Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Precious and Life-Giving Cross

17th Century Bulgarian icon of the Exaltation of the Precious an Life-Giving Cross

Celebrating the Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross today has been a powerful conclusion to a difficult and necessary week of heart-work.  I made the decision to divorce my wife in March of this year after years of trying everything I knew to do to save our relationship.  The legal process crept along at its own pace over the Spring and Summer.  These were the ‘alone times’ for me.  It was good that I was working long hours behind the front desk at the local Y and out in a friend’s garden doing hard physical labor.  Part of me could not imagine that this was happening to me.  Part of me was in deep grief.  Part of me was feeling profoundly disoriented.  And part of me was very, very angry.  All of this took a lot of energy.


Word that the divorce had been granted came in a letter from my lawyer the third week of July.  I took my wedding ring off, the one that I had said thirty two years before represented the promises that I was making to my bride.  And now, I was no longer in a position even to try to keep those promises.  I had been told to leave.  I believe she would say that I had broken her trust.  And that was that.


Over four very painful years, I learned the hard way that I can’t change anyone else’s thinking or behavior; I can only change mine.  I can own my sins, shortcomings, failings, wrongs, hurtful words, and I can ask forgiveness, and I can work on changing what is wrong in my life.  But I cannot make another person forgive if they choose not to.  Twelve-step programs make use of the ‘serenity prayer’, which says simply, ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’  Very easy words to say.  But I have found them almost impossible to put into practice.  Serenity remains elusive.  But rather than shove this under the rug, my awareness of this gives me an opportunity to learn important things about me.

The Cross as the Tree of Life

One important thing I’ve learned is that I am very much still governed by this world’s understanding of justice.  Outraged cries for justice are all over our news and media.  From race-relations and Ferguson to the agitation for gay marriage to immigration reform.  This concern for ‘justice’ has contributed to the staggering number of lawyers who are all eager to help this person or that cause redress this unfairness or that imbalance, this discrimination or that miscarriage of justice.  It’s one thing to realize that we live in a litigious society.  But we also seem to be hard-wired as Americans to be litigious people – hyper-sensitive to how we are being treated, quick to take offense, holders of grudges, taking pleasure in revenge, wanting to get our due while ensuring that the other gets his/hers.


The justice that I am tempted towards (feel entitled to?) is something very different from what I found myself singing/chanting in Church today.  One of the hymns of the feast goes like this:

Come, all you nations,
Let us fall down in worship before the blessed Tree,
By which eternal justice has come to pass!
For he who deceived Adam by a Tree
Is caught by the lure of the Cross;
And he who held under his tyranny the creature endowed by God with royal dignity
Is brought down in a headlong fall.
The serpent’s venom is washed away by the blood of God,
And the curse of just condemnation is undone
When the Just One is condemned by an unjust judgment.
For it was fitting that the Tree
Should be healed by a Tree,
And that by the Passion of the passionless God
What was wrought on the Tree should destroy the passions of the man who was condemned.
But glory to your dread dispensation for our sakes, O Christ the King,
Through which you have saved us all,
Since You are good and the Lover of mankind!



I am learning many things.  God’s ‘eternal justice’, illuminated by ‘the blessed Tree’ is different from the ‘justice’ that I have caught myself crying out for.  If someone slaps me in the face, calls me names, or speaks half-truths or untruths about me, my impulse to slap back, put down or otherwise defend myself is exposed here to be precisely the strategy of Satan.  Jesus, the ‘Just One’, said: ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak.  And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.’ (Matthew 5:38-41)  Jesus on the cross said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34)  Jesus did not cry out for justice, or for revenge.  He did not revile the people who were hurting him. He did not cut off the ones who betrayed him.  He forgave them.  He forgave them


Jesus did not wait for them to ‘get it’.  Jesus did not wait for them to convert.  Jesus did not wait for them to show some signs of remorse.  Jesus did not wait for them to fulfill some sort of repentance inventory.  Jesus forgave them.  Paul nails it precisely when he says, ‘For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.  For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:6-8)


Let me complete the circle; or rather, let Jesus complete it.  It’s all right there in the gospel that I presumably believe:  ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you [emphasis mine], love one another.  By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)  Simply put, I am called to love.  To love as Jesus loved me.  Without condition.  Even if it is never acknowledged, much less returned.  It's simply what He has done.  And He shows me how.


It should surprise no one that I feel wronged, that I feel mistreated, that I feel misunderstood and misrepresented, that I feel abandoned.  This is old ground.  And, I don’t need to apologize for feeling this way.  It happened.  Things were said that are regrettable.  Things were done that are regrettable.  Things were not said and not done that were regrettable.  ‘Friends’ of many years simply disappeared.  I would lie if I said it didn’t hurt.

Ethiopian Orthodox icon


However, I do not need to stay in this place.  This day that we celebrate the Exaltation of the Cross teaches me that Jesus meets me and my role in His crucifixion, not with anger and retribution and revenge, but with forgiveness.  It’s like His response to the woman caught in adultery.  ‘Moses says “Stone her!”  What say You?’  And of all the sons of Adam ever born, Jesus is the only one who has a right to pick up that first stone.  But he doesn’t.  And when her accusers slink away, shamed when their hearts are simply exposed for what they are, Jesus refuses to condemn her and instead forgives her and charges her to go and sin no more.  I am met with the same love, touched by the same forgiveness, and so are you.  Freed from my very heavy burden, I am freed from the need, indeed the compulsion to demand justice for the other.  I can, instead, forgive.  Because I am forgiven.  I can turn the other cheek.  I can give with no expectation of getting back.  Because I am no longer dependent on that person to give me what I need.  I am getting it from the Lord instead.


This is not a new lesson for me, but a very old one applied to a painfully present situation.  But there is a further application that has been brought to my attention this week in conversation with friends.  I found myself throughout the week senselessly spinning my tires, feeling that wrong had been done and that I had been wrongfully banished to the nether regions.  This sort of thinking becomes unhealthy very quickly, and I sought to remedy my wrong thinking by forgiving my former wife again and again.  It wasn't working. Mainly because the old way of ‘forgiving’ that I learned in my former life was to apply ‘forgiveness’ to the wrong without understanding the what and the why and how of what was going on.  Such ‘forgiveness’ was not real forgiveness.  It just kicked the can down the road for me to deal with it again when I caught up with it.


A friend helped me see this week that my feelings were not something that I should repress or try to change.  They are what they are.  Instead, they are giving me an opportunity to learn something about myself.  For example, if I am feeling wronged, if I am feeling misrepresented, if I am feeling abused, then let these become a mirror. What do my feelings, what does my reaction tell me about myself?  Have I done wrong in this case?  Have I misrepresented what was going on in this case?  Have I abused or treated, in this case her, in a way other than with love?  I begin to see my own flaws emerge.  In each case, the pain, the hurt, the wrong goes both ways.  I need not only to forgive, but to be forgiven.


So I find myself back in that place where I started, a divorced man, feeling all the pain that that brokenness implies.  But I am freed from the need to blame, freed from the need to exact revenge, freed from the need to make sure ‘my narrative’ gets out there.  Real wrong was done.  And this wrong has had terrible consequences.  And I (and my children and others) feel them profoundly.  But I can forgive.  And I need not be defined by my failure. Or hers.  I choose, instead, to be defined by the cross.

As the Cross is lifted on high,
It urges all of creation
To praise the undefiled Passion of Christ,
Who was lifted up on it.
For by the Cross He killed the one
Who killed us,
And brought us back to life when
We were dead. 
He adorned us in beauty,
And in His compassion made us
Worthy to live in heaven.
Therefore we rejoice and exalt His name,
And magnify His infinite condescension.

And one last hymn from the day, this one by ‘John the Monk’:

Your precious Cross, O Christ God,
Which Moses of old prefigured in
His own person
When he overthrew Amalek and
Put him to flight;
Which David commanded to be [venerated],
Calling it your footstool.
This Cross we sinners [venerate]
Today with unworthy lips,
And praise You, Who deigned
To be nailed upon it,
And we cry to You:
‘With the thief make us worthy of Your Kingdom, O Lord!’



Thursday, August 28, 2014

When Money Is More Important than People

I have been working for the past 15 months at a not-for-profit fitness center.  The pay has been one notch above minimum wage.  The hours have been random, sometimes very early, sometimes very late, sometimes 3 hours a day, sometimes 13.  But I have had great people to work with, and I have really appreciated the site manager and the several directors who have responsibility over our panoply of programs.  My task has been to man the front desk, answer all questions, deal with all issues, and essentially be the cheerful face of our organization.  These things I have done with increasing competence as the year has gone by.

I didn’t have much of a choice in terms of employment when I returned to the US in May of 2013 on what I thought was a short furlough.  No one was interested in giving me a job in my area of academic expertise (um, that would be Early Modern British History) or professional experience (instructor at the undergraduate and graduate level in Christian theology and history).  And even when I lowered my sites to any job (grocery store stock guy, landscaping companies, ditch digging, etc.), nobody was hiring.  Eventually, the county certified me to substitute teach.  But I quickly discovered that I only knew how to teach students who wanted to learn, and had no idea how to cope with students who could care less.  So when this organization offered me part-time work with the option to pick up additional hours as a sub, I jumped at it.  And here I am, 15 months later, towards the end of what will be my last week on the job.



I found out this past Monday that I am being downsized.  I do not blame the organization for the employment model it has adopted or the policy choices it has made.  It looks to me like they are following so-called ‘best practice’ – doing what such organizations think they must in order to survive.  But while such ‘practice’ may allow the organization as such to survive, and may allow the people at the top of the food chain in that organization to continue to do their thing and draw their salary, it feels like the rest of us are viewed as expendable.  I guess this proves that we are.

My first clue about this utilitarian stance towards employees came early.  None of us hourly employees are allowed to work so much as to obligate the organization to pay us benefits.  Evidently, more than 30 hours a week throws the benefits switch.  As a result, there are about 10 of us part-time employees, some of whom are students, others of whom are part-time by choice, and others of us who would like to be full-time if we could.  Because I could not work full-time hours even if I wanted to, and because I’ve been paid an hourly wage (I got a raise at the beginning of summer from $8.50 to $11/hour because I was given a ‘management’ portfolio) without benefits, I was forced to find my own insurance.  If the Affordable Care Act had not been in place, I would have been numbered among the nation’s uninsured.  The policy I did find cost nearly $500/month.  Given that I make maybe $1100-$1300/month aggregate from my several part-time jobs, I think you can see why insurance would have been untenable for me without help.  A $390/month subsidy from the ACA has saved me from that debacle.

So I’ve been in a job (which I’ve been grateful to have) which does not provide benefits, a job (which I’ve been grateful to have) which does not pay a living wage.  I’ve watched news reports on TV about fast-food employees going on strike to demand wages that would enable someone who works full-time to actually live off their wages without having to resort to food stamps or Obamacare or so-many other supplemental jobs that they do nothing but work so their kids can go to school or have something to eat or, in my case, so I can pay off my daughter’s university loans so she can start her life not saddled by immense debt.  I now have considerable empathy for all those distressed fast-food workers.  I am them.


And now, because our mother organization has racked up a sizeable amount of debt (though our branch actually turned a profit this past year), the directors have decided that everybody (not just them but us as well) must make draconian cuts in their budget.  One of our program directors saw her entire position done away with (and since she was the director of our fitness programs, it seems to me an odd move for a fitness center to get rid of their fitness director, but who am I?).  Our own director, trying to blunt the force of such mandated-from-above ‘cost-saving measures’, is moving the former fitness director into the job that I now hold, that of front desk manager.  And since she will now be filling a 40 hour week at the front desk, and since there are 9 other part-time front-desk staff, it doesn’t take a math whiz to realize that there are not enough hours to go around.

I am not being forced out, or fired, or relieved.  But as a ‘part-time’ employee, my hours are being reduced from about 40 hours/week to maybe 5.  So the reason I took this job – make enough money so that I can survive until I can hopefully return to my ‘real’ job in Kenya – is no longer viable.  I handed in my resignation on Tuesday so as to give my successor a free hand in creating a front desk schedule that will keep as many of my other colleagues at least as they have been in terms of hours.  Because I, at least, have the hope of a potential new position that will enable me to return to my teaching life overseas, I’ve not been freaking out.  But should that potential position not work out, I’m in trouble.

This is a very small drama in a very small organization.  But I’ve been back in the US long enough to realize that there are a lot of people in my circumstances, who are trying as hard as they can to ‘make it’, at least according to the standards of our society, and who are constantly teetering on the edge.  Because we are not numbered among the unemployed, because we are not among those lining up for government help, because we are not among those grateful for a shelter or for a soup kitchen, our society seems to think that we are all ok.  But the very fact that we exist, that we are working hard to contribute, are trying to support our families or meet our obligations, the very fact that we are trying so hard and not making it is a symptom that should tell anyone with any sense that something fundamental is not right with our system.  This is the economy that ‘trickle down’ Reaganomics and its subsequent avatars has produced.  And it has worked very well for a few of us, and not so well for the vast majority of us who may not have access to millions of dollars to invest in stocks or companies or real estate.

Best practice might be saving our organization a few thousand dollars every month, according to their own business models.  But it is costing them some of their best employees, the very people who make this organization what it says it wants to be.  I know it seems like a hard choice from a business standpoint – money or people?  Do we try to maximize profits for the sake of a few  at the expense of the workers who generate the services or products that make those profits possible?  Is it not possible to find some median place, where we make a modest amount of money and we take care of the people who make the organization work?



But what do I know?  I don’t sit in the boardroom, nor is my desk in the director’s office.  I do know what it is like to spend a lot of hours of my life every week working at a front desk, trying to make people feel welcome and happy, processing their applications, solving their problems and answering their questions.  I do know what it is like to do all of this while making a cut above minimum wage.  And I do know what it is like to be subject to the whims of management who seem to feel more obligated to manage their money well than to demonstrate any sense of obligation to their people.  Having experienced this personally now, I am in a position to say that this isn’t working so well, at least for us people.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Where's My Water Buffalo?

Forgive me. My children grew up in the age of 'Veggie Tales' and I managed to memorize just about every 'Silly Song' that made it to video tape.

So when I saw this picture this morning:

Contestant competes during the 'Mekepung', a traditional water buffalo race in Negara, Bali, Indonesia.
it all came rushing back; the 'it' being endless Veggie Tales, including the famous (among VT aficionados) 'Silly Songs by Larry', of which 'The Water Buffalo Song' was the first and quite possibly the most silly.  Yes it is as bad as I remembered it to be, bad enough to make it a classic.  You can watch Larry the Cucumber sing 'The Water Buffalo Song' here.

And in the meantime, here are some more exciting water buffalo race pictures.  Makes me just want to run out there and decorate my water buffalo, hitch up my wagon and head to the races!






Who knew a water buffalo could move so fast!  Where is Alfred the Asparagus when you need him?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Problem with Sanctification - A Personal Story

Conversing over doctrine with members of Protestant churches is like trying to engage with a constantly morphing shapeshifter.  Various doctrines are, of course, construed differently from denomination to denomination, and given various levels of significance.  But then even within the same denomination there often is a spectrum of belief about particular doctrines, usually measured in terms of more or less ‘conservative’ and more or less ‘liberal’.  So it is possible for Presbyterians, for example, to use a similar vocabulary about ‘predestination’ and yet for more ‘liberal’ Presbyterians to mean something very different than their more conservative brethren.  It is obviously impossible, therefore, to speak definitively about what Protestants believe about this or that doctrine, since there will almost always be exceptions.  What follows are some of my own reflections on my over 40 years of ‘sanctification’ in Protestant contexts.  I am attempting to describe my experience only, which may or may not have wider ramifications.  This is not an attempt to say something about all Protestants at all times.

Ring Around the Rosie
I became a Christian in a Presbyterian church.  I will always be grateful for the men and women there who loved this boy and teenager and taught me the Scriptures and helped me understand what it meant to become a follower of Jesus.  I was taught there that I was ‘saved by grace’, that if I believed in Jesus, trusted that his death on the cross was for the forgiveness of my sins, said the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and really believed it, then I would be reconciled with God, that my sins would be forgiven, that I would ‘go to heaven’ when I died.  I was taught that this salvation was Christ’s work, not mine, that I could do nothing to save myself, that none of my works would ever earn my way out of condemnation, that only Jesus could save me and that, once saved, I was saved and no one or nothing could snatch me from his hands.

At the same time I was taught that my behavior as a ‘born-again Christian’ was important, that as a Christian sin no longer had ‘dominion’ over me, that I could expect victory over  those temptations and the resulting sins that so vexed me.  And because I was at the time a teenager, the temptations and sins at the top of my list of concerns were, of course, of a sexual nature.  I observed both voids of silence and a significant amount of silent shame around me when it came to these temptations and sins.  Some of this shame was projected outward from my own afflicted conscience.  But there is no denying that I experienced puberty and adolescence thinking that I was the only one who struggled with these things.  Sure there were plenty of my peers who had no struggles at all.  It never seemed to cross their minds that there was anything wrong with trying to get as much sex as they possibly could.  Or at least that’s what their incessant boasting implied.  I, on the other hand, had been taught by people in my church that sex outside of marriage was wrong, and that pretty much anything having to do with sex should be avoided because it was almost certainly wrong as well.

But most of this perspective on sex was osmosed.  Because these things were simply never discussed.  Not at home.  Not in Sunday School.  Not in the Bible studies I took part in. Not in the church’s youth group.  Not at boy scouts.  Not at school.  Except for the one day when there was an all-school assembly at my junior high school.  I was in the 8th grade and the school had arranged to have a doctor come and speak to all of the students on venereal disease.  And the doctor invited to speak was my father.  I. Was. Mortified.

There was, of course, plenty of talk about sex going on, but it was of the junior high and high school boys’ variety.  And it was the sort of talk that I worked hard to avoid, seeing as I had been told that Christians don’t engage in such conversation, that Christians are to keep themselves ‘separate’ from the influences of the ‘world’, and that Christians should keep themselves pure from sexual sin.  People who engaged in this sort of behavior while claiming to be Christians were considered to be ‘hypocrites’ at best, or simply and hopelessly reprobate.  Christians who succumbed to ‘temptation’ and ‘fell into sin’ were considered to have ‘backslidden’ and under threat of God’s judgment unless they ‘repented’.  It seemed to this teenager that all such warnings against sin I ever heard were aimed at avoiding the sexual sort.  None of the adults I knew who were Christians, or my fellow Christian teenagers, seemed all that concerned about gossip or greed or envy, or self-centeredness or idolatry or drinking too much or any of a host of other matters that the Bible addressed in addition to sexual mores.  In true Augustinian fashion, sex was viewed as the problem, best dealt with by denial, prohibition or avoidance, not to mention heaping on the guilt should anything unspeakable actually happen.

It’s at this point that my theological inheritance began what would become a 40+ year conflict with my experience and observation.  First my experience.  As a healthy teenage guy, I experienced healthy sexual urges.  My theology taught me that acting on them was wrong.  So I was constantly in a state of spiritual crisis, trying to ‘live a life of purity’, experiencing sexual temptation and ‘falling’ into sex with self, feeling ‘convicted’ and praying prayers of repentance and swearing never to do this again.  Only to do so again.  Repeatedly.  To this young man with a tender conscience, it seemed that my sincerity as a repentant sinner was called into question because I kept struggling with the same cycle of sin.  And of course, I was getting no help in sorting this out from Christian friends or from church leaders because nobody was talking about it.  It seemed I was the only one who had this problem.

My silence was reinforced on a regular basis because the only times such things were talked about were those cases of spectacular moral failure when some poor person was revealed to be a fornicator (because he got someone pregnant or more usually because she got pregnant outside of marriage) or an adulterer (running off with another man/woman and breaking up a marriage or two) or a ‘pervert’ by getting arrested by the police for some unexplained crime of indecency.  Such people were gossiped against and shamed out of the church, held up as an anti-example of what happens when a person ‘backslides’. Of course lip service was given about the offender coming back if he or she ‘repented’, but I never witnessed such a miracle, probably because the offenders really didn’t want to be restored to a community that had treated them is way.  And who could blame them.

So the lessons I learned at this stage of my Christian life were that Christians don’t, won’t or can’t talk about their sins in general, and their sins of a sexual nature in particular.  I learned that if it did get out that I was a sinner in any of these areas, that I would likely be treated by my fellow Christians in a way that was best avoided at all costs.  I learned there was no safe place for the struggler.  I learned that I was ‘saved by grace’, but I also learned, to my confusion, that I wasn’t really saved by grace unless I subsequently lived a life free from sin.  So while the ‘gospel’ which was regularly preached all around me was ‘come to Jesus for salvation’, the ‘gospel’ that was lived all around me was ‘you better not sin’.  It should therefore be no surprise that every church I was ever involved with throughout my life as a young Christian, a Christian at university, a Christian in parachurch ministry, a Christian in seminary, a Christian in pastoral ministry, a Christian in missionary service, I was surrounded by for the most part wonderful people who, whatever else they might be, they weren’t sinners.  I remember as a pastor looking out on congregations of 40, 70, 300, 1600 people during my 20+ year career as a Protestant minister, and everybody I saw presented themselves as the model Christian, all dressed up on the outside and on the inside.  There were no sinners in the house.  Or in the ministry, or on the board, or in the mission.  Only godly, Jesus-loving men and women of the purest motives and lives.  And then there was me.

I did succeed in finding circles of accountability wherever I went.  Looking back, I now see that this is how I survived as a Christian engaged in Christian ministry for so long.  I worked hard at finding an individual or group of people with whom I could share at least in outline the nature of my struggles.  But all of us realized that what we were doing was risky.  Sure, no church leader was going to gainsay our being vulnerable with each other, our confessing our sins to each other, our holding each other accountable.  But all of us were aware of what happened if someone got ‘caught’ in sin.  In too many instances, such a person was dragged out in public shame, or bid a hasty exist out a side door so as to minimize any scandal.  And with no Jesus evidently around to write in the sand, there seemed no shortage of people willing to cast the first stone, figuratively speaking.

A Pocket Full of Posies
After receiving my MDiv from a reputable evangelical institution and pastoring for nearly a decade, and after going back to grad school in the UK and receiving my PhD, I found myself on the mission field teaching systematic theology in a succession of Protestant undergraduate and graduate schools of theology.  I mention this simply to say I knew my Bible.  And I knew my theology.  Especially my soteriology and my theology of sanctification.  And as a result I became increasingly vexed.  Mainly because what seemed so nicely expressed on paper was not at all reflected in what seemed to be preached and taught in the churches, nor was it what I experienced in my own life nor saw happening in the lives of those around me.  Sanctification was defined as that progressive process by which individual believers become increasingly like Jesus in character by the working of the Holy Spirit within them (or as Wayne Grudem puts it: ‘Sanctification is a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.’ Systematic Theology, 717-718).  

Another nicely put explanation of the difference between justification and sanctification.  On paper, at least.

But as far as I could tell, there wasn’t anything progressive going on inside me at all.  I was still fighting the same temptations I had fought as a teenager with respect to lust, and with similar results.  Only the stakes had gotten higher with increased responsibility in Christian ministries combined with the advent of the internet and the availability of seemingly anonymous online sexual gratification.  Over the decades I had labored to put up barriers of accountability as well as block access to online pornography through filters.  But my problem was more profound than access to pornography; I had learned an entire way of coping with conflict and relational pain that made use of self-sex as a self-medicating drug.  And as long as I kept getting into conflict, say with my spouse, or with my elders at church, or experiencing relationship pain, I would fall into the same pattern of seeking the only relief I knew that worked.  And this, of course, was done in secret because the consequences of anyone finding out would be the end of my life in evangelical ministry.  Except I had brought people in on the inside of my struggles. In every new place we lived I found another guy or group and shared as much as I felt was safe to share.  Even my wife was on the inside of my struggles, as I shared with her from the beginning what I felt was safe to share.

Profound as these relational fears were, my theological struggles nearly undid my faith.  If I was saved, as my Calvinist faith declared, then my life should of a course be transformed by the power of the Spirit and the reality of gratitude for my salvation.  But it wasn’t.  So what was I to think about my so-called ‘salvation’?  Was I really saved after all?  Or did my cyclical struggles with lust betray the fact that I, pastor and missionary and teacher, was deluded and in reality living a lie?  Could someone be a Christian and a sinner at the same time?  The morality plays and ritual firings I saw put on by churches and evangelical institutions on a regular basis all around me did not allow for much encouragement and hope.  Why did the church so often present itself as a museum of saints? Why did churches and institutions insist on putting their ministers up on a moral pedestal and hold them to standards that the members themselves would be hard pressed to keep?  Why did the churches and schools and missions so often feel obligated to drag their wounded leaders out and shoot them?  Why did my churches, my schools, my mission, my institutions, even my marriage seem like such unsafe places?  Was it me or was it them?  And after trying so hard for so long, why was I still struggling after all these years?

Despite the rhetoric of salvation, church and parachurch attitudes towards actual sin and actual sinners seemed designed to make liars and hypocrites out of everyone.  Who in their right  mind would want to own up to this or that sin if it was going to result in public shaming and being thrown out of the church?  As I got older, I began to suspect that the vast ocean of evangelical silence was not because I was the only one who struggled; it was because everyone else like me was afraid of the consequences of being honest.

In many respects I have been fortunate.  In the 2000s I endured a series of depressive episodes that I now recognize as a series of mental rebellions over not being able to handle the cognitive dissonance from my struggle with sanctification and with worsening relational issues in my marriage, none of which I felt able to share with others because I was in a Christian ministry context where I was afraid of losing everything if it emerged that I had ‘issues’ or was less than Christ-like.  I am sure that every one of my colleagues at the time would protest that my fears had no basis in reality.  But when I was later pushed out as pastor because, in an effort to be vulnerable with my fellow elders I talked about my struggle with depression, and the board chairperson and several others said I needed to go because I was ‘mentally ill’, no one of the 1600 people who attended on Sundays came to my defense, with the exception of three friends, all of whom were shunned by the same board.  I learned from this that people perceived to be ‘damaged goods’ by fellow Christians are toxic in ministry situations and are best removed out of sight and thus out of mind.

This experience nearly undid me.  Further depression led to not caring any more led to attempts to self-medicate the pain led to despair and ultimately to planning my own suicide.  I then realized I was in serious trouble and I reached out to help and mercifully found it at a local counseling center.  I got help for my depression and also began to unpack what had brought me to this point.  Five years later, I am still unpacking.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
One of the casualties of my experience was the death of my marriage, which would take a book that has yet to be written to begin to describe.  Another casualty, just as profound, was my Protestant understanding of salvation and sanctification.  Previously I had thought that the Protestant understanding of salvation had corrected the defective Roman Catholic understanding of salvation, and that both positions reflected opposite ends of the spectrum of soteriology.  But as I became more aware of Eastern Orthodox theology, I realized I had been misled into thinking that Protestant soteriology was the only viable show in town.  From the Eastern standpoint, both Protestants and Catholics make salvation the resolution of our legal issues with God.  From this Western perspective, there is much emphasis on our breaking God’s laws and of God’s justice and wrath needing to be satisfied.  Setting up salvation as God’s dealing with our legal issues so that we can be declared righteous by Christ’s work on the cross and therefore saved is, of course, very tidy.  This tidiness is accomplished by decoupling sanctification and glorification from the train of salvation.  This may have seemed necessary by the Protestant Reformers to counter certain perceived Roman Catholic mistakes, but such a move doesn't happen in the New Testament.  This decoupling, moreover, has put Protestant soteriology in the ever awkward position of saying both that sanctification is not necessary for salvation, and that sanctification is totally necessary for salvation, with all the resulting confusion that one might expect.  And given that 99% of Protestant Christians are not as theologically sophisticated as the theologians who write so clearly and persuasively in their systematic theologies, the legalistic orientation of Protestant (and Catholic) salvation often gets translated into mere legalism, with sanctification relegated to mere moralism.  This is what I ran into again and again.  This is why churches are often such shame palaces when it comes to dealing with the sinners within and without their walls.  This is why hypocrisy is so prevalent – the constant threats against sinners and their sin results in double lives rather than progressive Christ-likeness.

The Eastern Churches make no such grandiose claims – no one in the Eastern Church says ‘I am saved’.  That’s because salvation in the Eastern Church is not about the resolution of legal difficulties.  Salvation is not a status gained.  Salvation instead has to do with being reconciled through the cross of Christ in our relationships (primarily with God the Holy Trinity, but with all those others made in God’s image around us as well), with forgiving and being forgiven, with the transformation of our characters, with our lives becoming increasingly what we were created to be and, ultimately, to be set free from the power of death and raised to live forever as part of God’s new creation.  All of this is a process.  This is because love has to do with relationships and relationships are always a process  None of this happens notionally; rather, it - salvation - happens in space and time and in real life.  And that is because love happens in space and time and real life.  And so Eastern Christians have learned to say that we are being saved.

Because salvation is a process that involves saving people from their sin and its consequences (all of them), Eastern Christians make the assumption that the church is not a museum of saints on display but a hospital for sinners.  We are all learning how to repent and how to pray and how to love.  The sacraments are given to help us repent and pray and love.  The Christian life is about repentance and prayer and love.  Twenty months ago I was afraid to tell my priest and spiritual father that I was separated from my wife.  I was ashamed and was afraid that I would be hauled before some tribunal and called to account and kicked out of whatever association I was in.  When I finally told him and said that I would be willing to step down from choir and the other things I was doing at the church because it wouldn’t do to have someone who struggles like me up in front of everyone.  My priest turned and looked at me, and then he said, ‘We Orthodox, we struggle together.’

For Orthodox Christians, sanctification is not something separate from our ‘salvation’, nor is sanctification necessary for our salvation, as if it were a kind of good work.  Instead, sanctification, or becoming like Christ, is salvation.  Just like our reconciliation with God and each other is salvation.  Just like our being forgiven and our forgiving each other is salvation.  Just like the resurrection of our death-destroyed bodies will be our salvation.

Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, there are too many Christian contexts that have no room for someone who is divorced, or struggling with substance abuse, or with pornography, or with same-sex attraction, or maybe have had an abortion.  And heaven forbid if someone is a murderer, or a rapist, or a thief, or a gang member, or a prostitute.  This is a serious problem.  Since all of these and more are the people Jesus came to save, churches and Christian organizations that have no room for people like this are sending mixed messages at best, and have more likely disqualified themselves from using the adjective ‘Christian’.

I have discovered that the Eastern Church is a safe place for sinners like me.  This is because the bishops and priests and deacons and laypeople that I know in the Church make the assumption that all of us are sinners.  All of us need a savior.  All of us are struggling out of the hole our rebellions dug for us.  All of us are learning to be what we were created to be, learning how to pray, learning how to repent, learning how to love.  And because all of us receive grace and forgiveness from Christ through our own confession and repentance, we are prone to meet other sinners like us with the same forgiveness that has touched our own lives.  It is in this communal context of safety that I can practice ascesis, that I can practice praying, that I can practice loving, I can practice using my spiritual gifts – in short, I can work on becoming like Christ.  These things can only happen when I am in relationship with fellow Christians who are themselves experiencing what it means to repent, pray and love.


I regret that I did not discover these things sooner, though I am grateful to have found this church as a late convert, even as one untimely born.  Is it the perfect church?  Due to the presence of all us sinners, we do have our issues.  But having been at this for nearly 2000 years, this Church has done a pretty good job at being faithful to the original emphases of the Apostles and their successors as we all learn how to deny ourselves and pick up our crosses and follow Christ down the road of his salvation.  It is where I have experienced the love of Christ, and been given the means to become more and more like him.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Fresh Evidence for the Existence of Satan. As if We Needed More.

The image is jarring.  This is what I saw when I read the news on the BBC website this morning:


This is a Russian-supported rebel leader in Eastern Ukraine speaking at a news conference. In this news conference he admits to 'extrajudicial' killings by rebels in order 'to prevent chaos'.  Translated, rebels took men and perhaps women who they considered dangerous (i.e. who disagreed with them) and shot them without due process or any respect for their humanity or their families. This sort of thing is drearily familiar enough in civil conflicts across the world.  But it is the prominently displayed flag behind the rebel spokesperson that makes me sick to my stomach.  It is an Icon of Christ.

Evidently Christ is being paraded out in support of these sorts of atrocities, in support of this so-called movement, in support of this so-called rebellion.  Jesus, who never sanctioned violence against Rome or against Jewish leaders who opposed him, who never sought to lead a rebellion of any sort against the occupying Roman powers in Palestine, who never sanctioned guerrilla-style raids against local infrastructure,  who never ordered men and women who disagreed with him lined up and shot, who never gave any orders to shoot passenger aircraft out of the sky - this Jesus is evidently being forced by men who have lost all sense of right from wrong and who think nothing of ending the life of another person who, like them, is made in the image of God, this Jesus is being used by these men to give the appearance that God himself supports their cause and the means used to accomplish their ends.

It is helpful at this point to be reminded that the Jesus portrayed on the icon said, 'This is how you will know those who follow me, because they will love one another.'  And the apostle Paul says in another place, 'But the fruit of the Spirit is love'.  Wherever you find love, and the deeds of love, and the giving of self for the sake of another, there in that place and in those lives you will find Christ.  The presence of love is the incontrovertible evidence of the presence and work of the Spirit of Christ in a person and in a community.

But where there is hatred, where there is murder, where there is lying, where there is drunkenness, where there is robbery, where there is rape, where there is abuse, where there is bullying, you can be sure that the spirit  at work in the lives and in the circle of people from whom such things pour forth is not from Christ, but rather from the father of lies himself.  As Jesus himself once said, 'The way to know the tree is by its fruit.'

It is evidently a very easy thing to display an icon of Christ.  It is another thing altogether to live in such a way that one becomes the reality so portrayed.