shipping and handling but double that to include installation. A ceiling fan is also a plus, for when you just want a breeze.

Window Treatments? Whatever you like. We like our curtains. They are on clip-rings that slide over the curtain rods for easy opening and closing. First we put up the sheers, very plain, as sheer as we could find, to give us maximum viewing outside yet privacy in the daytime. That way, we can come to breakfast in our robes. Then, we put up – well, actually, in place of regular curtains, we put up more sheers! But this time, sheers with a lacy design. We needed 18 panels and couldn’t decide which (solid) color of four in that design we liked best, so we bought them all! Yes, we did, and alternated them. We’re debating now whether each window should have its own color, but the overall effect in either case is both festive and unique. It somehow gives the room more of a hotel or commercial look than a residential one, which is fine with us. The privacy factor at night is not 100%, but it’s still surprisingly good when all the curtains are drawn, as good as we need, anyway.

Furnishings? No opinion yet! We haven’t furnished ours very much. I was thinking wicker or rattan, but then Demetrios pointed out that we plan to use this room all year, and I do think few things are more dismal and forlorn-looking than summery items in the winter. Summer is my favorite season, and I dislike reminders that it is gone. One of our friends, though, has a sun room with white wicker furniture and hers doesn’t depress me in winter, so I’m still not entirely set against that idea.

In any case, at least a table and some chairs will be necessary, and probably some lamps. We just bought a floor lamp with five heads and five shades that match all the colors of our curtains. I’ve also bought a sparkly, blown-glass vase that accents some of the colors. We’ve also bought a small glass table.

This may be a good place for some fun furniture, such as a hanging “basket” chair or a hammock, although I fear the latter would spoil the looks. Well, we look forward to making this lovely space even lovelier.

Meanwhile, there’s a baby cottontail on my lap, licking itself clean, so I will stop now to admire what a good job he or she is doing.


65 Years!

That's how long my parents have been married, as of today.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad, and congratulations! And thanks, from your grateful children, for having stuck it out together for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, in health. That means a lot to us.

(Speaking of in "sickness," Mom, this time you've simply gotta get rid of those slippery pajamas, before you get hurt!)


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sin and Immortality, Part 2

Sin is Suicide

Once we understand that our life, very literally, consists of communion in God’s own Life, then we are in a position to understand that death is being outside of communion in God’s Life. The soul, separate from God, is like a fish out of water, or a cut flower: not quite dead yet, but already dying. Eventually the dying soul separates from its body and the body, too, dies.

That is why every form of rejecting God is labeled, “sin.” To reject God is not sinful because His feelings are hurt; it isn’t as though His pride were wounded or His dignity insulted; God is far above all such self-serving concerns. Instead, to reject God is sinful because to reject God is to reject Life, His Life, the only Life there is or ever was. Sin is self-destruction. Sin is the destruction of God's handiwork.

To say “sin causes death” is a bit like saying headache causes pain. A headache is pain. Sin is death. Every sin is some form of rebellion, alienation, separation from God. And separation from God is the very definition of death. To sin is to cut your lifeline, to unplug your life support system, to trash your relationship with God, Who is your Life.

Sin, like jumping off a skyscraper, kills us all by itself, even if we don’t actually die until a bit later, when we hit the ground. Sin is self-punishing, destroying us body and soul, although often we do not notice the self-inflicted damage until it becomes full-blown death: how hardened our hearts are becoming; how eroded, our character; how false, our whole being. We do notice how lonely we are, how alienated and empty, but we fail to connect the dots and see how we are punishing ourselves. It is the lack of this insight that allows people to suppose there is some need for God to add yet more misery to our already miserable state, or to kill the already dying.

Death is not a response by God to sin, but is an aspect of sin itself. God, the Author of Life, did not institute death as a punishment. The murderer of mankind is and always was satan, not God. (John 8:44) He kills us by inducing us to kill ourselves; that is, to sin. Sin is suicide, unassisted suicide. Or at least it is unassisted by God.

It’s true that when God wanted to reveal to His people that there is a connection between sin and death, He put it into legal terms, offense and punishment. But we believe He did this in great and gracious condescension to stiff-necked and hard-hearted Israel. He put the matter in terms they could understand, who were not very spiritual-minded but were all too familiar with the concept of revenge. It was impossible, at that stage of spiritual development, for people to understand that sin in and of itself is lethal, before we even get around to considering God’s response to it. Yet that fact existed from the beginning, before the Mosaic Law. As St. Paul points out in Romans 5, during the time between Adam and Moses, there was no transgression similar to Adam’s (no transgression of any direct commandment), yet sin still killed everyone. And sin killed everyone, he says, even though sin was not being imputed. This means something else was going on, not God killing people as punishment. It means sin kills us unilaterally, without any help from God.

We do not worship some beastly deity who retaliates against sinners by killing them. Instead, sin kills automatically because to sin is to make oneself incompatible with God. The only way God could make sin non-lethal would be by making His own Life compatible with wickedness. Never going to happen! He remains holy and good; He remains the only Immortality; and if we would not die, we must tap into His Life, must be in communion with Him. It is not God who kills, but precisely the opposite: the lack of God. (God but determines the timing of our dying, according to what is best.)

The wages of sin is death
but the gift of God [is] eternal life
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Romans 6:23)

Sin pays us death; God, by contrast, gives us eternal life.

Sin pays us wages we earned; God gives us eternal life we did not earn.

This is the revelation we have in Christ.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Eight Temporary Guests

Little balls of fur, ranging in color from pearl gray to charcoal gray, with long, white snouts, beady black eyes, and leathery black ears. EIGHT possum kittens! Their mother, who had built her nest in somebody's basement, bit the owner of the house to defend her babies. The Health Department has now dispatched her to possum heaven, and will test her brains on the off-chance she may have been rabid. Possums virtually never get rabies, but you still can't take even a miniscule chance with the life of the bitten woman.

So the Animal Control people brought the litter to me. They're adorable! Old enough to eat on their own, so they will require minimum work. Once I've examined each one carefully and am sure they are all eating well and are okay, I'll pass them on to Colleen, the Opossum Queen. She doesn't do intake, for some reason. She only feeds 'em and cleans up after 'em when they're healthy.

Yet she is a walking encycopedia on opossums. Get her talking to you and you'll learn much more than you ever wanted to know about opossums. She can keep going for at least a whole hour without even slowing down.

Enjoy, Colleen! And I'm going to enjoy them these next few days, too, before you get them!

I got this photo from the Internet. They aren't mine, but look very much like them. Except the ones I have are a little older and fluffier.

UPDATE: Well, Animal Control told me 8. There are actually only 7, now that I have checked them all over. They're about to get injected with Lactated Ringers Solution under the skin of their backs, for dehydration, and I'll try to sex them, too, while I'm at it. They offer to bite, as all possums do, even very small ones, but they don't actually do it. It's all show, empty bravado.



Cat and Mouse

Cat: furry creature to be found on the wrong side of the door. Mine prefer human company to each others'. Gotta love 'em! Last night, as a special and rare treat, I allowed them to sleep on the bed. They were there for a while, but not for long. Sure sign something's out of the ordinary.

Mouse: smaller furry creature who leaves disgusting droppings in your pantry and other places, such as all over your knives, spoons and forks. In larger numbers, they spoil your food, make your house smelly, chew up things you wanted left whole, and spread disease. We called the exterminator at the very first sign, days ago; he's coming tomorrow.

Our Molly spent all of this morning staring into the narrow space between a tall bookcase and the wall. She never moved; only her ears and tail occasionally twitched. She may as well be a hound at alert. We always know, when she does this, she's watching a mouse.

I just now moved the bookcase out from the wall to expose the wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie. It didn't seem very lively; perhaps it was Molly's toy overnight, accounting for her defection from the bed. I laid a grocery bag, narrow side down, before the mouse and with a yardstick chased it gently into the bag. Now I've transferred it to a plastic aquarium, where it sits.

What to do? It reminds me of Tiki, the mouse I raised this Spring. (Except she was a Deer Mouse, while this is a House Mouse.) If it were a baby mouse, I'd give it anti-biotics for three days (because cat saliva contains the bacterium Pasturella, toxic and fatal to birds and small mammals) and then keep it until it was ready for release. But an adult mouse! That's an escape artist par excellence, with mean teeth besides. The teeth I can deal with, by wearing gloves, but if she escapes from my hand, the exterminator is coming tomorrow.

I suppose her best chance is if I do treat her before releasing her (far away from human houses!) but take the aquarium outside each time. That way, if she escapes, at least it won't be in my house - for the moment, anyway, or for very long.

It happens every time. I don't rehabilitate baby wild mice every year, but when I do that invariably is the year they also infest the house and we are forced to call the exterminators. (And I release them very far away, I promise you. MY mice do not get into the house!) Raise one or two Deer Mice, kill perhaps a dozen House Mice ... perhaps its because they are all more than usually plentiful some years, but it seems so ironic.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion,
Has broken nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

(Find the whole poem here.)


Sin and Immortality, Part 1

Adam & Eve and Immortality

The Orthodox believe that immortality is strictly a divine attribute, just like knowing everything or being everywhere at once. God alone has it. “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6) and “I am Resurrection and Life” (John 11:25) and “In Him was life; and the life was the light of men” (John 1:14) and “Who only hath immortality.” (I Timothy 6:16)

We hold that Adam and Eve were not created with this divine attribute. The Life they had was specifically God’s Life, shared with them. Their Life, we can say, was derivative, was borrowed, was God’s Life breathed into their inanimate clay. No, God does not have lungs or gills, has no need of oxygen, and does not literally breathe, but the idea is that Life is His, and He shares His Life with Adam and Eve (in a unique way not granted to animals) for as long as they will have Him. It’s as if He were the Fountain of Immortality, and they were merely dipping their straws into it.

Of course the Life they had, being God’s Life, was indeed immortal life, but their hold on it was not yet firmly established, for they were, as St. Irenaeus is fond of telling us, but spiritual infants. Because they were not yet perfect, they were still capable of falling into slavery to the devil. Because they were not yet wise, they were still able to pull their straws out of the Fountain and throw them away.

Had they remained in obedient communion with God, eventually that communion would have matured into something permanent, immune from assaults by the devil, at which point they would have been sealed with immortality. In more mythological terms, God would have allowed them to eat of the Tree of Life (and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil!) when they were mature enough to handle these. As it happened, though, He drove them out of the Garden specifically lest they eat of the Tree of Life and sin dwell forever and ever in their immortal bodies.

But notice carefully: they had not yet eaten from the Tree of Life (Christ). They were not yet confirmed in immortality.

Thus we say that Adam and Eve were created neither immortal nor mortal, but instead, with the capacity to become either.

This is very important because it is part of what underlies a horrible Western error with grave implications concerning who God is. I mean this: if one believes Adam and Eve were created mortal, then God is the Author of death. But also, if one believes Adam and Eve were created immortal, then by definition nothing and nobody can cause them to die – except almighty God. Thus, one will be forced to conclude that, literally, God killed them as punishment for their sin. And of course, a god who creates death or who literally would kill us for revenge or retaliation is not the true and living God we Orthodox know, not the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. I will have more to say on that in the next post.


Monday, June 23, 2008

What is the Experience of God?

Matthew Gallatin, in one of his podcasts, has an interesting question he used to ask himself before he was Orthodox: "If I ignore what I believe about my God and set aside everything that I feel about my God, what is left of my experience with God? And the answer was nothing."

HT: Petronia


Intercession of the Saints

Fr. Stephen has an excellent post on this topic here.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

Dance Recital

Here is beautiful Kelly, my eldest grandchild, striking a pose just before her recital on Friday night.

And here she is afterward, with her two brothers trying to get into the act. That's Connor in the bluegreen plaid, and Ryan in the orange and brown plaid shirt.

They both enjoyed the show.

And here she is with her parents, Mark and Katherine.


Orthodox Monasticism

It’s very different from Western monasticism.

In the first place, we don’t have orders. There aren’t groups analogous to Dominicans or Franciscans or Benedictines. Our monks and nuns are just – monks and nuns.

Secondly, Orthodox monks and nuns do not have secular missions. They do work to support themselves; they do such things as write books, make greeting cards, weave baskets, and grow their own food. But they do not, for example, work outside their monasteries as nurses or doctors or schoolteachers or social workers or community organizers. They stay in their monasteries, although some few priest-monks work outside their monasteries pastoring parishes. They are all what Catholics would call “contemplatives,” devoting themselves to prayer, worship, study.

Orthodox monks and nuns practice asceticism, but not with any idea of gaining “merit” thereby. (We do not believe salvation is a matter of merit in the first place; therefore, we are not concerned with how or by whom it is supposedly earned.)

Orthodox monastics may even whip themselves raw, but not seeking to punish themselves, as if punishment could somehow purge or atone for sins. Instead, they deny themselves physical comforts in order to wean themselves from addictions to the things of this earth. They do it in the course of battling the demons. (Nobody knows what a demon is, who has not set out to conquer it. Most of us are at best only dimly aware of the demons we serve.) They seek to learn to be content in any situation, resting always in Christ, living only for Him. And if they inflict actual pain upon their bodies, it is to counteract temptation, especially lust. (Fact is, sexual desire is easier to control when your body is in pain.)

And if some are severe with themselves, it is because that is the degree of severity they have found necessary to gain mastery over their minds and bodies. You cannot give to God what is not yours to give, cannot consecrate to Him that over which you have no control. So monks and nuns seek to be in command of themselves, that they may live only for Christ, and not in slavery to anything or anyone else.

The monastic lifestyle aims at making it easier to grow to the full stature of Christ, which is the goal of every Christian life. The monastic life removes distractions, such as romantic involvements, and cares, such as rearing a family or pursuing a career, to make it easier to concentrate on developing in Christ. It provides much more time for prayer and worship than is usually possible in secular life. In that sense, we do consider it the superior lifestyle; we call it “the angelic life.” That doesn’t mean it has any spiritually or ecclesiastically higher status, just that success in living as a Christian is easier for them than for the rest of us. That’s the whole idea of monasticism, in fact: to make it as easy as possible, to provide the soul every advantage.

Can’t the rest of us also become saints, in our married and family lifestyles? Certainly, we can. It’s just harder for us (and therefore, more commendable for those who do become deified). Are we second-class Christians? Not at all! Well, at least if we are, it’s not by definition because we are not monastics. If we are second-rate Christians, it is because we haven’t tried hard enough.

A note for those concerned about rank: a monastery for women is ruled by our rough equivalent of a “Mother Superior.” Everybody in her monastery is subject to her; within the monastery, she even outranks visiting bishops.

I don’t know anything about the process of becoming a monk or a nun, such as how long it takes, whether there are vows, what the intermediate steps may be. Perhaps if someone reading this does know, you’d be kind enough to educate us via the comments box.


Friday, June 20, 2008

The Old and New Covenants

In response to some questions I have received privately about my earlier post, "God is God!", here are some clarifications. I wish I had written that post more clearly to begin with, so that these issues would not have arisen.

First, it's true; we aren't under the law. St. Paul explains this quite well, I think, in the first half of Romans, Chapter 7.

But does this mean the Law of Moses just vanishes?

No! What happens to it is a bit like what happens to a caterpillar when it becomes a butterfly, or an egg when it becomes a bird. The caterpillar and the egg can be said to disappear, in a sense, but then again, they didn't just vanish, either. Instead, they matured into something else. And that's what our relationship with God does. It starts out based upon Law and then matures and morphs and is now, for the Christian, based upon love. (Love naturally does the right thing, without the Law needing to tell it to.) The old makes way for the new, and in that very process, is fulfilled.

"Fulfilled," in the Bible, means "is given its ultimate meaning" or "achieves its ultimate aim." An egg which never hatched would be a failure, and a caterpillar which never made it to the butterfly stage would likewise have failed to achieve its purpose. Similarly, the Law, which could never produce love or faith in our hearts, would have been a failure had it not given way to Christ. That was its purpose. (Galatians 3:24-25) In Christ, and in those who are His, the Law's purpose, which is to relate us rightly to God, is fulfilled by faith and by love. It's in that sense the Law is actually established in us: its purpose is achieved.

But note, the egg, in the very act of hatching, breaks. Similary, the Law as the basis for our relationship with God had to end. The Veil of the Temple had to be torn, from top to bottom.

Or, for another couple of analogies, consider that a two-year-old child is a wonderful creature, but if you come back to visit him in 15 years and the now 17-year-old child still looks and acts exactly the same, exactly like a two-year-old, something is very wrong. The toddler must give way to the teenager. Elementary school is something we have to leave behind to enter high school, and high school we leave behind to move on to college. Yet grade school being "established" in us is prerequisite for higher education: you have to know how to read, write, and do arithmetic. Grade school lives in us all our lives.

So there's a lovely paradox there. The very factor that establishes the Law, namely the Holy Spirit in the Church and in our hearts, also transcends it, moves past it.

But didn't at least some of the people who lived under the Law love God already?

Yes, they clearly did, but this assertion needs to be qualified.

First, they didn't know God as Christians do, because Christ had not yet come and taught and lived the Divine Life among us and died and risen. The Law was only a preliminary, preparatory revelation; Christ is the fullness of revelation. There's a lot more about God to love than people suspected in the days of the Law! Perhaps some of the prophets are an exception.

Second, we love God differently. Under the Law, God remained a deity external to His people. But since then, the Holy Spirit has been sent, who makes His home deep within the heart of the Church and of each Christian. We have this intimate sharing of His very Life within us. We are the branches and He is the Vine; or He is the Head and we are the rest of His body. Our encounter with God is no longer legal, but personal. The Holy Spirit prompts us, from within, to do whatever is right. There is no law, as St. Paul says, against the fruits the Holy Spirit within us bears.

God indeed created us to love Him; and in that sense, loving Him is natural. Yet, in our fallen condition, loving Him is not as easy as loving ourselves instead, not even for a Christian, not even assuming regeneration, that is. Nor did our fallen hearts, before the Holy Spirit took up His abode in us, guide us in HOW to love Him – in a concrete way, I mean, in the real world as distinct from in our imaginations. (In our imaginations, we love God so very deeply, but let a real-life situation or temptation arise to challenge that fantasy, and how often our love fails!) Now when our hearts did not spontaneously tell us what to DO in the way of loving God, that's when and why the Law was needed. It taught us how love behaves – again, in a preliminary and preparatory sort of way, until Christ showed us perfect love and perfect faith and perfect obedience.

And all the same things can be said about loving our neighbor. That, too, God created us to do, so it is a part of our true nature. Yet our true nature is so swamped by all the carnal baggage we now carry that to love one another hardly seems natural most of the time. Much less do our own hearts tell us, anymore, such things as that true love includes our enemies.

So yes, to the extent they knew the true God, people under the Law were not incapable of loving Him. King David comes especially to mind; who can read his Psalms and doubt he loved God? There were many others as well, exceptional people whose love of God transcended the Law. Yet their relationship with Him was still based upon the Law of Moses, whereas today, the Holy Spirit in the Church is its foundation, Who sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts.

And, by the way, the love we share with God and one another is NOT just another piece of Law! We are not doing it simply because God commands it. True, the Law does command us to love and so does Christ: love one another as I have loved you, He says, and He explicitly calls this a commandment. Nevertheless, there is a deeper dimension to Christian love than that, so much deeper it makes the legal aspect appear trivial in comparison. And burdensome, too, as everything law-based is.

Far from being a legal matter, genuine Christian love is something the Holy Spirit prompts in our hearts. And although it is a struggle to carry out His promptings, when we have done so we realize we have but fulfilled, in some degree, our own truest nature, the nature with which God orginally endowed us. We find it a matter of matchless joy. And that, rather than any law, is really the whole point. That is our restoration, liberation, re-creation, Christification, salvation. I do not say participation in God's love results in our salvation, as if salvation were earnable; it is it. Communion in God and one another in love is what salvation looks like.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

At the Beach

Here is my son's family, pictures taken last week. I'm currently visiting them in North Carolina. You can click on any picture if you wish to see it enlarged.

Kelly Anne, oldest grandchild, age 6 and a half

Connor Gordon, three and a half

Ryan Paul, three and a half

Mark and Katherine with all three children


Orthodox Priesthood

The very first thing to be said about the priesthood is that it belongs to Jesus Christ. It is entirely His. Therefore, nobody, but nobody, male or female, straight or gay, has any "right" to it. Ordination is therefore not an issue of women's rights or gay rights or anybody else's right. In fact, when a person is ordained, his attitude should never be, "Thank heaven I've finally achieved my right," or even "this privilege." Instead, his attitude should be one of awe, even fear, at being called to minister alongside Christ at His altar.

A candidate for priesthood in the Orthodox Church must be a man but definitely not because men are considered superior beings; in Christ there is no male and female. And indeed, the greatest saint is a woman, the Theotokos. But a priest is to be a man because one of his roles is to be for his parish a living icon of Jesus Christ. (And yes, that is why he ought to have a beard, too.) Okay, technically it is the bishop we call upon to iconize Christ for us, but the priest, too, as his stand-in or delegate.

But isn't what a person looks like on the inside far more important than what he looks like on the outside, one may ask?

Yes, it is. Therefore the candidate must be of sound and solid faith with a character well-formed in Christ. Nevertheless, what he looks like on the outside is still very important to us as well.

The person to be ordained must either be celibate or the husband of one wife. He must have no sexual past that post-dates his baptism, no previous wife or lover. If he is married, his wife must be Orthodox. He must also have no human blood on his hands. If he served his country in the military and was in combat, that was his duty and to fulfill it is commendable, but he is ineligible for priesthood. Even if someone has died from an auto accident in which he was driving, he is still ineligible, not because we don't forgive him -- we do! -- but because the shedding of another's blood compromises his ability to be for us the living image of Christ. The potential priest must also be approved by the people, who at his ordination shout, "Worthy!" If even one person shouts, "Unworthy!" the proceedings are supposed to stop.

And quite likely, there are other requirements, too, of which I am ignorant.

Next, it is important to note that for the Orthodox, at least among those who rightly understand, priesthood in itself is neither a matter of status nor necessarily of leadership. Priests who do treat their office as such are going to have plenty of trouble getting anyone else to recognize any higher status, or getting folks to follow them, or gaining much respect among their people.

Priesthood does not necessarily entail leadership, because for us, the people we are willing to follow are those men or women who best show forth Christ in their lives and in their persons. It is much to be hoped that a priest may also be a good leader as well, but that role does not automatically come with ordination. It comes, instead, with sanctity. Among the Greeks here in Richmond, the most influential spiritual leader is a woman named Adamantia.

Priesthood is not a superior status in Orthodoxy. It is a service, which is another reason women so infrequently seek it. Servanthood, after all, for a feminist, is the same old, same old, precisely what she is trying to escape. A priest's service is indeed highly valued among us, indispensible, but it is still thought of as service.

Priesthood involves special functions within the Church, functions we cannot do without. Yet the highest, and most important function in the Divine Liturgy is to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Even our babies, including girl babies, can do that.

Priesthood carries with it limited, spiritual authority. The priest has, for example, the authority to forbid chit-chat within the sanctuary, or to decide how strictly to enforce such things as modest attire in church. It is his charge to safeguard the spiritual order and well-being of his parish. But if the issue is not specifically spiritual, if it has to do with such things as having the parish hall painted, or arranging for the grass to be mowed, those sorts of tasks fall under the authoriy of the parish council. These things a priest only at his peril attempts to dictate, unless they have clear spiritual ramifications. (And here is another reason feminists usually aren't particularly attracted to Orthodox priesthood; a priest's authority is much more limited than that of his Catholic or Protestant counterparts.)

Any further authority a priest (or anyone else) may have comes from our love of him or her. When we look at someone and see Christ looking back at us, we want to weep for joy, weep for repentance, weep for sheer love. We would follow such a person almost anywhere, or at least wish to, as St. Peter wished to follow the Lord to His death, before the cock crowed. We feel honored if such a person asks from us a glass of water, and shamed if he should have to ask twice. THAT is authority! What such a person says, our hearts leap to do, and the only regret we have is that we didn't think to do it before being asked or told, or didn't know to do it before being advised.

To this aspire, clergy, Christians, men, women, feminists, all.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

More Birthday Party Pictures

(Click on them to enlarge.)

Thats DD, DS-I-L, and Sydney Elizabeth with Wallye the Warthog, mascot of the local baseball team and a huge favorite of Sydney's, who came to surprise her. She had met him before, at a baseball game. (Yes, that's how he spells his name. I know because he gave his autograph to several children, who thanked him by giving him theirs in return.)

It was raining, so the party, planned for outdoors, was held in a small tent and in the garage, where this picture was taken.

Pizza with friends

Fun in the rain

After having eaten a red lollipop. That's a dalmatian raincoat on little Anna. Some of the younger children went through two changes of clothes, but the sporadic rain didn't affect anybody's fun.


Happy Birthday, Darling!

This is Sydney Elizabeth, my youngest grandchild, born three years ago today.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Intruder

The Gloria Stories, Part 6

Gloria was visiting her parents in their third-floor flat in Brooklyn.

Her father, Hyman, was very sick. Lung cancer had made his lungs so inefficient that his feet were swollen from the fluids that weren’t being extracted from them. He was in a wheelchair, his feet wrapped in ace bandages. Breathing was so difficult he could no longer sleep lying down. Instead, his wife, Roz, would pull up a card table and heap it with pillows. Hy would lean his head on these to sleep.

On the last morning of Gloria’s visit, Hyman woke up as dawn was streaming through the east window, facing him. He looked up to see a stranger standing in front of him, silhouetted by the bright sun. The shadowy figure wore a long robe, hooded.

Hy knew all the doors and windows of the apartment were triple-locked. There were deadbolts throughout. This must be some smart man, to have gotten in. He must have some serious motivation, too, and he must surely be armed.

“What do you want?” Hy croaked, his voice almost too frightened to make any sound.

Gesturing toward Hy’s feet, the stranger said, “Take off those rags and stand up and walk.”

So Hy unwrapped the ace bandages. He knew he couldn’t walk, hadn’t been able to for weeks, but as there was probably a gun pointed at him, he thought he had better try. He stood up. He took a step, then another. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he said to the shadowy figure. The intruderer nodded, and Hy walked all the way into the bathroom.

When he came out again, a few moments later, the stranger was gone.

Hy walked over to the bed, where his wife was still sleeping, and shook her awake. “Roz, Roz! Look at me; I can walk!” And he told her what had happened.

“Well, is he still here?” Roz demanded.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

They sat in the bed several more minutes, listening. All was silent. Gloria was still asleep in the next room.

Finally, they both got up and walked together through the whole apartment, checking every room, every closet. There was no stranger. And nothing appeared to be missing.

They woke Gloria up and told her to get home and ask me my opinion of what had happened.

Gloria caught me at 7:00 the next morning, when she came to pick up her dogs that I had been keeping for her. I said, “Gloria, give me some time to think about it and talk with your dad.” Just then, I had to rush to get to work.

On her way out the back door, Gloria passed the refrigerator, where the kids had stuck a picture of Jesus, brought home from Bible School. “That is Who it was!” she said. “And don’t you try to tell me otherwise!”

“Oh, no, no, I wasn’t going to do that!” I assured her.

That evening, I telephoned Hy and had him tell me the story firsthand. It was the same in all points but one: he left out the part about going to the bathroom. (“From a sense of delicacy,” Gloria said.)

“So what do you think it means?” I asked.

“I’m hoping it means Someone upstairs loves me.”

“Yes!" I said. “Yes, it means at least that! Then, with Gloria there, I read him the Gospel story of the healing of the paralytic. They were in silent awe as I read the words, “Arise, take up your bed, and walk.”

After Hy's death a few months later, Roz told me, “Now he has taken off his rags, his torn up body. And now he is walking.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Green Potato

Or, How to Spoil a Dinner Party

In general, practical jokes are inadvisable. The trouble with them is, you can never foresee all the unintended consequences. You never know, if you tell your fellow dinner guests you grew up in the circus and they find out later you didn’t, whether they may resent having spent the entire evening being enthralled by your tales of lion taming, and the host may never invite you again. You never know whether, if you send someone a poem anonymously in the mail, an innocent person may be blamed for your mischief. (Because, of course, your enemies will never believe you clever enough to have written it, and your friends won't believe you were stupid enough actually to have mailed it.)

And there will always be people who will utterly fail to see that your stunt was hilarious, who will see nothing faintly humorous about it, who may well turn out to be the very ones to whom you are forced to confess everything. That’s what happened to my brother, when we lived on an Army post and he painted the parade-ground cannon flamingo pink. And that’s what happened to me when I dyed my potato green. (Now if the dinner party had been in my own home – no, not even then would it have worked.)

It sounds funny, though, doesn’t it? Go to a company dinner at a steakhouse with a tiny, plastic bottle of green food coloring in your purse. Be sure your order includes a baked potato with butter and/or sour cream. When it comes, surreptitiously lift up the sour cream and/or butter and squirt a large amount of green onto your potato. Replace the topping and slip the food coloring back into your purse. Begin mashing up your potato with your fork, all the while pretending to be so engrossed in the conversation you don’t notice what color your potato is turning. Prepare to take your first bite.

Can you predict how this goes so horribly wrong? I should have, because in retrospect, the results were inevitable. You have to factor in that green food coloring, mixed with yellow butter, turns a really disgusting color. You have to put yourself in the other people’s places. They actually care about you! They care about themselves, too, and what they may be eating. Or serving.

“Oh, look at your potato!” cried one of my co-workers. “It’s green!”

“Eee-yew!” exclaimed another.

“Why, so it is!” I said, looking down at it. “How charming!” And I raised it to my lips.

“No, no!” someone cried. “Don’t eat it!”

I ate the first bite anyway. “Mmm! This has got to be the best potato I ever ate!”

“Please, please, don’t eat any more!”

“But it’s delicious! Really. Here, try some!” and I took another bite.

That’s when the boss summoned the waiter.

A large knot formed in my stomach. I tried hard to stave off my plunge into ignominy, assuring everyone I was delighted with my potato, it was scrumptious and I wanted the recipe, but I’m sure, by now, you can see how it went from there. The panic-stricken waiter called the manager to come see the green potato, and the panicked manager called the chef, and none of them could form any idea of what had happened, how many other green potatoes might show up, whether eating them might be dangerous, what the Health Department might say, whether anybody might sue the restaurant...

So I had to admit what I had done. I even had to produce the bottle of green food coloring to prove it, because the chef was on the verge of losing his job. I was extremely lucky not to lose mine.

That was the last practical joke I ever attempted. They’re just too dangerous. You never know whether, if you drop out of a tree at midnight dressed as a ghost, the drunk you are trying to scare may have a heart attack.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Icon of Pentecost


What I like best about this icon is how it depicts the relationship between earthly knowledge and spiritual knowledge, or between mere knowledge and Wisdom.

The king in the middle represents the world, crowned with human knowlege. The scrolls he is holding represent various branches of human learning, such as medicine or astronomy or mathematics. Or theology, which in and of itself is also a wordly discipline. (That's right; it is not the subject matter that determines whether wisdom is worldly or spiritual. Even the study of the Bible can be worldly, and most often is.)

Notice the figure is a king; he is sumptuously robed and there is a crown on his head. This is because we Christians do revere learning. We do not disparage worldly education or try to restrict the use of the human intellect.

But this king's crown is of gold and jewels, while the Apostles are being crowned with fire. This king's wisdom is purely of this world; that of the Apostles is divine, sent by the King of Heaven. While the uneducated fishermen are being enlightened, this learned king is standing in a realm of darkness.


God is God!

God was never obligated, and never obligated Himself, to punish sinners or treat them unlovingly. Yes, I know it sounds that way in some parts of the Old Testament. But much of the Old Testament was written the way it was in gracious condescension to human weakness; or as Jesus put it, “because of the hardness of your hearts.” The Law came by Moses, but truth and grace, by Jesus Christ.

The truth is, a person who rejects God - and every sin is a way of rejecting Him - inflicts upon himself the worst punishment of all, namely, godlessness! I mean, not being within loving union, indeed, communion, with Him Who is love, with Him in whom alone is life. Yes, that is the worst punishment there is, though the fact has yet to be made universally manifest. And yes, the sinner inflicts it (and much more) upon himself, unilaterally, without any help from God. God in no way approves, assists, condones or connives in this. He has no interest in the destruction of His own handiwork (for to reject Life Himself is to die); that is the devil’s agenda.

But even if we were to take certain passages of the Old Testament in an unspiritual way, literally, as they were written for Israel’s hard heart, we Christians could, should, never say the Old Covenant is still in effect, so as to suppose God obligated by it.

What? Didn’t Christ Himself, echoing the Old Testament, say the Old, law-based Covenant would never pass away, not even an iota or an accent mark of it, till all was fulfilled? Yes, He did. (Matthew 5:18) And then He perfectly fulfilled it.

Did not St. Paul protest that we are not doing away with the Law, but in fact establishing it? Yes. He also wrote, “He who loves another has fulfilled the Law.” (Romans 13:8) We establish the Law by fulfilling its intention, by doing what it could only point to, by loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving one another as ourselves.

We establish the Law for what it is, for what it was always intended to be: a temporary substitute for Love, Love which cannot be brought about by any legislation. It’s where our love fails that laws become necessary. But the most they can accomplish is to teach us what love would look like, get us to mimic love, to approximate it externally. Only the Holy Spirit can bring true love to us, as He did on Pentecost, and that initiates us into the New Covenant foretold by the Prophet Jeremiah:

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah-- not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.’ (Jeremiah 31:34)

The book of Hebrews, after quoting this passage, comments, “In that He says, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13)

Vanish away? How can that be? In what sense? In the sense that the Law, the Old Covenant, has been subsumed under the New. It was only our “governor” to keep us until the Christ should come.

The purpose of the New Covenant is not to make us into law-keepers per se; that has now become utterly beside the point. The purpose of the New Covenant, and even of the Old, except it lacked the power to do it, is to make us into lovers. To be mere law-observing is unnatural for us and for that reason, we cannot help resenting it, even if we try to push that resentment out of our minds. Loving, however, is natural; it's what we were created to do. To love is truly to rejoice. Loving simultaneously fulfills the Law (gives it its ultimate meaning) and abolishes the need for it.

And indeed, God Himself revealed the end of the Old Covenant in several ways. First Christ taught it, obliquely, when He cursed the barren fig tree and it withered, the fig tree representing the spiritual barrenness of Israel. Again the end of the Old Covenant was revealed when Christ was crucified and the Veil of the Temple was ripped from top to bottom, and, according to the rabbis, the glory (Shekinah) of the Lord departed from the Temple. God demonstrated the end of the Old Covenant even more dramatically some 40 years later, when Rome sacked Jerusalem and demolished the Temple, as Jesus had foretold, and scattered Israel, destroying the old worship permanently. It couldn’t be any clearer: the Old Covenant is no longer in effect. And God is not obligated by it any more than we are. He is perfectly free (as, in truth, He always was).

Now if the thought of a perfectly free God alarms us, it is because our fallen minds tend to equate freedom with license or with arbitrariness. But in God, freedom is not like that because God is love and God is perfect. It isn’t bad news that God is utterly, radically free. It’s very, very good news, because it means He is free not to punish or take revenge or be vindictive. It means He is perfectly free to love us, and only love us, and He is never required to behave unlovingly toward us in any manner.

Moreover, we do not need God to place Himself under obligation before we can trust Him to be kind, or not to be arbitrary! We do not trust Him because we consider Him safely bound (even by His own promises), but because of Who He is, Whom we have encountered. We trust Him because we know Him. We would be safe with Him even without any promises.

Safe from our own consciences is another matter! But let us not project our own problem onto God. God simply loves us. And nothing can ever separate us from His love, not even hell. (Psalm 139:8) Period.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

Coming Apart at the Seams

The Gloria Stories, Part 5

You sew a small, secret pocket to the inside of a very blousy blouse, put a spool of thread into that pocket, of matching color, and with a sewing needle, bring the end of the thread to the outside of your top. Then you go to a restaurant with somebody like Gloria. Someone like her, not easily embarrassed, is needed to make it work.

You wait until some of the other diners happen to direct their gaze toward you, and then you say, not quietly, “Oh, look at that; I have a thread hanging down. Would you mind pulling it for me?”

Gloria, of course, to hook the audience, yanked several inches out. She wadded it up and put it on her bread plate.

I thanked her.

After a few more moments, the others around us now curious, I said, “You know, I don’t think you got it all…”

“No problem, let me try again,” she said. This time. she pulled out a whole foot of thread and added it to the bread plate.

“Nope,” she said. “That didn’t do it. You still look scraggly.” And she pulled out another foot or two and added it to the heap on the bread plate.

The waiter came to offer us drinks. We declined, but Gloria did ask him to take the bread plate out of our way, which by now was piled high with wadded up, black thread.

I don’t know what happened to that waiter, but we never saw him again after he removed that plate. A woman took his place.

By now, people were checking us out quite regularly, so we regularly obliged. Several more feet of black thread were now heaped on Gloria's new bread plate.

Finally, after dessert, Gloria said, “I am determined to get that thing, once and for all.” So she stood up and pulled. She backed up three steps and kept pulling. She backed up some more, winding her way among tables, until she was all the way across the room, and still kept pulling.

Suddenly, I wrapped my arms around my torso. “Gloria, stop!” I cried, in a stage whisper so everyone could hear. “I think you’ve pulled my whole top apart!”

“Grab my jacket!” she stage-whispered back.

“I can’t. I can’t move!”

So she hurried back to our table, put her jacket around my shoulders, and laid our money on the table. Then we made a hasty exit, I all the while clutching at my blouse and her jacket.

You have to be quite bored, I suppose, to do things like that.


Friday, June 13, 2008

God is Always Gracious -- to Everybody

Here is an interesting blog post about whether grace is imputed or imparted.

Thing is, God does not need to do any legal manipulations by which He can manage to regard us as righteous, before He can treat us well. He doesn't have to bestow a new legal status upon us before being good to us, as good as He is to the greatest saint. He doesn’t first have to kid Himself about who we are. He doesn’t need any justification to do whatever He pleases with His servants, including His unwilling ones. He is allowed to be merciful to whom He will be merciful.

In His ultimate self-revelation (in this life) He shows Himself the “Friend of sinners.” (Mark 11:19, Luke 7:34) He sends His sunshine and His rain upon the just and the unjust, alike. He loves those who hate Him; He is good to those who curse Him. (Matthew 5:44-45) “He is kind to the unthankful and to the evil.” (Luke 6:35) All these are Christ's own words, not mine.

And the Law? Has not God obliged Himself to be very much the opposite of all that to sinners? The New Covenant is not legally based. Christ fulfilled that Covenant and closed it out. God’s new covenant with mankind is a covenant of eternal, unbounded love. See more in an upcoming post.


The Elevator Game

The Gloria Stories, Part 4

Whether it was Gloria or I who came up with the Elevator Game I can’t remember; I think I came across it in a book somewhere. It’s simple. You just tell your friend a story on the elevator. The catch is, you only tell the middle of it, only as much as fits into your ride. Timing is crucial; you have to pad it or condense it as time requires. You also have to speak so everyone in the elevator can’t help hearing you.

Our favorite one went like this:

[Getting on elevator]. “Of course, I knew I shouldn’t open the front door at four o’clock in the morning; I know it was stupid…”

“Very stupid.”

“I know.”

“And dangerous, too.”

“Yup, but I did it. I threw on my bathrobe and ran down the stairs, and sure enough, there he was, with his friend, and with his gun pointed right at me.”

[Ding! The elevator bell rings to announce your floor. Doors open]

“OH, no! What did you do?”

[Walking out the door]

“I didn’t even have time to do anything, when all of a sudden…”

[Thunk! Elevator doors close and your audience disappears.]

We had several such stories, for variety. One I remember was this:

[Getting on elevator]

“Well, the whole room fell silent and everybody was staring at me. That’s when I looked up and realized it was the Prince.”

“You mean—?”

“Yes, the Prince. Of Wales! I could have died!”


“No offense, but I would have, if I had just done something that stupid! What did you say?”

“What could I say, after that? In the end, he was the one who spoke first. ”

[Exiting elevator] “Trying to make a joke of it, you know, but to me that just made it worse. I was so mortified! He said…”


Don’t ask me how the stories ended. Or began. We only made up the middles.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gloria’s Mother Takes Charge

The Gloria Stories, Part III

Gloria’s husband had moved out and her mother was flying in from New York for a week. Gloria was distraught as I drove her to the airport. “I just know I’m going to cry,” said Gloria, “and that’ll make her cry, and I just couldn’t stand that.”

“So be strong,” I said. “Don’t cry ‘til you get home.”

“I won’t be able to help it. As soon as I see her get off that plane, I’m done for.”

“You are not going to cry, okay? NOT!”

“I don’t know…I’ll probably blubber like a baby and then she’ll start in, and between the two of us, you just don’t know what a scene that’ll make.”

“Since when have you ever minded making a scene?”

“Well, but not that kind of a scene! Weeping all over the place, the both of us.”

“But you're lucky to have a good Jewish mama. Nothing more comforting, huh? Everybody should have one!"

"You don't."

"Yes, I have. We Christians consider St. Mary our mother. Now buck up.”

“My mother is no St. Mary. When she sees me cry, she will be all out of control.”

“You are not going to do it, not going to cry.”

She sighed. “When my mother cries, she really carries on something awful. I’m really dreading this.”

The drive to the airport took 40 minutes, and the whole of it was occupied by this conversation. I lost count of how many times I repeated, “You are going to be strong. You are NOT going to cry!”

She didn’t, either. The plane arrived; the large woman in a housedress came out of the jetway; she and Gloria embraced, all smiles. Mother had come to comfort and to take charge.

Relief overwhelmed me. I burst into tears.


Yes, You Can

You can be like the prophetess Anna, or the prophet Simeon, who prayed day and night in the Temple and were rewarded by the sight of the Messiah. You can be like the disciples and Mary who prayed in the Upper Room until the Holy Spirit descended. You can be like the Ethiopian eunuch, who tried to read the Scriptures. Even though he failed to understand them, God rewarded him by sending him Philip, and salvation.

Yes, there are things you can do to prepare yourself for the coming of Grace. Seek, and ye shall find. Ask, and it shall be given you. Knock, and it shall be opened to you.

Does this mean Grace wasn't already with these people, or with you, if you tried to pray or struggled with the Scriptures or sought and found or asked and received? Certainly Grace was already there, prompting all these things.

The trouble with, "I believe that I cannot, by my own strength..." is that it assumes there is such a thing as our own strength apart from God and unaided by Him. There isn't. Nobody even draws a single breath except by Grace. God never abandoned mankind because of sin. Our God's love never wavered nor changed. Only the strategies it employed varied according to the situation. God Himself remained faithful, true, constant, and unvarying in His love for us. His love is infinite; there are no boundaries on it. His love is unconditional. Grace was always with us, leading us every single step.

So use the grace given you to seek "more", for although it is not given by measure, it is indeed by measure received. Invest it like the talent in the Parable; use it as Pentecost approaches to prepare yourself for the Holy Spirit's coming. That's the only way to acquire the fulness of the Him, the only way to arrive at the ultimate goal.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Fruit Hat

The Gloria Stories, Part 2

I didn’t want anybody I knew to see me wearing the hat, so with it I wore a disguise, a red wig and large sunglasses. The wide-brimmed straw hat was decorated with assorted plastic fruits, to which I had added real grapes.

The plot was that at the restaurant, whenever we noticed other luncheon patrons glancing in our direction, I’d find some pretext for bending head my head forward, and Gloria would pluck a grape from the hat and eat it, while I pretended not to notice.

We did that, but it wasn’t satisfactory. There was no noticeable reaction. People were too polite or the restaurant was too upscale or something.

The real fun didn’t begin until we went, separately, into Spencer Gifts. I’d bend down to examine merchandise on some low shelf and Gloria would sneak up behind me, pick a grape from my hat and pop it into her mouth.

Have you ever noticed that there are a lot of ceiling-to-floor mirrors in Spencer Gifts? Those are two-way mirrors. After Gloria had stolen several grapes from me, one of those mirrored doors swung open and out came a detective and accosted her.

I continued wandering about, pretending not to notice.

“Ma’am,” said a man’s voice behind me.

I turned to face the detective. “Yes?" Then, eyeing Gloria, "Is there anything wrong?”

“I caught this woman eating your hat. There’s no eating or drinking in the store, you know.”

I couldn’t resist. I said, “Well, I’ll eat my hat!” and then, glaring at Gloria, added, "I will eat it, not you!"

“So the question,” the officer continued, “is whether you care to press any charges? It’s petty theft.”

Ah, sweet revenge! I said yes.

Then after a moment, I said, “Can I think about it a few minutes?”

“Well, I mean…”

“I’m absolutely desperate for the ladies’ room!” I said, and bolted. “I’ll be right back!” I called, over my shoulder. “Hang on to that crazy lady!”

Instead of running to the bathroom, I sauntered over to the Orange Julius stand.

The girl behind the counter exclaimed, “Oh, I LOVE your hat!”

“Really?” I said. She loved this gaudy, tasteless thing? Well, not exactly tasteless, but… The grapes were nearly gone and many, ugly, twisty stems were now adorning the front of the hat.

“Oh, yes!” she assured me. “It’s great!”

“Would you like one or two of the grapes?” I asked.

“You mean they’re real?”

“Sure! I wouldn’t have offered if they weren’t.”

“Oh... Well, in that case...would you mind if I took a strawberry?”

I let her take a grape instead.

I was about to order a drink when I remembered, no food or drinks inside Spencer Gifts. So back to the store I went and told the detective those grapes hadn't been worth very much, and if this woman would pay me enough to buy a large, cold drink, I would consider us even and would be willing to forego any formal charges.

Gloria, scowling, handed me three dollars.

"I hope you'll stay out of trouble from now on," I told her, sternly. "And now if you will both excuse me, I'm off to the Orange Julius stand!"

Gloria's drink was waiting for her when she joined me there a few minutes later.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

How I Met Gloria

The Gloria Stories, Part 1

Before we had our get-acquainted lunch, sometime in the early 1980s, Gloria and I had only met long enough for me to buy a copper-colored, miniature poodle from her. She had had to give up the puppy as a result of severe marital problems, something about her always being out of the house, playing tennis and swimming and attending coffee klatches and book clubs and something about her being Jewish. All I knew was, she clearly needed a friend. I didn't have any inkling about her sense of humor, and it caught me completely off-guard.

My first clue of what was in store ought to have been when I arrived at the restaurant and gave the hostess my name and she said, “Oh, yes, your date is already here. Follow me,” but I didn’t pick up on that odd way of putting it.

My next clue ought to have been our order, by the time we were finished giving it. There was only one serving of carrot soup left, our waiter informed us, so Gloria said fine, we’d split it, please. Just bring two soupspoons. We split the salad, too, just because neither of us liked it all that much. The crepes (for the restaurant was a creperie) we couldn’t decide upon, so she ordered hers filled with strawberry and I ordered mine filled with chocolate (of course!) and we agreed each of us would give the other half.

But that clue by-passed me, too. I was all oblivious to the bated trap until she sprang it. “Oh, and we’ll take the discount, too,” she told the waiter.

“Discount?” I said, pleasantly surprised. “What discount is that?”

“Its Valentine’s Day,” Gloria replied, and then waited.

I shook my head. So it was. “And--?”

“The restaurant is offering all Valentines ten percent off.”


“Lovers,” the waiter clarified.

My mouth fell open. My face burned. My stomach lurched. “No, no, Gloria! Don’t tell this man that!”

“You see how hard it is,” said Gloria, “just to tell you these things? I think we deserve the ten percent discount for our courage alone!”

“Oh, but it isn’t like that!” I protested. “We aren’t lovers, no; in fact, we are married women!”

“That’s right,” said Gloria.

“No, not that way!” I cried, in desperation. “Not to each other! We have a husband - each of us has one, I mean! Two different men and... ”

The waiter wasn’t listening to my babbling. He stared at Gloria and said, “Far out!” which back then meant, “Totally weird!”

“No, it isn’t!” I shrieked, causing several heads to turn among our fellow diners. “I mean, we are normal women!”

“If you say so…”

"We consider ourselves normal," said Gloria. “So you’ll give us the discount?”

“I'm not sure. Because, you know, how am I supposed to know whether you two really are…you know…”

“How are you supposed to know we’re lovers, you mean?” Gloria bellowed. “Look at that couple over there!” whirling around and pointing. “They’re man and woman, for ___ sake, and you don’t know whether they really are lovers, either, yet you're giving THEM the discount! You didn’t ask them, did you?” rising to her feet, pounding the table. “No, you did not! So why are you asking us? You wanna know what this is? This is discrimination!”

“Okay, okay, I’ll ask my manager…”

I groaned. “Please don’t. “Ten percent isn’t all that important.”

“Yes, it is,” said Gloria. “Tell your manager we demand the discount!”

He departed, and I slumped forward, head in my hands, elbows on the table.

I stayed that way about thirty long, silent seconds and then, suddenly, a giggle escaped me, and then another.

Gloria nodded, her satisfaction evident.

“Now that we’ve got everyone’s attention,” she said. “Don’t you think we should give them a show?"

It was true. The diners around us were staring openly, not even making any pretense at eating; some of them had actually laid down their forks. "Well..." a smile spread across my face as I toyed with the idea.

“They’re all staring at us, so we may as well make the most of it.”

I nodded, weakly. "I'm in."

“Wanna play footsie?”

“Who’s going to see that, under the table?” I squeaked, my voice still having not recovered from the shock.

“Shall we hold hands?”

“Definitely not.”

So we settled upon looking googly-eyed at each other across the table. We couldn’t do it with a straight face, so we beamed as if adoringly at each other.

Our carrot soup arrived, which we shared, still gazing at each other. Then the salad, also shared, and the crepes…

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted two women from my (Episcopal) church, no longer eating, but it was too late to do anything about that.

“Do you want to hear my news about my husband?” Gloria asked.

“Yes. And if you please, I’d like to hear that word, ‘husband' very loudly.”

“Okay. My HUSBAND is very unhappy with me. He doesn’t APPROVE OF MY EXTRA-CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES. So I have to figure out whether to separate from him or divorce him or make up with him.”

From my left came a high-pitched, raspy voice. “Do you mind if I put in a word?”

Eyes wide, jaws agape, we turned toward the speaker, an elderly woman at the next table with a kind smile. Reaching over, she patted Gloria on the knee. “Make it up with your husband, honey. Make it up!” Her elderly companion nodded.

The subtotal on our check was ten dollars, minus the ten percent discount, for a total of nine dollars, with “Happy Valentine’s Day!” written beside it. All that for one dollar! Gloria shrugged. "A dollar's a dollar. Plus all the fun we got out of it."

“I'll call you,” she said. “We’ll get together again sometime.”

I said I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to speak to her again, but I already knew that wasn’t true. And I was already looking for sweet revenge.


Sunday, June 8, 2008

Goodbye to a Good Egg

Lucky Egg, the baby bluebird, is ready for his new home.

He now looks like this:

I've done my part and today I'm taking him to Amber, where he will go into one of her flight cages with five other Bluebirds. They already know how to pick up their own food, and will teach him, while he also learns to fly.

I can't tell you what a great joy this beautiful boy has been. But the greatest joy was when Demetrios said, "I now see that it is a wonderful thing you do, to raise a little miracle like this and then release him."

I've been waiting years for that. Thank you, God.

Mom, following her surgery to put in a new shoulder, is being released from her rehab unit tomorrow (hooray!) and Rosie, her home health care helper, is on vacation this week, so I'm going to spend a couple of days with Mom to make sure she is able to be on her own again. Leaving for Springfield this evening.


Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Glass Bubble

It’s hot today, going to be in the upper 90s or even get to 100 degrees. The sky is bright blue and there are a few cumulus (“cotton ball”) clouds. And something about this day, I’m not sure just what, reminds me of the days long ago (I was not yet ten) when my twin sister and I used to have such wonderful adventures in our glass bubble.

Oh, you never knew I had a twin sister? Well, I had. Her name was Monica, because back then, that was the most beautiful name in the world. It’s a pity you never saw her, for she was gorgeous. (Lots of people of course could and did see this raving beauty, but you, being visible yourself, weren’t one of them.) She had long, dark hair to contrast with mine, short and yellow, and she wore it away from her face, in a hair band. She had delicate, dark eyebrows and doe eyes. She was sweet and kind, very feminine, yet mischievous and ever so much fun.

And on afternoons like this one, when we were supposed to be taking our naps, we would sneak out the window of our room and climb aboard our glass bubble.

It looked something like the bubble that forms the cabin of some helicopters. It was perfectly spherical, though, and it didn’t have a rotary blade. In fact, I no longer remember how it flew, although I knew back then, and was adept at operating the control panel, with all its switches and levers and dials and lights.

Inside the bubble, there was a flat floor, with storage space below the hatch. In that storage space were bananas, Fritos, and a cooler containing Cokes and tuna salad sandwiches. Our swimsuits and beach towels were there, too, in tote bags. In the main compartment, besides the complex control panel, were two canvas chairs, two rope hammocks, and shelf full of books.

And in this transparent craft, Monica and I would rise high above the house, above the plains, where the bison and long-horned cattle grazed (for this was Oklahoma), above Medicine Bluffs, our favorite picnic spot, and even a little above Mount Scott and Lake Lawtonka. We would look down at the patchwork ground and the tiny cars and minute people. We would zip around a cloud, or sometimes fly right through it, just to see what it looked like inside. We would put the bubble in auto-pilot and lie back in our hammocks, admiring the sky and feeling utterly free.

Just staying up there in the blue was enough to enthrall us, without necessarily going very far away. Just being in the sky was our joy. But sometimes we traveled to foreign lands, too. We went to Paris once, to see the Eiffel Tower, and we went to Africa to see the animals, and to Brazil to see the Amazon and the jungle.

Our glass bubble was also a submarine. It could cruise on the surface of the water as well, so sometimes we would take it to Long Island and tie up beside Grandpa’s boat at the dock in Greenport, and sit there on the dock and fish. We liked the smells there, the salt air and something oily about the boats, and the way the ropes smelt. We liked the sound of the wavelets slapping the sides of the boats, and the way our bubble rocked if we sat in it.

Sometimes we would fly to some beach and be amazed that here, an entire continent ended and the vast ocean began. Sometimes we would batten the hatch at the top of our bubble and dive to see what was under the water. We looked for starfish, especially, and jellyfish, and dolphins and whales. The dolphins were always so friendly we could have petted them, had we not been encased in glass.

The only hard part was getting home before naptime was over, so Mom wouldn’t discover our absence. But we knew that we’d be off in our wonderful glass bubble again, the very next time this sort of day came around, with just this sort of sky and clouds and sun and breeze and temperature and indefinable something, a magical summer day.


Happy Dream

My family was all in a boat, speeding over the shining water. The sky was filled with sunshine. In the prow of the boat, at the point in the very front, stood Barbara. Of course. That's both physically and symbolically where she would stand. She was wearing khaki shorts and white tee shirt and was turned toward us, her hair blowing in the wind, grinning and waving gleefully. As if to say, "Woo-hoo! What a ride!" Which is what she would say.

Yeah, quite a ride, this life. And look who all are in the boat with us, standing in the prow.


Sun Room

Our new sun room has changed our whole way of living. We eat breakfast in it and listen to music afterwards. I bring my laptop and do my correspondence and blog in it. I bring Lucky Egg, too, the baby Bluebird, and he sits in his nest or on his perch and preens his feathers, ridding them of their remaining sheaths, and flaps his beautiful cobalt wings for exercise. And I pop a bit into his mouth when he chirps for food. Demetrios does his medical reading in the sun room, too. We can see the sunshine and the greenery, hear the birds singing, watch (and on mild days, feel) the breeze. We sit here in the rain and watch the storm’s fireworks in the sky and the rivulets forming on the ground. We have lunch here and leave reluctantly afterwards for our nap. We eat supper here and then sit and watch the twilight deepen and the stars come out. In some ways it’s as delightful as our little balcony in Thessaloniki. We don‘t feel closed in, as we do in other rooms; we feel out-of-doors. Yet we can be comfortable here year-round, or at least we expect to.

We don’t go out nearly as much, or for as long, as we used to, just to get out of the house. With gasoline prices as they are, that’s a good thing!

We never dreamed we’d love this sun room so much!

Economic times have gotten significantly harder even since we began this project last Fall, so we are very fortunate to have done it while we still could.


Friday, June 6, 2008

Belmont Stakes

The last race of the Triple Crown is being run tomorrow.

Go, Big Brown!


How to Pick a President

Why virtue trumps policy

This is the title of a very good article in today's issue of Christianity Today.

I highly recommend it. It goes completely against how we usually vote and shows where we make a huge mistake. Here are two paragraphs I especially like:

We make the same mistake as one recent grumpy CNN commentator: "What we need from these candidates are details of how they are going to solve our problems. How are they going to stop the slide of the dollar? How are they going to get the troops home from Iraq? How are they going to fix Social Security? That's what we need to know." Grumpy and wrong. There's value in hearing a candidate's plans and proposals, but it's of secondary or even lesser importance. Few if any of those plans and proposals will survive the political process intact. Voting for Obama's health plan or Hillary's economic scheme or McCain's immigration policy is virtual-reality voting, positing an intriguing alternate world, but having little to do with this one. When it comes to picking a President, Gandhi had it right: "The obligation of accepting a position of power is to be, above all else, a good human being."

"You've got to be kidding," one hears our CNN commentator saying. "'Good human being'? Who's to say what constitutes a 'good human being'? I want someone competent to run the country." Wrong again. Competence without virtue is poisonous. It simply makes one more effective at doing wrong. Furthermore, being virtuous is, in itself, an expression of competence. Since virtue is a requirement for leadership, a lack of virtue in a leader is a sign of incompetence and grounds enough for rejecting that leadership. Virtue is a personal matter, but it is never wholly a private one, certainly not in a President.