22 September 2018

If you were gone...

One morning my wife left this, a gift from her mother, next to her pillow.
If you were gone,
I'd miss your smile,
your giggle, and your laugh;
the outline of your forehead,
nose, the angle of your chin.

If you were gone,
I'd miss your warmth,
your touch, your tears,
hugs, kisses, outstretched arms,
your opinions of my clothes.

If you were gone,
I'd miss shared sunrises
on the couch: your coffee,
the cat, the smell of autumn
through the screen.

If you were gone,
I'd miss the way
you want to be surprised,
the way you plan adventures
the expressions in your eyes.

If you were gone,
I'd miss the concert
tickets in your purse,
the Disney films and Broadway,
and the memories we rehearse.

If you were gone,
I'd miss the days
to bring you flowers and
the meaning and the colors
your living brings to mine.

If you were gone,
I'd miss your giving
and your gentleness,
the way you wrap up boxes,
gifts for other broken hearts.

If you were gone,
I'd want you to know
that you are never
anything but beautiful
to me.

11 March 2018

Sketchbooks and Caged Birds

“...The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.”
—from Maya Angelou's “Caged Bird”

When I moved to Oklahoma City, I used to frequent the Barnes and Noble on May, north of Northwest Expressway.

I don't remember buying poetry, except for the texts in Mary Kinzie's “A Poet's Guide to Poetry” and Burton Raffel's “How to Read a Poem.”

I had to drive past the Full Circle Bookstore to get to Barnes and Noble. Later at Full Circle I bought T.S. Eliot's “On Poetry and Poets” but not “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.” That book I found used at the now-closed Hastings in Wenatchee, Wash.

But this year in Seattle
we walked into Open Books and made our introverted way around the perimeter of poets, starting on the left with “A.”

That's where I found Kelli Russell Agodon's “Hourglass Museum.” 

Opening with the “Dear Serious Museum Patrons” and sorted into collections and a current exhibition, “Hourglass Musuem” taught me to keep reading...the whole collection in one weekend...and then pause or come back to meditate on what stood out.

“Surrealist Angel” was the first I lingered on, then “In Praise of Staying Married” a few pages away—its waxwings and blackberry vines—and
“Sketchbook with an Undercurrent of Grief”:

“I escape disaster by writing a poem with a joke in it:
The past, present, and future walk into a bar—it was tense.
There's everything to kill with laughter. I browsed
the magazines in his hospital room. At my father's
last breath, I saw an ad for sky....” 

Last weekend I read our library's copy of “The Complete Poems of Maya Angelou,” from “They Went Home” at the beginning and “On the Pulse of Morning” at the end...until I met myself near “Caged Bird,” not quite in the middle.

One hears the caged bird's longing in lines like these from Angelou's “After”:

“...The market leers
its empty shelves
Streets bare bosoms
to scanty cars
        This bed yawns
        beneath the weight
        of our absent selves.”

One feels the rage in “Family Affairs”:

“...My screams never reached
the rare tower where you
Lay, birthing masters for
My sons, and for my
Daughters, a swarm of
Unclean badgers, to consume
Their history....”

Yet for the caged bird—if I'm understanding—freedom is an extension of what humans are at best, as Angelou ends “On the Pulse of Morning” in the voices of the Rock, the River, and the Tree:

“...Here on the pulse of this new day,
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,
And into your brother's face,
Your country,
And say simply
Very simply
With hope—
Good morning.”

If for no other reason than that I read them both this year, these two...from their different places...inform each other in my mind.

It's hard to imagine poetry without Angelou's intuition...

“of things unknown
but longed for still.”

And it's hard to imagine
poets if it were not, as Agodon says in “Sketchbook of Nudes”...

“...the poet continues questioning after the bottle
is empty

after the audience has gone home....”

In that there is hope.

13 January 2018

Conversations: Pastor Shawn

Pastor Shawn Neider and I discussed our way through Martin Luther's “Small Catechism,” spring of 2013. He remains a tolerant friend and patient interlocutor. He took time for this interview during last October's 500th anniversary commemoration of the reformation.

Could you describe your growing up experience and how you became a Lutheran pastor?

My father was Roman Catholic. My mother was Lutheran. They felt that it was important to attend church together so they planned to go back and forth through life.

I was born while they were Lutheran and baptized by a pastoral friend at home as an infant.

While I was young, another Lutheran pastor helped my father to understand that saved by faith alone meant that he didn't have to hope that he was a good enough person, but his hope was in Jesus's death and resurrection and promises.

So we stayed in the Lutheran church. Faith life, devotions, bible reading, and the church were very important in our life.

My dad had considered the priesthood as a boy but wasn't willing to take the vow. As a Lutheran now, he could be ordained; so he entered Concordia Seminary in St. Louis when I was in 5th grade.

I watched him work through the classes and thought that I would never want to move to a city again or go through that myself, but as they say, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. So while I didn't want to go through the experience, God was planting seeds.

I was confirmed in 8th grade, part of the Lutheran tradition, before my Dad was called to St. Paul Lutheran Church in Ontonagon, Mich. Life was not too different than before he went to seminary except that now church life was also his career. We still did daily family devotions and participated in many activities at church.

After high school, I studied forestry at Michigan Technological University on an Army ROTC scholarship. The Lutheran campus house was one of the first places that I visited, and many of us were active in the local congregation, in Sunday School and choir, as well as our own activities at the house.

I also started reading the Bible on my own, continuing what my parents taught me, and as I was reading through Romans 15 one morning, the words struck me: how can they believe unless they hear and how can they hear unless somebody preaches to them.

I could do that, even though I wasn't a natural public speaker. I wasn't comfortable in front of people, but how could they believe unless they hear? My girlfriend wasn't interested in that idea, and I liked forestry and working in the woods, away from people, so I dismissed the idea.

We got married, and I worked in forestry for several years. The Army was reducing in size, and I had lost interest in that, so it was easy for me to ignore my commitment to them.

With my work and my wife's school and work, we spent a lot of time apart and didn't develop a shared routine of devotions....

She decided that we had grown apart, left me, and asked for a divorce. We tried counseling, but she had made up her mind already. So I moved away and took a job for the Forest Service in Washington state.

Regular bible reading became very important to me during that time, and I decided that whether we could reconcile or not, I would look into going to seminary, after a couple of years of fighting forest fires.... We couldn't reconcile.

I met Tonya who had grown up Lutheran, but had stopped believing and practicing in college. We started attending church when we were together. She wasn't real excited about my idea of being a pastor either, but she had an experience that brought her back to faith, and she was reluctantly willing to be a pastor's wife with me.

That was about the time that the Army called to remind me of my commitment to them in the reserves.... I looked into becoming a chaplain, but that process involved seminary and would take longer than simply serving my time, so I stayed where I was.

Tonya and I got married with the understanding that we would work in Winthrop, [Wash.] for 2 years before we made the move to seminary.

Six months later, I was activated to Fort McCoy, Wis. to support the mobilization effort there. I was there for almost 2 years, not loving the Army, but there was a great church in Tomah, [Wis.] with several Bible studies and an active faith community.

Tonya spent several months each year in Winthrop so that she wouldn't lose her job...uncertain of how long I would be on active duty. But we talked everyday, and our faith was central in our life.

Finally, we were able to spend those 2 years in Winthrop, working for the Forest Service. And I studied Greek to prepare for seminary.

My brother left active duty with the Navy, and we talked about trying to go to seminary together, but I had promised Tonya 2 years. So he went ahead without me.

Then he was called up to active duty during his second year [of seminary so that when I arrived on campus, my commitment to the army finished, he was in Kuwait.

The third year of seminary is normally vicarage, a practical internship away from campus. He returned early in the fall and then delayed his vicarage a year so that we ended up spending 2 years together at Seminary.

I didn't love the city, but the academic work wasn't so bad. It was harder than I realized watching my dad go through it, but easier than I had imagined since I wanted to learn the material. I followed the traditional path of 2 years of study, I had passed the greek entrance exam from my self study. So I started with Hebrew class.

Besides the languages, we studied doctrine, systematic theology, history, and practical theology. And each student was assigned to a local church in the area for practical experience. My third year was vicarage back in Washington state so that Tonya was able to support us with her job that she had continued working about 6 months a year while I was studying.

And finally I finished school and received a call to Grand Coulee and Coulee City, [Wash.] where Tonya was able to transfer to a position with the Park Service and continue her career.

As I look back, I can see where God was planting seeds and preparing me all along, and I kept saying I wasn't ready. Then when I thought that I was ready, God said, no, you have commitments to keep first. Finally, my timing and God's timing lined up and things fell into place.

You mentioned your father finding hope in Jesus's death, resurrection, and promises, and you mentioned your wife's return to faith. What doubts have you experienced?

I had a day when I was about 5 when I wondered if the Bible had been written by a couple of brothers but decided that it was too complicated for that to have worked out. That was my deepest doubt, and there is a lot more evidence to prove that the Bible really is God's word and Jesus really did come, live, die, and rise again as we know.

I've had moments when I am closer to God or farther away...but I just remind myself of all of the evidence to support the Bible's claims, that it is too complicated to be made up. Faith is a gift from God, and I would say that the Holy Spirit has blessed me with a steady, lifelong faith.

I watched PBS's "Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World." How do you relate to Martin Luther? He is to me at once relatable in his experience of shame and depression, remote in his certainty of things, and confounding in his effect on the relationship between conscience and tradition.

Yes, I often feel the same. Would I have liked him if I was living at that time?

I doubt that I would have stood up and spoken out publicly if I had been in the same position, or remained steadfast if I was challenged by the highest authorities when I did.

We must all struggle with the relationship between conscience and tradition.... We should examine what our motivations were in the past and determine—even if the intention was good—were the actions of our tradition wrong.

The church must constantly be working through the same process.... Tradition wasn't necessarily wrong. They started something based on the influences of their time, but times have changed....

We have to understand the traditions and evaluate them against God’s word which doesn't change, to determine if the traditions need to be retained or adapted or abandoned. It isn't good to get rid...or blindly follow [traditions], without understanding them.

There are some things that Martin Luther wrote that we don't agree with today or [that] need to be understood in his context but not repeated...today....

What are some examples of things Luther wrote that we would disagree with now or that need to be understood in his context?

The simplest example would be that Luther believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, but even he said that he wouldn't hold anyone else to that.

The most popular example would be his treatise against the Jews from 1543, which was used by the Nazis to justify their actions. I would bet that even he wishes that he hadn't written that.

...most people don't realize that 20 years earlier, he had written two treatises encouraging Christians to befriend the Jews and welcome them and try to tell them about Jesus, the Messiah. He...seems to have been disappointed that they refused to see the gospel fulfilled in Jesus...so it was a life of frustration coming out, not towards an ethnic group, but to try to get them to believe in Jesus.

Unfortunately it is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied writings, and continues to be a stumbling block for us to witness to Jews today. So we try to understand why he wrote this, and obviously...we wish that he didn't think, or say, or write these later things and had only left his earlier writings.

What do you make of the continuing divisions in protestantism since Luther's time?

The division of the church today is a very sad thing. Certainly God wants us to be united, but we are also all sinners. So we do not properly understand scripture or the other group's understanding of it.

Paul did write that it was necessary for there to be divisions so that it could be shown who had the truth. So the different churches are often times closer together than some think, but also farther apart than many others think. Some churches minimize the differences in order to sign agreements, overlooking true differences, while others make theological points out of unimportant things.

This has been going on for the entire history of the church when you look at the church councils from Nicaea.... There were always discussions between the different churches and bishops and regions dealing with different issues and cultures, but they did hold things together, taking months to talk things out.

Today we can communicate all over the world instantly but we hardly listen enough to understand each other. The church is too often, a reflexion of the world that we live in.

On the other hand, I think that the nondenominational, independent churches only add to the divisions and lack of union between Christians rather than rising above the denominational issues.

It is nice to imagine the benefits of one united worldwide church, but few people take time to consider the challenges.

It's a good thing that God uses our sins and mistakes and keeps moving his kingdom forward, even when we try to get in the way.

Luther's Small Catechism sees Jesus as “the heart and center of scripture and therefore the key to its true meaning.” And as you know, the distinction—or tension—between law and gospel is something I struggle to find a satisfying resolution for. Could you unpack how seeing Jesus as central to scripture relates to the distinction between law and gospel?

Both Law and Gospel can be found throughout scripture.

The Law has three functions: First, to show us our sin and point us to our need for forgiveness and a savior. We call this a mirror, to see our own sin.

Second, even for unbelievers, to behave in a moral way either because it is the right thing to do or to avoid punishment. We call this a curb, as a curb on the road keeps your car going straight either because you steer to avoid hitting it or it bumps you back in line after you hit it.

Third, for believers, to show us how God wants us to live. When we want to live as God's people, we need a guide to show us how to love God and our neighbor.

Gospel is the promise of God's grace and forgiveness.

So this can be seen in Genesis 2 and 3. After God creates the earth and man, he sets a law, don't eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you will die. So he sets it as a guide for them and also a curb, if they don't follow it out of love and trust, then follow it to avoid being punished.

They decide to break the law so God returns and pronounces on them the punishments that He had warned them of, but He also promises to send a savior to fix all of this.

That promise is the first Gospel [and] is repeated to Abram/Abraham, and Moses, and David, and the prophets.

Since God always keeps his promise, the faith in God's promise that he would send this savior is the same faith that we have now that Jesus was that promised savior. [Believers] before and after are believing in the same promise for God to provide the way of forgiveness from sin and to eternal life, undoing the curses brought on us by Adam and Eve.

Some scripture is just historical story.

Sometimes whether a passage is law or gospel depends on your perspective. “I am with you always, even until the end of the earth.” As a believer, that sounds good, except when I want to sin and don't want God with me. For an unbeliever, that always sounds like law, a policeman following them around, writing down every sin that they commit....

Your friendship and a growing appreciation for the sacraments was what attracted me to Lutheranism. What unique contributions do you believe Lutherans can make to other Christians and the culture today?

We hold a connection to the older tradition that many newer churches have lost and a faithfulness to scripture unbound by human reason, particularly with God working in the sacraments....

We see the sacraments as God working through the physical elements, not as our own works.... As physical beings, we need physical reminders of God's work of forgiveness. In the water of baptism, God is washing us clean of our sins and preparing us to be clothed in the robes of righteousness on the last day. In communion, we receive Jesus body and blood also to forgive our sins, washed again in his blood, and to be strengthen in our faith that he is with us always. When we feel like he is far away, we can go to communion and be physically reminded of the spiritual truth. Yes he is there. I tasted it.

I don't need to make up any other ways to help my doubts, God has already given me these.

Also, our focus on law and gospel reminds us that even though we may not feel it or think it, we need to be regularly reminded of our sin, our need for a savior, and that God has kept his promise. He did send his own son, and he will take us to be with him.

I think that can be lost at other churches.

I think that being connected to the older traditions can give us an opportunity to disconnect from the world of immediacy and quickly changing fads and remind us of the things that are timeless, even before Christ. In a more and more hectic world, hopefully, an hour a week can give us an opportunity to let God refill us with his peace and grace.

If you were going to recommend three books to represent your understanding, what would they be?

First off would be the Bible, where God has revealed himself to us. Especially his son whom John calls the Word. God is bigger than the Bible, but everything that we need to know he has revealed to us in his Word.

Second would be “The Book of Concord.” The Lutheran confessions that guide us to understand the Bible. They help to cut through the confusion and put forth what the Bible teaches and what it does not, starting with Luther’s “Small Catechism,” which can be read separately and is usually presented as the starting place for young and new believers.

It is hard for me to choose another book that represents my understanding anywhere close to those two, but I do enjoy C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. He interweaves the atoning death of Jesus into the story of the wardrobe. He also drops other Easter eggs of theology throughout the books, baptism in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and eschatology in “The Last Battle.”

25 November 2017

Conversations: Mount Athos

Nima Duncan and I met while he was on staff at Saddle Rock Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Wenatchee, Wash. Though our paths crossed relatively briefly, it was long enough to spark this conversation. He graciously agreed to share his story.

Could you start by summarizing your growing up experience and the steps along the way to Orthodoxy?

...My mom and biological father came to the U.S. after the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970's. I am full-blooded Iranian and a first generation U.S. citizen.

Growing up I felt estranged from the world around me. I had tan skin, black hair, and an odd name...living in a mostly black neighborhood.

I did not grow up religious per se. Rather, my mom and step father had connections to religious types of people. Most of them were Christians of some sort, either Protestant or Catholic. There was also some Muslim influence from our Iranian family, mostly from my grandmother. But because of the radical and militant Muslim extremism reported in the news, Islam never seemed attractive to me.

In middle [and] high school I became good friends with an evangelical. He invited me to a teen rally where the message of Christ's life, death, and resurrection was presented. I don't remember all the details of the event but I do remember being concerned about my eternal destiny and very interested in the person of Jesus Christ.

It did not take long for me to get very involved at the local church and learn more about the spiritual experience I had.

...The next step I took was to attend a popular evangelical college where I studied philosophy and Christian theology. Those years were tough because I was not prepared to deal with the kind of intellectual issues that would arise...the origin and history of the Bible, theodicies of various kinds, reconciling modern science with conservative religious beliefs, etc.

Coupled with the intellectual concerns I had was the greater concern for spiritual depth....

The “spiritualites” I observed in the evangelical world were confusing and frustratingly shallow. Our worship services were indicative of this: full blown rock concerts, revivalist rallies, pseudo-intellectual presentations, political speeches, and more. The experiences were either bombastic, overhyped, and sensationalistic or intellectually combative, hoping to preserve modernized Christian conservatism.

By the time I took a break from school halfway through my master's degree, I was thoroughly disillusioned.

Somehow though, I did not give up on my desire to go into full time ministry! …

Somewhere inside of me I thought I could make a real difference. It felt like the right thing to do. And so I became a Protestant pastor.

In total, I spent seven years in ministry, five working with teenagers and two in an associate role.... As I took my own spiritual life more seriously and observed the kinds of problems that arose in the lives of teenagers, families, and even older adults, there was an emerging pattern that proved concerning to me.

Most of the problems I observed we’re the result of teachings that meant well but ultimately never helped people: 1) face their personal shortcomings and damaging behaviors and 2) know that God was real through a genuine encounter that was distinguished from mental artifices and personal feelings.

These issues are a very big deal! If we cannot face our broken selves and also have confidence that we can and do interact with the triune God, then why pretend to believe anything at all?

At least, that was my conclusion.

After some years of study...what I stumbled upon was the ancient faith—with its dynamic exposition of humanity, our fallen state, the Christological means to healing, and so on.

These Eastern Christian teachings were most acutely presented to me when I discovered the spiritual practices of Mount Athos, a community of monasteries preserving the faith through the very dedication of their lives.

I was challenged and enamored with what I saw. There was no question. I had to convert!

Could you unpack further what you mean by facing our personal shortcomings and encountering God? It strikes me different people might hear those ideas in very different ways.

I want to be careful in my analysis here because some of what I say will undoubtedly be taken as judgmental. Please overlook my unrefined disposition on this matter.

I found that I was (and am) an emotionally and spiritually immature person. But I also found that many other people suffered from the same generalized malady.

As a pastor, I felt a real responsibility to offer sound wisdom that could solve the deepest troubles that people encountered in life. The troubles I came across included: dysfunctional family dynamics (adults and teens), church politics, theological disputes, and psychological issues. To be specific here is difficult because the gamut is wide. But a few concrete examples I regularly saw included: blame-shifting in marriage, depression and phobias of differing kinds, obsessive church-growth schemes, disputes over supernatural spiritual gifts and worship experiences, substance and cyber addictions... I could go on but think you get the gist.

What I mean to capture with a description like "mental artifice" is that...what we want to be true of life and religious practice often supplants the objective reality.

The means to solving this problem of subjectivism (the "personal feelings" I refer to) was supposed to be biblical studies. To be crude, the evangelical Protestant teaching goes something like this: if one studies the Bible hard enough then the mind of God will be revealed in matters of personal, intellectual and ecclesial importance.

In practice, I found the Protestant notion of sola scriptura and biblical exegesis to be an incomplete teaching that either weighed people down with the burden of biblical scholarship (a confusing proposition) or led to debate on matters as essential as salvation (what is justification?), communion (is it essential?), prayer (tongues or written prayers; is kneeling or standing even important?) and church services (Can't I “be with God” on a Sunday hike or listen to a podcast?).

In my assessment, Protestant Christianity was strange because the diversity of opinions and experiences left it devoid of any legitimate spiritual gravity.

In contrast, what I found in [Eastern] Orthodox Christianity was an organic tradition that consistently preserved New Testament faith from one generation to the next and included within it the full life and teaching of the church. Part and parcel to this was the restorative power of repentance, ascetic struggle, sacramental life, and the culminating result of union with God. These teachings are obvious within the New Testament but also fleshed out through the ages in the life and writings of the saints.

Are there any parts of Orthodox tradition and teaching that bother you or that you have had to wrestle through?

[Eastern] Orthodox Christianity is beautiful, sublime, demanding, foreign, and deep in comparison to other things in the western world, especially in the U.S. This combination (among other things) has contributed to our relatively small influence in an increasingly secular world. I don’t know if it is a bad thing to be unnoticed, at this stage of history anyway. But sometimes it is difficult to deal with mass ignorance.

Before we decided to become catechumens I had my share of struggles. Our veneration of the Saints, especially the Mariology, was difficult at first. Evangelicalism demonizes such practices and the English language (though highly adaptable) does not sufficiently convey nuance in meanings at times. Once I made it a point to understand the teachings it was not difficult to wholly embrace veneration and saintly intercession. I cannot imagine my life now without it, to be quite honest.

Several years ago, I went to a Greek festival held by Saint George Greek Orthodox Church...mostly just for the tour of the building. The gospel narrative and description of worship woven into the architecture encompassed everything I find beautiful about Christianity. But less than two miles away from Saint George's stands Saint Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. So I have for Orthodoxy the same question I have for other denominations and for myself—what to make of divisions within Christianity.

...Greek, Antiochian, Russian, Serbian (etc.) Orthodoxy are all the same communion.... The church has a strange presence in the U.S. where various communities of the world found themselves here from the old world but needed priests and bishops to continue their faith. The problem is administrative and has nothing to do with any break in communion. Just this morning a Greek priest served at the alter with our priest at the Antiochian Church we attend....

...I will be honest here. This has not been a big deal to me (though it is something that needs to be resolved). I am not sure why it has not bothered me the way it has other people. Maybe because of my foreign roots? I am not sure....

These questions have intensified for me because of how American Christianity is divided by race and even personality. How do you think divisions might be resolved in Orthodox tradition?

Everything I say in response to this question is out of personal study and is not intended to [speak for] Orthodox Christianity.

...First, I would like to say, differences do indeed matter. Race, religion, worldview etc....

The question I assume you are posing..."how do we appropriately set aside differences of race, personality (and other things) to unite under one banner of faith?"...is a fair question....

If we look at the ancient or medieval world, Christianity certainly had to overcome ethnic barriers...and diverse people had to figure out how to befriend one another.... But this was usually done under...an established culture ruled by emperors and kings (or something like them) and established social mores...whether pagan or Christian.

...Relative to a "free" and democratic modern society, the ancient world (and some pockets of the world as it has been preserved to this day) had a wealth of continuity, order, and health missing from the "progress" we have made.

As contemporary Americans, we have reached a societal precipice.... On the one hand, we want to refashion the old order of people and customs into something new we call the black, white, minority, gay, transgender, or privileged experience of life. And we ask ourselves, "how do we get along as these diverse groups?"

But on the other hand...behind this new grouping of peoples is [the] principle...that encourages each of us to be "true to ourselves." Here people fashion themselves into unique expressions that defy grouping altogether....

Does our new approach collapse in on itself? Time will tell.

And so as Christians, I believe our duty is to concurrently introduce people to the sustaining metaphysical order of life in God while at the same time encouraging them to sift through the rubble of post-modernity and get in touch with a real order, grounded in history. Simply put, each of us should recover our ancestry and history, identify with it as best we can and celebrate the compatible elements that exist with the faith.

How do we reconcile differences? I believe that we need to recognize that differences exist and, with that, similar peoples naturally draw together.

Does this equal moral failure on the part of the church? I don't think so.

Could someone construe spatial divide as hate? Perhaps they could, but that would hardly be a thorough analysis of the matter.

The way forward is to dialogue across differences without assuming to change someone else. Honest dialogue is the first step before anything else.

How have those in the Orthodox tradition worked out the interaction of church and state, since so many Orthodox believers have historically lived in regions dominated by Communism or Islam?

From what I gather we still have a ways to go before better assimilating into the “New World,” so to speak. Parishioners from foreign countries like Syria, Ukraine, or Greece seem enthusiastic about western democracy, and with it the separation of church and state.

Historically speaking, Christians have not lived under Enlightenment political schemes… be it capitalistic, communistic, or some fusion of the two. It is modernity that is the new kid on the block and causing all kinds of problems for various religions, Orthodox Christians included.

What is funny is that I have encountered a small but growing group of established Americans in the “High Church” context recovering valuable aspects of pre-Enlightenment politics. These folks are more critical of an irreligious state, which after all, is the logical conclusion of separation.

We talked briefly a couple years ago about the nature of truth and how western ideas of truth and knowledge have perhaps not been adequately critiqued in Evangelical circles for example. How does the Orthodox tradition see the nature of truth and our relationship to it?

In many ways I feel like "knowing" has been the very theme of my life and study. How do we know? What do we know? Is knowing really possible? If so, to what extent?

...our current cultural climate would have us believe that the most supreme knowledge is information attained through scientific investigation. Material reality is all that is "real" and if we could only master it then maybe we could also solve our [worst] problems (which change, depending on who you ask). What is invisible and mysterious is not cause of celebration, respect, or humility but just another "problem" to be "solved."

...Kierkegaard (under one of his pseudonyms) once wrote...in his “Works of Love”...if all that is real is merely sensory experience, then perhaps the first thing any reasonable person should do away with is love.

His point is that the greatest truth of life is somehow shielded from a so-called "scientific" way of knowing.

I have always found him to be right on this point. In some sense, epistemology and spirituality converge. How can I claim to know anything metaphysical and have no spiritual experience of it? Conversely, how can I ever claim to have a legitimate spiritual experience and yet not be concerned with how it is known...?

So for example...in ancient Christianity the experience of the light of God was (and is) vital in discerning the truth....

When you talk about the light of God and epistemology it sounds like the idea some hold that people can't understand the Bible rationally but the Holy Spirit reveals it to them? You are referring to a 14th century debate regarding God's transcendence and eminence?

As I understand it, the divine, uncreated light of God is the culminating experience of Christian truth. Orthodox Christianity teaches that the way of salvation and life puts a person on the trajectory to encounter [God's] light. That is to say, "light" is not merely a metaphor for knowledge but something much more, something inextricably tied to pursuing and knowing God.

The nature of this light is what was debated in the 14th century, between the eastern and western Church.

The context of the disagreement was among monastics that had been experiencing God's light on Mount Athos in Greece. Was this experience an emanating, exterior creation of luminous activity? Was this God himself? And if it is God himself, then dare they think of the light as the very essence of God Almighty?

...Our Eastern Father, St. Gregory Palamas, defended the encounter of God's light as the very experience of God's uncreated energies.

...The reason this is important to epistemology is because it recovers the most important aspect of our faith that has been lost, noetic experience.

As we understand it today, to know something really well means that we have a discursive mastery over the information related to the object of knowledge. We "know" mathematical formulae, the layout of a city, each word of Shakespeare's prose, etc. This way of knowing is something good and helpful...but also limited to an aspect of reality that is conducive to it.

To put it simply, discursive thinking is an incomplete approach to reality...inadequate in apprehending the divine.

In contrast, Orthodox Christianity teaches that the highest knowledge one can attain is by the human nous—transliterated from the Greek and variously meaning "mind," "heart" or "spirit." The nous has been called the "eye of the soul." It is the immaterial piece of each of us that must be cleansed by God in order to "see" reality for what it is.

To "know" something in this way is immediate (or so I am told, for I have certainly not attained to any manner of spiritual mastery... Lord have mercy!). When the nous is purified, then a person's spiritual perception is heightened. The summit of this experience would be things like clairvoyance...in terms of gifting...and the experience of God's light in terms of encountering truth.

Outside of Christian Orthodoxy...various...spiritualities...claim similar things, I know. So, one might rightly ask, how is this different?

The Eastern Church has...a matrix of conglomerate ideas and practices aimed toward cleansing the nous and helping Christians prepare themselves to encounter God. These things include (to name a few things) confession, ascetic struggle, spiritual reading from scripture and tradition, the Jesus prayer, and the litany of virtues that lead believers toward a spiritual ascent.

The goal of these things is righteousness, which results in sobriety of mind. Ecstatic experiences, of themselves, are not the point. Our goal is to draw near to the source of light and life, God himself. Yet from the Old Testament to the New Testament and throughout the age of the Church, there is a continuity of experiences that testify to this truth, a bonafide spiritual science.

And so, getting to the particulars of your question, "knowing the Bible" is something possible on multiple levels. On the one hand, there is the fact that, let's say, the Canaanite people really existed. Through archaeology, linguistics, and historical analysis, we can critically assess and sometimes further explain the reality of this people in the Bible....

But on the other hand, accepting moral instruction from St. Paul, learning to love God with all one's mind heart and strength, accepting Christ as "light from light, very God of very God," these things are apprehended differently. One has faith in their truth and with the cleansing of the nous, one comes to experience them also.

It is from this perspective that St. Maximos describes the immediate and qualitatively different experience of "seeing" the transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor.

"By the bright garments, they were taught, in a divinely fitting way, in an undifferentiated, simultaneous moment, both the magnificence that lies within created things consistent with the principles whereby they were brought into being, and the deeper meaning hidden in the words of Holy Scripture, into which the intellect may be initiated, and this happens because together with the knowledge of God comes the spiritual power of Scripture and the spiritual wisdom and knowledge of creation, through which God is manifested in ways that are proper to each." — St. Maximos the Confessor on the Transfiguration, from “The Ambigua” (On Difficulties in the Church Fathers)

I'm reading Alexander Schmemann's "For the Life of the World, have Timothy Ware's "The Orthodox Church," and have the Orthodox Study Bible. If you were going to recommend one or three books that represent your understanding, what would they be?

Those are excellent resources...with one caveat. The faith is meant to be experienced. And there is simply no substitute for the Eastern Orthodox Christian services. The very grace present in the whole of reality is gathered up in the rites of the church, especially in the the diving liturgy.

Having said that, here are three books that are dear to my heart:

Fr. John Romanides' “Patristic Theology.” Fr. John is...an academic [who] also preserves a traditional monastic teaching of what Christianity is and how it is to be approached. His “Patristic Theology” is a compilation of lectures that explain the nous (as we discussed above, the Greek word for: “mind,” “the eye of our soul,” or what the New Testament calls the human “spirit”). It also describes the encounter of God’s uncreated light, the divine essence/energies distinction and the Christiological teachings that dovetail with these spiritual issues. The work sharply delineates the differences between Orthodox Christians and others.

Fr. Seraphim Rose’s “Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future.” Fr. Seraphim is a brilliant man that also knew how to write to a general audience. This book is one of his most important works...because it keenly discerns and anticipates the religious ‘spirit’ of the age, especially in America, in light of the Orthodox Faith. “Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future” covers the growing movements of Hinduism, Charismatism, UFO encounters, globalism and more. This is one of my favorite books of recent memory and a veritable prophetic work from our current vantage point.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”...is considered a literary masterpiece by many (and, of course, I agree), but I am picking it as a testament to Orthodox Christianity because of its very real depiction of faith, despite a broken world. The problem of evil presented in the grand inquisitor section is especially of great importance. There are answers but perhaps not the kind that any of us expect.

16 October 2017

Autumn Trees

An elm stands by the trail dead
But for two ravens and a hawk
Perched on brittle branches
Recoiled as at the shock of doom.

Trunk shrouded now in tattered bark
Once took its shape from wind and sun
When with its autumn leaves
It testified of springs to come.

15 September 2017

Conversations: God and His Messengers

Scott Harrison has been my friend since we were classmates at the ELS Seattle CELTA course. He and another classmate and mutual friend have since found their respective ways to Saudi Arabia to take jobs using the skills we learned there, teaching English.

Could you start by describing your growing up experience and the steps from where you grew up to where you are now?
With regards to religion, I grew up in a Southern Baptist family. My dad was a Sunday school teacher. During my late teens, I stopped going to church on Sundays, but I went on Wednesday evenings because it was "youth night." (Like many, I went there for the girls.)

After reading about so many horrible things in the news (murders especially), I began questioning why the world is full of such injustice and crime. Working as a security guard at the time, I convinced my partner to leave his bible with me during my graveyard shift as I wanted to "return to Jesus" that night to find some answers for why the world is full of wrong.

Although I was confused with some parts of the Bible, I started telling others they too needed to return to Jesus.

One individual I spoke with explained that he had discovered a new religion (new from his perspective) - Islam. This was at a time when Islam and Muslims were not in the news daily for blowing up people, honor killings, and other atrocities attributed to Islam.

So, I asked this individual what the main point of Islam was. He explained it is simply to take the creation away from the worship of others among creation and put them in direct contact to worship the creator.

Made sense so far.

He explained that most religions either describe the creations with some attributes of God (e.g., some of creation can forgive sins through confession, hear one's supplication, etc.), or the religions describe the creator with some attributes of the creation (e.g., God is racist, loving an infant born to a Jewish mother more than one born to a non-Jewish mother, God favors one ethnicity over another, etc.).

I found that Islam seems to describe creation as creatures having no divine attributes and all divine characteristics were uniquely for God alone; there is a clear separation between creator and creation. This unique separation of God and people (which in no way necessitates a lack of intimacy or care from God with his creation) and the idea of not having to pray to an intermediary (e.g., Jesus)...attracted me. I liked the idea of a direct line of communication to the only one I felt could help or harm me (or allow others to do so).

This strict monothesism is called Tawhīd in Islam, and it is the reason I believe people were created—to worship God alone without any partners or intermediaries between him and creation.

That core belief in Tawhīd is where I am today.

Your conversion began with questions about crime and injustice, and you found your questions resolved in Tawhīd. Could you unpack that connection further?
I think the connection at that time was that if this world is so full of oppression and injustice, there must be—or at least I want to believe there is—a time and place when full justice will be realized. For example, I like to believe there will be a day when murderers, terrorists, etc. will be held accountable for their crimes, even if they "got away" with them in this life.

The Tawhīd aspect was just the only perspective of God I feel fairly describes him and distinguishes him from creation.

I've heard Islam described as practical in comparison to the emphasis Christians place on beliefs. It also seems Islam historically has drawn very direct connections between religion and politics.
It is true in Islam there are rules like in other religions, and it seems that in Islam...those rules may be followed more strictly than in other religions.

I'm no scholar, but still, orthodoxy in Islam, like in Christianity, is critical.

Without the correct belief that God is one in his lordship, his right to worship, and in his characteristics, all actions or deeds are useless. For example, if someone were to act pious his entire life and do all forms of good deeds (e.g., prayer, charity, etc.) yet he dies praying to someone other than, or along with, God, then he dies as a disbeliever.

As for Islam's connection with politics, Islam is supposed to govern all aspects of one's life, from his private, intimate relations with his spouse to his public relations with people he rules over if he were a political leader.

How do you explain the place of women in Islam?
...Since I come from a western (American) culture, I already respected women and I feel it is highly un-manly for any man to physically abuse women. Boys don't hit girls, as we all learned as children. I only mention this because, as you know, that is usually the first thing that comes to mind—Muslims are wife-beaters.

There is even an authentic report about Muhammad (despite what most people think) narrated from his wife, Aishah who said, “God’s Messenger never hit anything with his hand ever, except when fighting (actual battle against men soldiers). Nor did he ever hit a servant or a woman.” [Recorded In Ibn Majah. Al-Albani graded it as authentic].

If by your question you are specifically asking about the dress of a woman in Islam, then I can tell you what mainstream Islam teaches. Women, like men, must dress modestly according to Islam. I believe women should wear lose fitting clothes (as should men) and cover their hair with the hijab. Unfortunately, we usually see Muslim women covering almost everything while the Muslim men wear shorts and dress as if there is no dress code for them.

What cultural differences have you observed within Islam, and how do you think they influence differing interpretations of Islam?
...The belief and practice of Islam is the same no matter where a Muslim is, but of course practicing is much easier in Muslim countries.

As for cultural differences in Islam, that is an issue.

You may see Muslims from Pakistan, for example, assuming some of their cultural practices are part of the religion. Then you may see Saudis who consider aspects of their cultural part of the religion. However, the religion is only what has come in the Quran and the authentic statements and practices of Muhammad despite one's culture.

You mentioned your conversion took place when there wasn't such an automatic association of Islam with terrorism. How do you think your story would be different if you had started asking your questions at a different time...or in a different news cycle?
Of course I cannot say for certain how I would have approached Islam had I already seen years of terrorist attacks sensationalized in the news. However, I can only guess it may have affected my decision. Still, when I converted, I simply prayed to God (my concept of him at that time) and asked him to guide me to whatever path leads to him.

What parts of the Bible were you confused with?
The contradictions in the Bible and the duplicate passages specifically made me question the authenticity of the Bible. That and the numerous versions.

I just figured if God wanted to preserve his message, why would he allow the original language to be lost and only translations/interpretations of other translations survive until today?

But since I believe you are Christian, I don't want to go too much into this so as to insult your beliefs or become argumentative about it.

In adulthood, I have come to value Christianity for its ability to tell the truth about life. But I find myself challenged by Islam—with its history and its alternative explanation for the world. Do you ever find yourself challenged in any similar way? And what do you see as a model for people—and their sometimes competing narratives—to relate to each other?
I believe the main difference between Christianity and Islam is not one of historical contradictions or narratives about individual aspects of life. Rather, I think the core difference is something much greater—the concept of God himself.

In Christianity, as I understand it, monotheism is expressed but polytheism is actualized. For example, when adherents to varying versions of Christianity pray to Jesus and/or the Father and/or the Holy Ghost or Mary, saints, etc., this to me is polytheism, worshipping something other than the one God.

I know the trinity...is explained as a single entity but with three different "persons," but still, yes, I too see competing narratives. But again, I think the main opposition between the two religions is most critically about the concept of who God is and who deserves aspects of worship such as praying.

As for the model for people, this will always differ as it will be faith-based for the most part.

You will accept as the model nothing but your scriptures, me mine. But if we look at both of these models, which of the two has gone through numerous changes, versions, and interpretations with the original text being lost?

As for the Quran, historically it can be rightfully stated that not a single word has changed of the original Arabic text for over 1400 years. The orthodox interpretation (as understood by Muhammad and his companions) is also still held today.

So again...I believe the model is none other than the texts from God. But which one is his last revelation that has been preserved?

If I may, I would like to just give a couple examples of what I believe this last...revelation states about Christianity and the concept of God and Jesus as I feel it answers this question better than I can. These texts address you as a Christian directly....

They have certainly disbelieved who say, "God is the Messiah, the son of Mary" while the Messiah said, "Oh Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord." [The Quran, 5:72]

They have certainly disbelieved who say, "God is a third of three." And there is no god except one God. [The Quran, 5:72] 

And (beware the day) when God will say, "Oh Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to people, 'Take me and my mother as gods besides God?'" He will say, "Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right." [The Quran, 5:116]

I said not to them except what You commanded me - to worship God, my Lord and your Lord. [The Quran, 5:117]

People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about God except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the Son of Mary, was only a messenger of God and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul from Him. So believe in God and His messengers. And do not say, "Trinity"; desist - it is better for you. Indeed, God is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. [The Quran, 4:171]

You have a website. Could you describe it?
I started a website in 2007 called Authentic-Translations.com.

Having learned Arabic from Al-Imam University in Riyadh, I wanted to translate mainstream scholars' opinions and verdicts of contemporary issues (especially terrorism and related topics). My targeted audience was Muslims.

I wanted to let them know that their mainstream scholars, whom most Muslims respect, have been speaking out against things like murdering non-Muslims, suicide bombings, even things like praying for destruction of non-Muslims—speaking out that all of that is considered impermissible in Islam. I wanted this to be known to English-only-speaking Muslims, especially since news of "home-grown" western-raised terrorists was becoming prevalent.

On Authentic-Translations, I started translating other topics not necessarily dealing with extremism, so I made a separate site, Answering-Extremism.com to focus solely on terrorism and related issues.

Again, when people comment on all those news articles on CNN and FoxNews about how Muslims never speak out against extremism, I wanted to do something to "speak out" and make it known that, for example, scholars in Saudi Arabia have been speaking out against the likes of Ben Laden since the 90's when he was inciting people against various governments.

So, yes, I still have those two sites, and amazingly enough, the stats reveal unique IPs in so many different countries access the sites.

I have a copy of A.J. Arberry's "The Koran Interpreted." If you were going to recommend three books to represent your understanding, what would they be?
Because the Quran is often interpreted in different ways (some horribly, such as the way Muslim extremists and terrorists interpret it), it is important to know how it was intended to be interpreted by God (if you believe it's from him) and/or Muhammad. I believe in a literal interpretation of Islamic texts, but that doesn't mean that texts can be applied without consideration for other texts by any individual at any time. Therefore, I believe these two books represent my understanding of my religion best:

The Noble Quran, translated into modern English by Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali, Ph.D. & Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan. (The Saheeh International translation might be a good runner-up).

40 Hadīth Qudsī (different transliterated spellings) which is another, shorter collection of hadīth spoken by Muhammad but with the words and/or direct meanings from God. In other words, Muslims consider hadīth qudsī to be the narrations from God but not part of the Quran.

As for a third book, my choice would likely be an Arabic title; I would not know an English title to suggest.

It's been a pleasure, my friend, answering your questions.

09 July 2017

Conversations: Journey to Rome

Michael Faber has been a friend since another friend invited us to a Facebook conversation about the sacraments…if memory serves. This last week he shared his time and story with us.

Could you start by describing your growing up experience and the steps along the way, as you say, Baptist to Charismatic to Charismatic Catholic?

I was born into a Baptist family, but we didn’t go to church much except on Christmas and Easter and a few other times a year. My uncle Vernon, who was more religious, made sure to take me to church summer camp, several times in junior high....

Despite this lack of heavy church involvement, my interest in faith increased.... I remember conducting a “Bible study” under a table in the fourth grade with my pocket Gideon New Testament for several friends. I started a Bible study club in junior high when they were no longer allowed in public schools. I was baptized at age 14 at our family church, and when I was in the 11th Grade, I had a “born again” experience and was also “baptized in the Holy Spirit.”

During my last two years of high school, I was in church or Bible study about five times a week and was ridiculed for carrying my Bible around on campus. I wanted to be a minister.... After my tour in the Army and while in college, I never stopped considering myself a Christian, but I never read my Bible and rarely went to Church.

I married my wife Mai, who was Catholic. She insisted on going to Church every week, but I would drop her off there and go hang out with my friends, and then pick her up after Mass. This pattern continued...through Law School....

Then my uncle Vernon died. I remember at his funeral, he was referred to as a “man of God” and the thought crossed my mind that no one would call me that if I were to die.... My wife and I started attending both Catholic and Protestant church together from time to time. I wasn’t Catholic, but I attended Mass and made friends with the priest and deigned to agree that Catholics were Christians too.... We also went to Capital Christian Center, an Assemblies of God church.

When I was about 30...my friend, Dominick Naso, started coming around, preaching to me and challenging me to study the word of God. Also, as a lawyer, I visited a young Vietnamese man in jail.... I went back to my office and began praying for this young man. I cried out to the Lord, “What is wrong with this kid?”

I heard an interior voice say, “He needs Jesus, and so do you.”...

I thought about all the young Asian gang members I was representing at that time, and thought, “They need Jesus too. Maybe I can help.” I prayed, “What should I do Lord?”

God spoke and said simply, “Learn my Word.”

I signed up for a correspondence Bible course through the Assemblies of God.... I did not want to be an Assemblies of God pastor, (because I disagreed with some of their doctrine) but I wanted to learn what they knew.

Quickly, I was placed in charge of a high school youth group at a Baptist church I began attending, and also led a Friday night praise and worship group.... I was licensed to preach the Gospel in 1995.... In 1999, I became the interim senior pastor for four months after the pastor retired....

In 2000, there was trouble with the new leadership, and I quit and with a group of people...started our own church. I remember, we set the time of our new church service, so that it would not conflict with my ability to attend Mass with my wife....

In 2006, I enrolled in Fuller Seminary to obtain a master’s degree in Bible and Theology. I learned Greek and Hebrew, textual criticism, lots of Bible, and lots of church history.... I graduated in 2012. By this time people started calling me “Pastor”.... I was preaching two to three times per month...and also began to write and self-publish spiritual books based on sermons that I had preached....

It seemed the more I studied the [Bible], the more I realized that “faith alone” wasn’t really backed up by scripture. Jesus and Paul and James and John and Peter all required action in addition to faith to secure salvation.... Not only that, my study of church history, made me reject out of hand the Protestant narrative that the Church was corrupted after Constantine and thus needed to be reformed by Luther.... Furthermore, the theology of the earliest Christians...was Catholic all along. My own experience with the Catholic Church showed me that Catholics were devout people who loved God just as much as us Protestants.... Everyone claimed the Holy Spirit as well as academic authority. Seminary blurred rather than clarified many things for me.

I wish I could say, like Scott Hahn, that I studied my way into the Catholic Church and conclusively proved to myself each and every Catholic doctrine before I had my first Mass. But the truth is I had been participating in Mass for 30 years, and I had come to agree with about half of what the Catholic Church taught, based on my own studies, but I still had problems. These were the Marian doctrines, purgatory, indulgences, loss of salvation through mortal sin, confession, etc....

I enjoyed people finally calling me “pastor,” and I loved preaching the Word of God. I pretty much was exactly where I wanted to be. Full time lawyer, part time pastor.

While on vacation in December 2014, we travelled to Mendocino and went to a lovely Mass Saturday evening. I felt really at home. That night, I began having nightmares with sweat, and tossing and turning.... Every time, I fell asleep, I heard this voice insisting “You need to stop preaching in the Protestant church and become a Catholic!”

I truthfully thought the voice was demonic. Why would God tell me to stop preaching and become a Catholic where my ministry would never be as fruitful as it now was? I even told my secretary how Satan was trying to trick me, pretending to be God....

Over the next year, every time I sat in chapel I heard, “You need to step down from your position and become a Catholic.”

“I don’t agree with the Catholics, Lord!”

That year, a man at my parish began challenging me because it was my practice to take Communion at Mass. His name was Bob Laywell.... I truly began to hate Bob and avoid him. Then while in prayer one day, the Lord told me, “Make friends with that man!”...

Immediately he began trying to convert me. I laughed him off. “You never are going to convert me! I know a lot more scripture than you ever will!”

One effective thing he did do, besides pray for me and keep the idea of conversion in my head was that he gave me a video about the Virgin of Guadalupe.... As I watched that video and realized that millions of Aztecs came to Christ because of this Marian apparition, I began to see her as not a false god or competitor to Christ for the admiration of God’s people but someone on the same team that God could use even now for the salvation of souls....

Finally, in December 2015, we prepared to take a trip to Cabo San Lucas. As is not uncommon, American Airlines oversold their tickets and bumped us off of their flight.... Instead of being in Cabo on the warm beach, we had to spend a day freezing at the San Francisco airport.

It was Saturday, so Mai and I decided to go to Mass. At the Church, I was enveloped in a sense of peace and warmth and joy. I knew I was home....

I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil 2016. Bob Laywell was my sponsor....

I had to lay down the title I had so coveted for so many years.... I had to lay aside my own understanding on several theological issues, and simply believe that Jesus had given his apostles authority to interpret the Bible and that if I was to believe Christ, I would have to believe His Church....

Since becoming a Catholic, my prayer life has increased, my sin life has decreased, and I am walking in friendship with Christ. I am being obedient. I am at peace, and I feel great joy during the Eucharist....

I'm intrigued you don't seem to have wrestled with too many doubts about Christianity in general. Why do you think that is?

I don't wrestle with the truth of Christianity because God speaks to me, and I feel the power of his spirit when I am filled with the Spirit. If he is not real, then I am crazy.

Further, the teachings of Christ and scripture in general speak to my spirit and I know they are true and good for me even if seemingly counter to my human nature and momentary fleshly desires....

I personally never took the creation story literally, even as a Baptist.... It is a poetic description of Gods successive creation of the Universe. Happily that is how the Catholic Church sees it as well. The Bible doesn't claim to be a science textbook.... It gives us everything we need for faith and morals and truths about God.

The way you understand God speaking to you sounds familiar from growing up in Assemblies of God churches. What connections do you see between your Pentecostal background and Marian apparitions or even the Eucharist?

Pentecostals...are taught to seek the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. It is sad to me when I run across many Christians both lay and clergy who state that they have never seen a vision or heard God's voice. I know the Spirit gives gifts as he wills, but I believe more Catholics and Protestants could hear from God if they would learn to listen and recognize God's voice....

When I was in my 20s my Pentecostal friends...all studied hearing Gods voice by reading Catholic mystics like Brother Lawrence and Jeanne Guyon and Theresa of Avila as well as Saint John of the Cross.

As for Marian visions, I was extremely skeptical of them 'till the month before I made my decision to convert.... Now that you mention it, why should I have doubted it when I believed in angels and demons?

As for the Eucharist, my fundamentalist background made that one easy. Jesus said, "This is my body," not, “this is a symbol.”... Again per your suggestion, I can see that my charismatic background probably made the switch to Catholicism easier. Both charismatics and Catholics believe in miracles....

Living as I have after the Second Vatican Council, during the pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict IVI, and Francis, I find myself drawn to a more sacramental, more historic understanding of Christianity. But how do you reconcile those ideas with the checkered history of the popes?

We are taught that with the exception of Jesus and Mary....all men are sinners. That includes priests, bishops, and popes.... I believe Dante said hell was full of bishops, popes, and priests.

We have been lucky to have better Popes in modern times. This probably is a result of the church being stripped of the Papal States. There is less motivation for evil or greedy families to promote their own into the papacy, leaving the job for idealists and true believers....

God chooses to take each of us wicked weak sinful people as his bride and to declare us holy. He does this on the macro scale with his church also, supernaturally protecting the doctrine it teaches from error.

Peter the first pope was weak, stubborn, and kind of dense, yet Jesus declares that “on this rock I will build my church.” He gave Peter the supernatural graces he needed to get the job done for the times.... We believe the Popes are prevented from teaching false doctrine while sitting in the chair of Peter....

This belief is necessary. Otherwise truth becomes unknowable, according to the opinion of each Bible scholar. The advent of thousands of Protestant denominations shows the inadequacy of "sola scriptura." The apostles and thus the Church were given the responsibility to preserve the truth, not each individual believer.

What do you make of the controversy surrounding the Second Vatican Council? Or the controversies around the Synod on the Family?

By and large I support everything done at Vatican II as good for the Church.... Because there was a change in Church culture, those vested in how things were always done reacted with various levels of vigor. Go to any Protestant church and try to change the music style or the meeting times. Even though the message preached will be the same, reaction could be fierce.

The issue with "Amoris Laetitia" is still playing itself out, and it is too early to make any assessments. Should divorced and remarried people receive communion in the discretion of their pastors? It was proposed in a footnote but not theologically hammered out. A lot of theology will go behind that simple little act, and now as a Catholic lay person I can have my opinion...but frankly it is above my pay grade.

The Pope and the Cardinals will work out an accommodation that does not do harm to the theological framework established by the Magisterium. If anything else happened, it wouldn't be Catholic. The Holy Spirit will prevent the Pope from teaching theological error.

For the time being he is proposing an act of discipline but it will have to be done in a way that fits within the theological understanding established thus far by the Magisterium.

How would you respond to someone who sees Eastern Orthodoxy as the main trunk of Christianity off of which western Christianity in general has splintered?

If you had two cousins springing from the same grandpa which cousin represents the true family coming from grandpa?

Both might have equal claim.

Now imagine grandpa has a family business, and he put one of the cousins in charge as the CEO of the business, and then due to the behavior of the CEO the other cousins took their franchises and stopped sending money to the CEO and declared him deposed. But the CEO cousin stayed in business with his fewer number of franchise stores and through good management grew the business to the largest in the world. In the meantime the other cousins who left with more franchises through no fault of their own found their businesses attacked and vandalized by competitors and ended up with a smaller market share. I would say the branch led by the CEO installed by grandpa has a better claim of being the legitimate family business both because of title legality and right as well as practicality of how things worked out.

Jesus put the apostles in charge of the church but set one higher than the others. He gave Peter the keys to the kingdom and established him as the rock. Every organization needs a single leading voice and Jesus gave us one: Peter, whose successors are the bishops of Rome....

The Roman Catholic Church looks forward to reconciliation with its Eastern brothers, describing the church as made of two lungs, east and west.

You've mentioned concluding that “scripture alone” and “faith alone” are inadequate. I've grown to take comfort in those passages that emphasize God's initiation and faithfulness towards his people. I used to say I was a Calvinist (emphasizing God's sovereignty) because I didn't have a strong enough will to be an Arminian (emphasizing human free will). I'm curious how you understand grace. 

Grace is the initiative of God. It is a gift of unmerited favor. God chooses us and gives us power to respond to Him in love. Without grace we could not believe or ever attain salvation. But God does not compel our love or our obedience. Baptism especially of babies is an act of pure grace by which, through the power of Christ's death and resurrection, we are adopted into His family. But God does not compel us to receive our inheritance.

God requires our free response to his grace to assure salvation. If we choose to follow serious sin, we are rejecting God's grace and his love. If we fail and repent, he will forgive us if we confess and seek his forgiveness. But if we persist in our sin without repentance and die in the state of rebellion against God, we are in serious jeopardy.

Thank you for taking time for all these questions and for responding so quickly too. Your answers challenge me in ways other than I expected. My doubts come less from disagreement over morality, less from difficulties harmonizing science and scripture, more from the fundamental differences between my experience and the experience you describe. I tend not to trust my impressions, except I cannot account for the good and beautiful apart from some idea of God.

Are you doubting the existence of God my friend? I know that much of my relationship with God is subjective, based on feelings, voices, and supernatural experiences. Catholics call these things consolations and counsel that our faith must be strong even if the consolations disappear. Saint John of the Cross wrote about this in his book, “Dark Night of the Soul.” Mother Theresa suffered from such a dark night at the end of her life. She kept the faith, even when she was denied the feelings of God's presence. To start, however, if you have not yet experienced God's presence, is to learn how to listen, to recognize God's voice. I recommend the book “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ” by Jeanne Guyon.

I think the questions I wrestle with have a lot to do with what evidences can be trusted, even when those consolations disappear, if I may borrow your words.

I would recommend that you plumb the depths of Catholic spirituality, even if you are not ready to be a Catholic. Go on a retreat. Learn and practice Examen, Lectio Divina contemplative prayer.

Get in touch with your spirit. God's Spirit will speak to your spirit. That is how the Holy Spirit can touch you. Faith comes not by scientific proof, logic, or philosophy, though those things have their place to remove objections. In the end, faith comes because you are drawn by the Spirit.

We choose to believe or disbelieve, and all the "proof" follows after to justify whatever we have already chosen. Pray for faith. Pray for the Holy Spirit. God will answer that prayer. Luke 11:11-13.

Thank you for those recommendations. I've read George Weigel's "The Truth of Catholicism," and G.K. Chesterton has influenced me more than any other writer. If you were going to recommend one or three books to represent your understanding, what would they be?

The three books I would recommend would be Scott Hahn's “Rome Sweet Home,” Karl Keating's “Catholicism v. Fundamentalism,” and Devin Rose's, “Crossing the Tiber.”

01 July 2017

Art: An Unexpected Experience

Predawn light bathed the landscape blue.

I walked from the resort where we stayed toward downtown.

“Flower Dancing in the Wind” stands nearly life sized at the intersection of Woodin and Webster avenues, part of the Lake Chelan Outdoor Gallery—36 murals and sculptures in and around Chelan and Manson, Wash.

My plan was to photograph the sculpture at sunrise. I started from what seemed a respectful distance and then worked around to catch the detail of her beadwork.

That's when I realized her face was turned away. It felt awkward...like being too in her space.

It rattled me enough that I resumed walking...and kept thinking.

Seeing sculpture through a phone camera allowed focus on details I would have only half experienced otherwise.

Perhaps because it can be touched and walked around, sculpture seems more embodied. She stands in ecstatic motion, embracing the sky, her left foot touching earth...rootedness and freedom.

Sculptor Jerry McKellar says, “The original inspiration for this sculpture came from the book, 'Dancing Colors.' The following quote created the vision in my mind's eye of a carefree young woman dancing with her shawl outstretched behind her: 'It was in the springtime that my grandmother gave me her name, Flower Dancing in the Wind....'"

Perhaps also because it can be posed with and climbed on, sculpture is more susceptible to being cheapened, and that can reflect not only on an artist's work but also on the person or people it represents.

The sculpture's gravity and vulnerability took shape in my mind because of the awkwardness I felt. It lacked the distance of a painting. It was more relational.

The murals of the outdoor gallery include the “Chief Wapato Montage” and “St. Andrew's.”

Chief Wapato was an iconic Native American figure who had land on what is now Wapato Point along Lake Chelan.

Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church occupies a landmark log sanctuary originally constructed in 1898. Electric lighting has been added, the wiring concealed in wood pole light fixtures.

The "St. Andrews" mural looks over the alley from the parish hall behind the sanctuary.

Rev. Linda Mayer and her congregation welcomed me the second Sunday of Easter. I signed the guest book and sat down in a pew. The woman in the pew ahead shook my hand warmly and introduced herself. She later delivered the homily. Rev. Mayer invited me to join them in the parish hall for coffee and refreshments.

In his book, “Art: A New History,Paul Johnson writes, “Whether seeing quantities of fine art massed together in public collections is the best way of understanding art is debatable, and certainly it is a mistake to try and comprehend more than three or four—or at most half a dozen—works of high art at a time....the most judicious approach is to acquire a penetrative knowledge of one aspect of art, and on this basis develop a judgement which promotes a general capacity to evaluate quality....”

Johnson argues art “was closely associated with the ordering instinct which makes society possible, and that it has therefore always been essential to human happiness.” He returns to this theme throughout his history.

Applying Johnson's method, if not his conclusion, perhaps we could also say great art is relational; it engages viewers with something yet to be known.