Books, Words, Meanings

This is embarrassing, but I own books which I have never read. Some of those unread books have been on the shelf for many years. No, I am not a hoarder, nor a procrastinator. It is just that I have collected books since I was a child, finding help in them and regarding the authors as friends who felt what I felt, who had searched for and found what I was still searching for, and who were always there for me.  I related to them, to their descriptions and insight, even if they were written in another century and in a faraway place, and even if my classmates did not think the library was equal to the playground.

Books consist of words, and the words have meanings. Books can be read as consumerism, such as often happens in higher education, or they can be integrated into the heart and mind with understanding and relationship. Yes, there is a relationship with books.  I feel that I have a relationship with my whole library and with each book in particular, even the ones which I have yet to read. They are a part of my home, along with all my other things such as appliances and furniture. They enable me to function, to get things done, to express thoughts and feelings, and to study and ponder. Moreover, they inspire me to do my own writing.

We connect with the meanings of the words in books, with the person who experienced life in that way and who shared whatever he or she had to give — and they try to give us their best despite their personal flaws. I think Charles Dickens did that, even as Pip grew up and I had the opportunity to grow with him.  Robert Frost did that, and occasionally I still contemplate the path not taken.  St. John of Kronstadt did that, even as he shines a guiding light on the path which I took. Yes, those are relationships open to anyone who reads those books in any place and at any time. The experiences are valid and the truths are eternal.

When books are read as consumerism, then the reader becomes a walking-talking publication, lacking helpful application and incapable of relationship. The words no longer have meanings because they are dissociated from the flow of life and love. Sometimes, the words become harmful because they are loosed from human involvement, detached from the author and imposed on the listener, reducing knowledge to technicalities and mutating nourishment into judgment. Words, and the understanding of the meanings of words, are not sterile; not existing in a vacuum, not separated from our being or from God Who gave us the gift of language. We communicate non-verbally as well, but written words fill our libraries and bookstores and then we often speak about or from what we have read.

Maybe I should not be embarrassed over the books I bought and never read. Maybe I will read them next year as circumstances direct me to acquire greater depth and breadth, and greater vision and hope during my remaining days on earth. Or maybe I should guard against consuming those books just because they are there, just because I already bought them, just because I tenderly stored them all these years. Then again, maybe I need to recapture some of the enthusiasm and vitality of my youthful days, and maybe those books are the key.

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Christmas as Responsiveness

People want to be heard and understood. Some are not especially competing for attention or striving for dominance as ends, but searching for true responsiveness to their needs and for a path through the travails of life. The birth of Christ into this world was and continues to be a divine response to each individual and to mankind as a whole. More than a parent or sibling, more than a friend, more than a psychotherapist, it is Christ Who fathoms our innermost being and Who responds with guidance and healing…and oneness. From His humble birth to His sacrificial death, Christ spent His earthly life in compassionate responsiveness to the lost.

Christ is one of the Holy Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — the Son of God Who became the Son of man, the son of the Virgin Mary who gave Him birth in human form. When He was crucified, no greater love had any man, for He laid down His life for our specific sins and for the totality of sin. When He was born, no greater love had any man, for He opened a true path and is Himself the Way to all fulfillment and holiness. This is not to diminish the significance of family and friends or other teachers and helpers, but only to clarify and affirm that all goodness comes through Christ and He is Himself our Life. His responsiveness is more than we could ever have imagined and more than we deserve.

The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, by Duccio di Buoninsegna

When Christ was born, revealed as an infant in swaddling clothes, He elicited a response from us. Most people respond favorably to babies — to their innocence, helplessness, and cuteness. Babies do not care what race we are, how much money we have, or what language we speak because they are pre-verbal anyway. They only want us to be responsive to them — to their physical and emotional needs, and to their spiritual connection with the God Who made life possible and Who entrusted us to one another in His Name. Our repentance is our response to Christ. Mercy toward one another is our response to life. He Who condescended to us and sacrificed for us thereby responds to our fallen state and continues to respond to our prayers and worship. We are understood and heard in a most intimate and complete manner.

In America, we celebrate Christmas above Easter, emphasizing the birth of Christ rather than His resurrection, as a nationwide and cultural unity of giving to others (even if exploited by commercialization). That is, until recent years. Now, even the secular recognition of Christmas — the feelings of goodwill and charity, the decorations in public places, and saying “Merry Christmas” to everyone — is vanishing from our national consciousness while relativism and pseudo-diversity are imposed by objectors and instigators. The response, or reaction, to the infant Christ is to kill Him. The feelings are fear and dread of being exposed as fraudulent and phony, selfish and covetous, sick and dysfunctional. Yes, innocence is felt as threatening to worldly manipulations and to the primacy of the fallen self.

Let us be responsive to Him Who first responded to us, to Christ Who knows our heart like none other, to the Son of God born in flesh like our flesh but Who never sinned, to the God-Man Who gathers us together, to the infant in the manger Who is either loved or hated by those whom He came to serve, and to the gift of life more abundant.

Holier Than Thou

When Christians become fixated on outward behaviors which are not necessarily biblically or theologically rooted, and thereby feel superior to other Christians, we often refer to such people as holier than thou. Such fixations are basically prideful and judgmental, or perhaps stem from a lack of education in the Christian virtues. Nonetheless, it is contrary to taking up the Cross, as such conduct is centered in self rather than in Christ. The worldly can also exhibit holier-than-thou behaviors by distorting the Bible to glorify the self with its impure desires.

Let us look closer at these two categories of holier than thou, more especially for the purpose of understanding true holiness than for analyzing unholy tendencies.

Religious Holier Than Thou

  • Definition: a form of non-participation expressed as disallowance or taboo, such that the morally superior are set apart from other Christians who do not conform to the manmade specifications.
  • Involves: self-inflation, false security, condemnation of others.
  • Consequence: man above other men.

Worldly Holier Than Thou

  • Definition: a form of willfulness expressed as a preference for impurities, such that the Church must be altered or rejected in order to posit the self as morally superior and the only authority.
  • Involves: self-inflation, deviance, corruption of others.
  • Consequence: man above Creator.

An example of religious holier-than-thou is the absolute prohibition of Halloween. Some Christians regard Halloween as a secular yet adaptable festivity, while others regard it as demonic. Some will provide church-based activities on Halloween: perhaps holier than thou or perhaps just to keep the kids within appropriate guidelines and supervision. The issue is whether there is a condemnation of those who participate in secular Halloween. It is as though this were a pivotal point between true Christians and the hypocrites, as though anyone who hands out candy is automatically aligned with evil, and as though the whole person should be scorned even if he or she follows Christ in other significant ways.

Another example is the viewpoint that all modern art is totally decadent. Some of these Christians may never have seen any modern art beyond the typical Picasso reproduction, but there is a blanket rejection of the style and a condemnation of anyone who might appreciate some pieces of modern art. Again, the situation or object, in this case a certain period of art, is symbolically used to distinguish the true Christian from the hypocrite, the pure from the repulsive, and the chosen from the incorrigible.  In a complicated society containing both temptation and enrichment, prohibition offers a comfort zone of simulated security and superiority.

Worldly holier-than-thou attitudes and behaviors seem to be more prevalent and varied, and perhaps more confusing because they are often disguised as enlightened and beneficial. Generally, it is a matter of making wrong look right, and right look wrong. This process centers on political correctness and lifestyle choices. Traditional values are regarded as offensive. In some instances, the agenda is to overthrow Christian doctrine in favor of cultural relativism and personal preferences, or in favor of new and post-modern approaches to self-discovery.

Some examples are so-called reproductive rights, ethical pornography, flexible monogamous marriage, the normalizing of abnormal mental conditions, and the elimination of Christian holidays from government buildings, schools, hospitals, airports, and public squares. Those who continue to adhere to biblical and theological roots are branded as haters and deserving of punishment and riddance. It is no longer a matter of loving the sinner and hating the sin, but of justifying the sin and teaching it to the next generation. This can only be done by making the Church look outdated and oppressive.

In these difficult times, may God help us to live in purity of heart, to discern the spirits, and not succumb to any inward tendencies or outward pressures.

Giving Yourself Up

There are probably various reasons as to why people do not trust in God but trust in themselves or in the world. I suspect some people are defiant and want what they want, some are greedy and want more and more, some are envious and want what you have, and some are spiritually hollow and live in a constant state of want no matter how much they accumulate. Then, there are some people who are traumatized from past betrayals and who fear to trust anyone ever again — including God.

Wheat Field with Cypresses (July version), by Vincent van Gogh

St. John of Kronstadt wrote about trusting in God, giving oneself up to Him, rather than focusing on the acquisition of wealth and finding happiness in the things money can buy. I divided the following quotation into paragraphs to make it easier to read.

Give yourself up entirely to God’s providence, to the Lord’s Will, and do not grieve at losing anything material, nor in general at the loss of visible things; do not rejoice at gain, but let your only and constant joy be to win the Lord Himself. Trust entirely in Him: He knows how to lead you safely through this present life, and to bring you to Himself — into His eternal Kingdom.

From want of trust in God’s providence many and great afflictions proceed: despondency, murmurings, envy, avarice, love of money or the passion for amassing money and property in general, so that it may last for many years, in order to eat, drink, sleep and enjoy; from want of trust in God’s providence proceed in particular afflictions such as arise, for instance: from some loss of income through our own oversight, from the loss of objects, specially valuable and necessary, as well as immoderate joy at recovering some objects, or at receiving some large income or gain, or some profitable place or employment.

We, as Christians, as “fellow citizens with the Saints and of the household of God: (Ephesians 2: 19), ought to commit all our life, together with all its sorrows, sickness, griefs, joys, scarcities and abundance unto Christ our God.

St. John of Kronstadt
My Life in Christ, pp. 251, 252

In general, as a lifestyle or emphasis, amassing money and possessions is contrary to trusting in God. That is, trusting in oneself and focusing on the ways of the world rather than turning to the God Who created us. We might say that we find happiness in whatever it is that we trust in — except that trust in self and world is misapplied and temporal, and therefore ultimately disappointing and even ruinous. St. John connects lack of trust in God to various forms of distress and affliction — I think not as a punishment from God but as the natural progression of that which is prone to instability and deterioration.

St. John reminds us that we belong to the household of God with all the saints. It follows, then, to give ourselves up to God, to do His will which can only benefit us, and to commit any needs or abundance into the service of Christ in Whom we live and have our being. Thus, whatever our financial status, whatever our health, whatever the betrayals of the past, we are restored and fulfilled only in Christ Who is worthy of trust and Who offers us the Eternal Kingdom. There is nothing else to want and no other true happiness.

A Labor of Love

We sometimes speak of a labor of love, usually in terms of a personal characteristic or a category of work, and without awareness of the biblical validation of the concept.

Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God our Father…

I Thessalonians 1: 3 [KJV]

For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.

Hebrews 6: 10 [KJV]

Generally, we think of a labor of love as something for which we do not get paid. Or, as something which is labor-intensive — we get paid very little compared to the number of hours we put into it. Some jobs are that way, such as teaching, nursing, and social work. Some forms of self-support are also that way, such as handicrafts and various arts. At the opposite end, there are some jobs that pay far above the required knowledge and skills, such as professional sports and the entertainment industry.  Earnings, therefore, are often based on society’s values and desires and not on the hours of labor or the results of that labor.

Let us, then, seek to understand a labor of love as a spiritual quality, as something we do for God and for the upbuilding of the Kingdom. The Apostle Paul tells us that God accepts, actually never forgets, any labor which is done in His Name and for his people. We might say that any work should be a labor of love inasmuch as what we do, whether paid or unpaid or underpaid, whether on our earthly jobs or directly for the Church, should be to the glory of God.

Christ Himself acknowledged a difference between working for material things, perhaps even for mere survival, and working for that which is eternal.

“Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.”

John 6: 27 [KJV]

Some people work only for money, whether in a survival mode or in the pursuit of wealth for its own sake and for the purpose of obtaining things of fleeting satisfaction. Of course, we need money and we have to work for it. But our labor, in order to be fruitful for the Kingdom, must be invested with love and without compartmentalizing our lives into what is spiritual and what is mundane.

A teacher, for example, must be a teacher because God has called him or her to express the Faith in that way — to shape young minds in an academic and ethical manner and to serve as an example of Christian virtues. Moreover, the teacher who is a Christian, or rather the Christian who is a teacher, must also labor for everlasting life which is attained only through Christ. All facets of living, on and off the job, must be in alignment with whatever promotes everlasting life.

A labor of love is rewarded beyond money, for it is rewarded by the God Who sees and hears everything we do and say. This is not Pollyannaish, nor is this to justify or overlook the hardships of a low-paying job, but it is to focus on the truths of the Gospel and the righteousness of God. We do not conduct ourselves according to the impure standards of the world, but according to whatever is good, right, and true. This might mean having to steer the course of our lives through unfair systems, to cope with lack of friendships among peers, and to manage financially within a simple lifestyle.

Until the End

Even if you are the most empathic person, you cannot thoroughly understand the travails of old age until you arrive there yourself. Old age involves the passing of time or, rather, the approaching of the end of time, which is truly difficult to comprehend when you are young or middle-aged. Time brings emotional losses and physical deterioration, whether it seems to happen overnight or it gradually becomes the bulk of one’s life. Yet, spiritually, we continue forward through the remainder of our years and even achieve victory over our losses and in the face of deterioration.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

I Corinthians 15: 55-58 [KJV]

For many years, my favorite Bible passage was Philippians 4:8, “…whatsoever things are true…think on these things.” It gave me permission to consider all sources of truth, goodness, virtue, and to denounce any preferences for fanaticism, supremacy, trendiness. However, the passage from First Corinthians propels us beyond permission or authorization. It gives us encouragement or reassurance, telling us to be abundant in our pursuits — for victory is ours. That is, when we say and do everything for Christ and in Christ.

When you get old, time and labor are measured by the days and deeds of yesteryear. There is fatigue — not like the satisfying expenditure of energy in one’s youth — but a general slowing-down that says you cannot go on much longer and the end is near. There is a tendency to look back on the history of one’s own life, at those decades of survival in the world as well as dedication to Christ, and to try and make sense of it as a whole. Because, it all led to this present moment of reflection, to this instant in old age, and there is the sudden realization that one is called to be unmovable in faith and abundant in spirituality nonetheless — and to go forward to total victory.

The labor of the past was not in vain, not if it was done in purity of heart, according to the will of God, for the sake of the Kingdom, to the benefit of Church and mankind, and in Christ. Even if our labor failed in any of these dimensions, repentance and transformation of the whole is still possible — this I believe, for healing is life-giving and boundless, and there is victory over all nuances of sin and every trace of decay and death.

Starry Night Over the Rhone, by Vincent van Gogh

Yes, you have to enter old age, and maybe that is the great blessing of old age, to really see the contrast between death and life. That is, death as anti-life and anti-Christ, death as ruthlessly against revelation and hope, death as jealously hateful of purity and abundance — and life as merciful resurrection into the eternal truth and love of Christ.

Faith in Others

One of my psychotherapy patients, years ago, who was a recovering alcoholic, complained to me that his wife had no faith in him. She was not supportive of his efforts to stay sober, and generally treated him as though he were a little boy with grubby hands. His remark surprised me for two reasons. First, his desire for his wife’s faith in him actually seemed more like a demand. His sobriety, after all, was his responsibility. I wondered if he was setting up his next relapse, with the excuse that his wife drove him to it. Second, I thought people should have faith only in God, and that faith in another person was idolization or maybe infatuation.

It was only after I entered my senior years that I found myself in situations where those of the younger generation seemed to need or want me to have faith in them. That is, a trust or confidence in their abilities, perception or insight into their potential, and even a sort of blessing upon their existence and their value or purpose. Such faith was actually the core of the relationship, a basic dynamic between the old and the young, a contrast between life gone by and life yet to be lived, something beyond being supportive, and a matter of affirming and nourishing the reality of goodness and fruitfulness.

Some people are not tainted or cynical in that way, not hardened. Nowadays, or over the past few years, those are the people I seem to encounter.  In other words, the ones who are open to love, who have room in their life for love and for more love, and who relate to me as an older person — as though I were always this old. They do not demand, but seem to hope for or anticipate validation by someone who has survived that which is still ahead of them. I am slowly learning that they are images of the God in Whom I have faith and therefore that faith must be shared in them.

The following is a quotation from Fr. Thomas Hopko who puts forth that faith in God is very much connected to faith in people.

The foundation of all Christian virtue and life is faith. Faith is the natural possession of all men who are wise and virtuous. For if a person lacks faith in man’s ability to know, to do good and to find meaning in life; if he does not believe that this is possible, profitable and worthy of man’s efforts, then nothing wise or virtuous can be achieved. The striking characteristic of all prophets of doom, apostles of despair and preachers of absurdity is the absence of faith in man’s capabilities for goodness and truth, and the absence of faith in the meaning and value of life. It is also an absence of faith in God.

The Orthodox Faith, Vol. IV, Spirituality, 1976 (p. 58)

People are to be valued, and not because they are worthy or perfect, but because God has given us certain capabilities — even if latent or grubby in the unfortunate, even if already fairly accomplished in the advantaged, and we have to take our place in humanity and fulfill goodness and truth in our own lives and nourish it in the lives of others. If we have faith in God, then let us invest that faith in those precious souls who look to us to verify and endorse life and love. If they perceive the image of God in us, despite our flaws, then let us respect His image in them and interact in faith.

For Everyone

I have tried over and over to analyze it, hoping to figure out the viewpoint of someone who would say such a thing. But, after sorting through my thoughts and feelings, and having re-stabilized myself, I decided to bypass the analysis and simply refute the following statement:

The Orthodox Church is not for you.

A member of the Orthodox Church said that to me. And, I have a response:

The Orthodox Church is for everyone.

Christ died for everyone. If the Orthodox Church is the True Church, then, in fact, there is no other place for people. Otherwise, the disqualified must go to the Roman Catholic or Protestant churches. That, in turn, is the same as saying there are legitimate alternatives to pure and total truth. Now, I personally love some aspects of Catholicism and Protestantism, and I love the people, but it is only the Orthodox Church which offers the one and complete body of Christianity.

Little Russia, by Ora Coltman [a view of St. Theodosius Orthodox Church, Cleveland]

As an antidote, I found a very different remark from Metropolitan JOSEPH of  the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

THOUGHTS FROM METROPOLITAN JOSEPH ON EVANGELISM

A preacher doesn’t need to have all the knowledge of this world, but to be faithful and honest in what he is saying. The most eloquent homily we can give to the faithful is this: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I love you and I pray for you.’

If you desire to grow in your relationship with God, fall on your knees in repentance, then stand up and get to work. We have much to do.

Whereas the ancient city of Antioch was a place where many races coexisted in peace, so we build the new Antioch here in America, embracing all who desire to find the Way to God.

If we do not have Christian love, if we have no long-term vision of evangelization and education, if we cannot see our parish’s calling to minister to the spiritually sick and suffering, then we will be slaves to petty arguments and pride.

URL: http://antiochian.org/missions

If I may humbly add to the above, I would say that “petty arguments and pride” might also include puritanical protectionism or separatism. My disturbing experience showed me that, even in this new evangelistic era, there is still a certain bias as to who is regarded as acceptable.  Yet, I consider myself Orthodox and I am trying to do my part, by writing this essay, to affirm “embracing all who desire to find the Way to God.“

If you have ever been viewed as disqualified, then know that you are not destined for hell just because of one person’s opinion. The Orthodox Church is not for you sounds like a judgment, probably based on a distorted or fragmented perception of Orthodoxy as well as a failure to see the image of God in you. Ultimately, however, you can use this unfortunate experience as an opportunity to suffer for Christ, to increase your understanding of theology, and to deepen your faith.

It is the Day of Resurrection, so let us be radiant for the festival, and let us embrace one another. Let us speak, brothers and sisters, also to those who hate us, and in the Resurrection let us forgive everything, and so let us cry:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Paschal Chant

A Christian Response

A Christian Response to Extremist Ideologies and Terrorist Attacks

1) To pray for the world, to be a people of right worship, and to turn to God first in all situations and for all things.

2) To see the image of God in all people, to love but not facilitate enemies, to desire the welfare and salvation of all races and cultures, and to affirm the Church and protect civilization.

3) To be lights shining in the darkness, to be examples of true religion, to be a culture of life, to prohibit and prevent actions which are destructive or deadly to human life, and to refute falsehood wherever we find it.

4) To maintain our religious beliefs and civilized values with absolutely no resignation to terrorism as inevitable or as something that unites us and makes us strong.

5) To love children, to prioritize the protection of children from terrorist violence as well as from extremist brainwashing, pornography, kidnappings, and slavery.

6) To hold elected officials accountable by voting, sending letters and e-mails, and through social media.

7) To define current multicultural tolerance as oppressive to a free society, subversive to democracy, and as anti-Christianity, anti-Western civilization, and anti-American.

8) To become aware of multiculturalism instruction and tendencies in the public school system, to read our children’s textbooks and monitor their homework, and to voice any concerns to teachers and principals.

9) To align with other cultures and religions which uphold values similar to ours.

10) To find ways to support the families and loved ones of terrorist victims and to support first-responders.

11) To report any suspicious person or activity to authorities — if you see something, say something.

12) To denounce those who misinterpret the Bible to support submission to immoral leadership or inhumane policies, or who misinterpret the Psalms to justify personal vengeance.

Children as Targets

The title of this essay could have been, “The Vulnerable and Innocent as Targets of the Self-Righteous and Envious.” It has always seemed to me that terrorists are essentially self-righteous at the core of their character and as a basis for social cohesion. They are good and right and you are bad and wrong and therefore you are offensive and must be dominated or annihilated. That is their sense of logic. Intimately woven into pervasive self-righteousness is an envy of anyone with real accomplishments, particularly people and nations which do not share in their extremist value system.

We might say that the quality of innocence is also offensive to the radical agenda. Children are to be brainwashed and forced to continue the ideology into the next generation. That is to say, their children. Our children, however, are to be killed in order to terrorize and demoralize us into non-resistance if not total submission. The targets of terrorist violence have always been weak or vulnerable, but to target young people is utilitarian at a depraved level. The youngest person killed in Manchester, U.K., was an eight-year old girl. Just a little girl who had gone to a concert with her mother and sister, not knowing how offensive her favorite music was to the self-righteous and envious. Twelve of those killed were under the age of sixteen.

If the targeting of children continues, there will be woe many times over. There will be funeral after funeral. Families will be forever altered. Classmates will be devastated. Commentators will continue to analyze an extremist culture which simply does not think or act in normal ways. Let us hope that a strategy  will be developed to end terrorism — hope, and hold our elected officials accountable. Let us pray that all children, theirs and ours, will be spared from brainwashing, violence and slaughter. We must protect childhood according to humanitarian standards. We must not passively accept a world in which the killing of children is the new and inevitable normal, and in which multiculturalism makes excuses for terrorists and protects their so-called rights.