The Journey Begins

Journey Begins

For Orthodox Christians around the world, a journey has begun today. It is a spiritual journey that will eventually lead us all the way to the empty tomb of Jesus Christ. For the next 6 weeks we will journey through Great Lent and then we will experience Holy Week and the incredible Feast of Feasts: the Glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. A great opportunity is before us; it is not like any other opportunity. May we take serious our Faith and draw closer to our Lord than we have ever been. Let us begin our journey today.

Proverbs 1:1-20

You have probably seen some of the multitude of articles and websites discussing how much we need to work our brains to keep us thinking and make us smarter.  There are even websites that promise to increase your brain power for a small monthly fee.  Perhaps you do daily crossword puzzles or Sudoku to help you think more intelligently.  All of these things are good, but not of the greatest importance.  We all know people that may be extremely intelligent, but may not be very wise in how they live their lives.  Simply put, having intelligence does not equal being wise.

On this first day of Great Lent, there is a challenge set before us to exercise our brain in such a way as to increase our wisdom (intelligence also comes with wisdom…but not necessarily the other way around).  In the opening of Proverbs 1, we are told why King Solomon wrote the Book of Proverbs:  “To know wisdom…”  In fact he gives us a wonderful list of things that could be ours if we take time to study this book.  “A wise man will hear and increase learning and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel.” 

The Scriptures tell us that King Solomon so pleased God at the beginning of his reign, that God said:  “Ask me for whatever you want me to give you.”  He could have asked for riches or long life, but instead he asked God for wisdom and discernment.  God responded:  “Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked long life for yourself, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice, behold, I have done according to your words; see, I have given you a wise and understanding heart, so that there has not been anyone like you before you, nor shall any like you arise after you.”  (You can read that whole story in 1 Kings 3 or in the Orthodox Study Bible on page 392).

We can seek intelligence through puzzles, games, and various website brain exercises. Or during this year’s Lenten journey, we could seek wisdom through our study of the Book of Proverbs.  Each day, we can do our daily readings and find wisdom on how to live our lives.  This would be a most excellent way to exercise our brains!  How about setting aside the times spent doing a puzzle or Sudoku, and spend that time with our daily readings? What do we have to lose? Or rather, what do we have to gain?

Proverbs 1:1-20

The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel:

To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding,
To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgment, and equity;
To give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion—
A wise man will hear and increase learning, and a man of understanding will attain wise counsel,
To understand a proverb and an enigma, the words of the wise and their riddles.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother;
For they will be a graceful ornament on your head, and chains about your neck.

10 My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.
11 If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait to shed blood; let us lurk secretly for the innocent without cause;
12 Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, and whole, like those who go down to the Pit;
13 We shall find all kinds of precious possessions, we shall fill our houses with spoil;
14 Cast in your lot among us, let us all have one purse”—
15 My son, do not walk in the way with them, keep your foot from their path;
16 For their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood.
17 Surely, in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird;
18 But they lie in wait for their own blood, they lurk secretly for their own lives.
19 So are the ways of everyone who is greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its owners.

20 Wisdom calls aloud outside; she raises her voice in the open squares.

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The Journey Toward Great Lent: The Sheep & the Goats from Matthew 25:31-46

Sunday of the Prodigal Son 2019

Today, Eastern Orthodox Christians around the entire world all read the same Gospel reading concerning the Great Judgment from Matthew 25:31-46.  Each year we Orthodox come face to face with this Gospel passage, whether we want to or not.  It concerns the sheep and the goats; even more importantly it concerns who will inherit the Kingdom of God and who will not.  Both the sheep and the goats call Jesus “Lord”…the difference between the two is found in putting the love of God into action.

In our daily readings we often read about the 2nd Coming of the Lord.  The Great Judgment really puts this in the right perspective.  It is irrelevant for any of us to be trying to figure out when the Lord will return.  It really doesn’t matter if it is today or a thousand years from now.  What is really important in this whole matter is that each of us will appear before His Judgment Seat…whether He returns in our lifetime or if our hearts simply stop beating, we will be there…either as sheep or as goats…we will be there.

In the past, our Church took up the challenge of meeting each of those things the Lord says to the sheep in praise of them.  “I was hungry…thirsty…a stranger… naked…sick…in prison…and you met my needs!”  I am so very proud of the members of our Church as they have continually met the needs of these different concerns. Sometimes we met them locally and sometimes in a far off distant place.  God is Love and this is that love touching precious souls through us. This Great Lent we can again be challenged by this same Gospel passage in perhaps a slightly different way.

All of those things that Jesus expects us to be doing have as their foundation our Faith.  It is presupposed that we are already doing the things He has taught us to do:  Attending Church regularly; Praying regularly; Reading our Bibles regularly; Receiving Holy Communion regularly; Confessing our sins regularly; Fasting when it is time to fast…and the other things that are foundational to our Faith.  All of these things build us up spiritually so that we are better equipped to put our Faith into action.  This is what we should hear in this Gospel reading:  We will all be called to give an accounting of how we put the love of God (our Faith) into action.   The sheep and the goats both called Jesus “Lord” but only the sheep had put love of God (their Faith) into action.

In the parable of the Talents, one man was condemned because he simply hid his talent in the ground…he didn’t even try…no attempt was made to increase his talent.  For doing nothing, his talent was taken away.  Our Church is our talent…a gift given to us.  We must try our best to make it grow.   Putting our Faith into action is both an individual and a corporate matter.  It is something we as a Church must take seriously.  Our Church is a wonderful gift from God and we will be held accountable for what we did with that gift.

Jesus planted His Church on this earth so that every person…from every nation…from every walk of life would have an opportunity to be a part of it and to be a part of His eternal Kingdom.  (“For God so loved the world!”) In our local Church, we may not be held accountable for every nation, every people, or for the whole world.  BUT, we may well be held responsible for our little part of this world…the world that we live in each day.  We are responsible for what we do with the gift of our Church in our “world” … the area in which we are located.  Consider with me for a moment those words of Jesus spoken to the sheep and the goats at the Great Judgment and let’s apply them to the people of our “world”:

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.”  Many of the people around us have a spiritual hunger and they are looking for something that will truly feed their souls.  Jesus said: ”I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry” (John 6:35).  Has our Church offered the people of our “world” the Bread of Life?

“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”  Like the woman at the well, many people would love to drink the water of Christ:  “Whoever drinks the water I give him, will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).  Is our Church offering this “water” to those around us?

“I was a stranger and you invited me in.”  Do the people of our “world” even know that our Church exists…are they strangers who are unaware of our existence?  What can our Church do to truly invite them in?

“I was naked and you clothed me.”  Much like Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), many people have had their eyes opened and realize they are spiritually naked.  These people are being clothed with anything and everything this world has to offer.  The Church can offer them the greatest clothing of all:  “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27).  What is our Church doing to clothe the naked of our “world”.

“I was sick and you took care of me.”  When Jesus was asked why He was hanging around with sinners, He said:  “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…for I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt. 9:12-13).  There are so many people in our “world” that are sick with sin and our Church has the very medicine that will make them well.  The Church has always been and continues to be a hospital. What has our Church done to make this medicine available to others?

“I was in prison and you visited me.”  It has been said that the hardest prison to get out of is the one without bars.  So many people around us are living in their own personal “prison” each and every day…truly a living hell.   The psalmist knew this when he wrote:  “Bring my soul out of prison, that I might praise Thy Name…O Lord forever more”  (Psalm 141:8; 142:7).  Jesus explained how one could be set free from this prison:  “The Truth will set you free…everyone who sins is a slave to sin…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:31-36).  What is our Church doing to set the captives of our “world” free?

It is only God who can truly help the people of this world.  But as in all things, we are called to work in cooperation with God (synergy).  We are called to do our best in bringing the love of God Who is the Truth to our “world”.  We are called to invite the people of our “world” to come and see…and experience…the love of God found in the True Faith.  We are simply called to make the attempt…to try.  It is the Holy Spirit who will touch the hearts and minds of people through our loving efforts.  Please pray with me throughout this Great Lent that God would give us wisdom to know what we can do in our “world” …using the technology and all the resources available to us…may we take this step of faith and see what God does with it.

May God help us to be His instruments of love in our world.

A Rational and Logical Mind?

Logical Mind

How would you respond to some well-meaning Christians who said they did not want to lose their rational and logical minds by joining an “organized religion”? Over the years of being a prison chaplain, I encountered many, many men who had embraced that very thinking. They felt that submitting to the authority of the Church was something they could never do because it meant giving up their minds. They also believe that they only need their Bible and their rational, logical minds. It seems that same thought has become so very popular in our society today.

Perhaps the first question we could ask those Bible believing Christians who do not want to lose their rational thought process in some Church (which of course we know isn’t the case at all) is: Where in the Bible do you find rational and logical thinking working out well?

Ananias & Sapphira certainly seemed to be using very rational and logical thinking in Acts 5…oh, but they ended up dead.

Nadab & Abihu (Numbers 3) offering incense to the Lord sounded quite rational and logical, but they also ended up dead.

Israel demanded a king and who was a more logical choice than Saul as he was handsome and bigger than anyone else (1 Samuel 9-10)…that really worked out for them (forgive my sarcasm). That list can go on and on through the entire Bible…with logical and rational thinking not turning out well.

So then, let’s consider historically what happened within Christianity. We find a great deal of rational, logical thinking by people using the Holy Scriptures.

Arius was quite logical in his teaching that the Son of God was not co-eternal and consubstantial with His Father.

Pelagius taught that the role of Jesus was only to be viewed as “setting a good example” and that Divine Grace has no place in the life of a Christian…we have the full responsibility for our own salvation.

Sabellius used his rational mind with the Bible to teach that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are simply different modes or aspects of one God, rather than three distinct persons (a total denial of the Holy Trinity).

Nestorius used his rational mind to discover that the Holy Scriptures pointed out that Jesus was not God come in the flesh (a total denial of the Incarnation).

The list of heretics using their logical and rational minds goes on and on, with many still at work today. Simply using our rational and logical minds to understand a God that is far beyond our comprehension are the very things heresies are made of… and how they continue to exist today. If you sit through a presentation from certain heretical groups, they will continually ask you: “Doesn’t this make sense to you?” They learned long ago the best approach is to appeal to rational and logical thinking.

There is Truth in this universe and at some point we have to accept the fact that our rational minds may not arrive at it because some of the things of God are truly beyond our comprehension.

May we take seriously these words of the Holy Prophet Isaiah (55:8-9): “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

This leads us to the Seven Ecumenical Councils which handed down the Truth that had always been believed from Christ through His Apostles and on to their disciples and on to their disciples through each generation. Each of those heretics mentioned earlier were dealt with in one of those ecumenical councils. God doesn’t call each Christian to have to figure out all of these things on our own…over and over again. Through the Holy Spirit those councils verified those handed-down truths and it is those truths that we stand on today.

Our rational or logical minds will never wrap themselves around the Holy Trinity or the Incarnation. Those are truths beyond our comprehension.

”If you could understand the Holy Trinity, then the Holy Trinity would not be God!”

If these “non-organized church” folks would use their “rational, logical minds” to grasp these arguments both from Holy Scripture and from history, they may be able to see their need to get back to the Church that has not changed with every wind of doctrine that blows by. Here there is great safety. This is not simply a blind acceptance with a thoughtless mind, but rather it is a mind that embraces the Truth that has been handed down. Without that foundation, rational and logical thinking has led to the thousands of divisions within Christianity. They all proclaimed that they used the Bible and their rational, logical minds and they gave us schism after schism until Christianity as a whole now has the look of a shattered mirror. We have a responsibility to do our best in using our minds to present such mysteries to those logical, rational Christians.

God did not create us to be robots nor does He call us to act as such. He calls us to use our minds, but from the foundation of truth… not in order to invent or come up with our own truth, but in order to walk in that truth. Consider these words of the Holy Apostle John from his third epistle: “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.”

The Holy Apostle John passed that truth on to his disciples. St. Ignatius learned from him and passed that truth on to his disciples and so on. The only hope for heresies in today’s world is that people continue to ignore the Early Church (or dismiss it as having become corrupt right after the Apostles died). The best hope for Christianity today is to go back to the Early Church and those Seven Ecumenical Councils and to begin “walking in the truth.” That brought St. John joy in the first century and it will no doubt bring joy to our Lord today!

The Rest of the Story

 

December 6th, this Thursday, is an important day in my church each year.  The “why?” is best answered by sharing this true story with you.  If you are a fan of the Paul Harvey radio programs, you will be familiar with one of his shows called “The Rest of the Story”.   This story could easily be one of those stories.   I would like to share this true story with you about a man who made his mark on the world, not with power, or money, or great writings…but with his life.

Back in the 3rd Century this man was born in Asia Minor.  He was born into a wealthy, Christian home.  He was given an excellent education and had everything going for him.  Then his parents died and he was left with the family fortune.  He could have done anything he wanted…yet his heart began to long to serve God.

Unlike most people who dream of winning the lottery, he did not begin buying things for himself with his new found wealth.  Instead, he began to give money to help the poor.  One time he heard of a poor family with three daughters that were marrying age.  In those days, if a woman had no dowry she was likely to end up out on the streets.  This man went secretly at night and threw three bags of gold through their window for the daughters’ dowries.

He decided to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  While there he felt the calling of God so strongly on his life that he decided to become a pastor.  This was no easy decision because the most severe persecution of Christians was taking place under the Roman Emperor Diocletian (303-311).  To become a priest in the Christian Church at that time could be a death sentence.  Yet not only did he become a pastor, he also gave away the rest of his money to the poor.

When the Archbishop died the bishops gathered together to choose a new Archbishop.  This was normally one of the bishops.  This time however, they chose this humble priest because they saw his deep spirituality.

Finally, he was arrested, tortured, and thrown into prison.  He would have died there except that the Emperor Diocletian committed suicide in 313.  Constantine became emperor and released all Christian prisoners.  Upon his release, he was reinstated to Archbishop, continuing to help the poor and  pointing out injustice in his society.  He was responsible for the first hospitals being built and for the first houses for the poor being established.  He was instrumental in helping to shape the Christian Church in ways that still affect it today.

He died in the year 330, not making his mark with great writings or in his power as Archbishop.  Rather, he left his life as a great example for us.  His example of faith and commitment is one that is well worth following. But the story doesn’t end here. So who is this man?  As Paul Harvey says:  “Now for the rest of the story!”

 In the early Church people who had led lives that were excellent examples for others to follow were remembered on a particular day.  Their life would be talked about and all were reminded of how they should be living.  This particular man was remembered on December 6th.  His name was Nicholas.  Remembering his life, people began to give gifts in secret on the eve of December 6th.  Over time, the Dutch Christians held an especially big celebration on this day.  Eventually many Dutch Christians came to America.  They continued to celebrate this day.  The celebration was Americanized. Here’s how it happened:

“After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride the colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that year he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not a saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.  The jolly elf image received a big boost in 1823, from a poem destined to become immensely popular, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

In 1863, political cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of annual drawings in Harper’s Weekly, were based on the descriptions found in the poem and  saint-nicholasWashington Irving’s work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and an omnipresent clay pipe. The picture shown here was the first “red suit” given Santa by Nast.  As Nast drew Santas until 1886, his work had considerable influence in forming the American Santa Claus. Along with appearance changes, the saint’s name shifted to Santa Claus—a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus and Dutch Sinterklaas.”

(The two previous paragraphs and the picture are used with permission from The St. Nicholas Center at  http://www.stnicholascenter.org  if you would like more info.)

Because of the gift giving, the celebration was moved to Christmas Day.  Eventually, a flying sleigh and reindeer were added from a Norwegian Mythology.

“And there you have, the rest of the story!”  Yes, there really was a Saint Nicholas.  The real man has been lost in the tall tales of recent years.  Not only was Saint Nicholas a real man, but he was a man worth remembering!  He was a man of convictions and commitment even in the face of tremendous worldly wealth and persecution.  Now you know why December 6th is important in my family.  It is a time to give to those in need…remembering the example of Saint Nicholas.

With all of the over-commercialization of Christmas, one can easily forget the real meaning of what is being celebrated.  Yet, let us not, in our desire to regain the meaning of Christmas, simply view all gift giving as a corruption of the celebration.  Rather, it can be a part of it, bringing joy as we give both to our families and to those in need.  And we can share with family and friends, the rest of the story behind “Jolly ol’ St. Nick”.

If you would like to celebrate this December 6th, perhaps you could find a way to give to someone in need without them ever knowing you did it!!!!  It’s hard to do, but you will be blessed if you can keep the secret!!!

May the days leading up to Christmas be filled with joy and peace and may you have a Christmas this year that is truly a HOLYDAY!!!

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving

A few years ago I did a solo climb of Kit Carson Peak.  This is a remote peak in the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains of Colorado.  It was a tough trek, made more difficult by a chest cold I had been fighting.  After being up above 13,000 feet for a few hours, my body and my mind were saying: “Let’s climb this one another day!!”  They weren’t just suggesting it, they were shouting it.  I do confess that I was ready to call it quits when I decided to stop and take time to pray, giving thanks for the awesome beauty all around me.  Soon after that prayer, I began to regain my strength and determination to reach the summit.  Before I knew it, I reached the summit at 14,165 feet.  It was glorious (as every summit is)!

There were awesome views to take in and food to munch, but the one thing that stands out above all the rest is when I took time to give thanks to God.  There was surely much to give thanks for at that moment…including my physical well-being.  I also pulled out my pocket-sized Bible and read Psalm 8.  That psalm begins and ends with these words: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”   Looking out from the top of Kit Carson Peak brought that psalm to life!  There were several 14,000 foot peaks nearby that brought back memories of other climbs I had made…Crestone Needle (my very first 14’er), Crestone Peak (flying a kite off the top), Challenger Peak (another solo climb), and Humbolt Peak (my two daughters first 14er)…there far below was the mystery of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument that I had rolled down with my family…and stretching out to the horizons were 1,000’s of miles of awesome beauty.  The wonderful memories and the incredible beauty caused my heart to soar with thanksgiving to God.  It was indeed a “thankful” and worshipful moment.

Times like that seem natural for giving thanks to God.  Times of deliverance from some great fear or experiencing some great excitement can bring out the thanksgiving in us.  Yet, truth be known, God desires and delights in our giving of thanks at all times.  Ephesians 5:20 tells us to “always give thanks to God the Father for everything.”

Hopefully, you will be reading this before Thanksgiving Day.  It’s wonderful to have a day set aside for all of us to give thanks.  One of our traditions at home is to go around the dinner table and have each person give one thing they for which they are thankful.  Surprisingly, it can be a very moving time.  I remember a few years ago when my parents told their grandchildren how thankful they were to have another year of life to just be with them…that moved everyone’s heart!

It is good to have a Thanksgiving Day, but it’s even better to give thanks each and every day.  Today is a good day to begin (or continue) to make the giving of thanks a regular part of our daily lives.  Even in the midst of what seems to be the absolute worst of times in our lives, pausing to give thanks to our Lord can truly help us.  It can bring a perspective that we may not have been thinking about.

Another suggestion to assist you in getting started with giving thanks is to use Psalm 136.  This is a psalm of thanksgiving for: 1) who God is; 2) His creation; 3) His deliverance; 4) His leading in your life; 5) His promises and care; and 6) once again, for who God is.  As you read this psalm, take time to personally thank God for some specific things in your life.  It is by the Grace of God that each of us still has the breath of life in us.  As you begin to thank God for whatever comes to your mind, you’ll find more and more things to be thankful for in this life.  May God bless you this Thanksgiving Day and always.  Here’s Psalm 136 for your enjoyment (Whenever God repeats Himself, I take it that He wants us really hear it in our hearts…so take note of the 26 repetitions in this Psalm):

Psalm 136

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.

2 Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.

3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever.

4 to him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever.

5 who by his understanding made the heavens, His love endures forever.

6 who spread out the earth upon the waters, His love endures forever.

7 who made the great lights— His love endures forever.

8 the sun to govern the day, His love endures forever.

9 the moon and stars to govern the night; His love endures forever.

10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt His love endures forever.

11 and brought Israel out from among them His love endures forever.

12 with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; His love endures forever.

13 to him who divided the Red Sea asunder His love endures forever.

14 and brought Israel through the midst of it, His love endures forever.

15 but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea; His love endures forever.

16 to him who led his people through the desert, His love endures forever.

17 who struck down great kings, His love endures forever.

18 and killed mighty kings— His love endures forever.

19 Sihon king of the Amorites His love endures forever.

20 and Og king of Bashan— His love endures forever.

21 and gave their land as an inheritance, His love endures forever.

22 an inheritance to his servant Israel; His love endures forever.

23 to the One who remembered us in our low estate His love endures forever.

24 and freed us from our enemies, His love endures forever.

25 and who gives food to every creature. His love endures forever.

26 Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever.

 

The Journey: A Reflection for the Nativity Fast

The Journey

During the Nativity fast, Orthodox Christians are on a journey that culminates with the  celebration of the Birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  This journey continually brings us face to face with the issue of giving: The Father gave His Son…The Magi gave gifts…Saint Nicholas gave in secret…and even we give gifts to the people we love in our lives.  But the call of God concerning giving goes far beyond Christmas presents.

My travels often take me to downtown areas in big cities.  Walking around the streets brings me face to face with many poor and homeless folks.  I suspect that each one of us has experienced that awkward moment as we tried to look the other way…making self-talk to justify why we shouldn’t give them any money:  “I am not a rich person.” “They will likely spend it on drugs and alcohol.” “They could get a job if they really wanted one.” “Everyone is asking me for money.” And so on, and so on…

I will share more of my own struggle with this issue later in this article.  But first, here are a couple of thoughts to ponder. As the Nativity Fast gets under way, Orthodox Christians will be hearing this passage from the Holy Gospel (9th Sunday of Luke):

The Gospel of Luke 12:16-21 – The Lord said this parable: “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” As he said these things, he cried out: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

At the suggestion of a dear friend and brother in Christ, I purchased a copy of St. Basil’s book, On Social Justice. Here’s a quote from a section of that book entitled:

“I Will Tear Down My Barns”…

How many precepts you ignore, since your ears are plugged with avarice! How much gratitude you ought to have shown to your Benefactor!

How joyful and radiant you ought to have been that you are not one of those who crowd in at others doors, but rather others are knocking at your door!

But now you lower your eyes and quicken your step, muttering hasty responses, lest anyone pry some small coin from your grasp.  You know how to say only one thing:

“I do not have, I cannot give, I myself am poor.”

You are poor indeed and bereft of all goodness: poor in love, poor in kindness, poor in faith towards God, poor in eternal hope.

Make your brothers and sisters sharers of your grain; give to the needy today what rots away tomorrow. Truly, this is the worst kind of avarice: not even to share perishable goods with those in need.   (Saint Basil, “On Social Justice”, p.68-69)

St. Basil’s description of someone lowering their eyes and making excuses has been accurate of me far too many times in those situations. Finally one day, another dear friend and brother in Christ taught me an incredible lesson.  He showed me how to put 20 one dollar bills in my pocket when leaving the hotel…just for those encounters.

It is easy to justify not giving to someone in need…I have failed more than I have succeeded.   It is a struggle…a warfare…that must be fought by each of us if we have any hope of overcoming our own selfishness and greed.  I can assure you that when I succeed in putting a dollar or two in the hands of someone in need, there is such a victory being proclaimed over my self-centered heart.

The Lord calls us to loosen the grip on our wealth and give to those in need.  He asks this of us, not to punish us, but to truly help us.  Like the rich man in the Gospel reading, we can easily be consumed by our self-centered greed and it becomes like chains around our souls…binding us and consuming us. The Lord wants to set us free from this bondage.

As we make our this journey, may we lift up our eyes and see those in need: those poor, those hungry, those in prison, those homeless, those suffering…and in seeing, may we all give from the abundance that God has already given us. For those of you who live and work in a city where you encounter the poor and needy every day, perhaps there is a local mission or downtown Church that would use your gifts to feed, clothe, and offer shelter to those very folks. OCPM (Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry) stands ready to assist with helping those in prison. Wherever and however we see the need…may the Lord strengthen us to share from what the Lord has provided us.

God bless you on your journey!!

“Lock’m up and Weld the Doors Shut”

Lock them up

Years ago, I gave a retreat at a wonderful church. The retreat focused on God’s amazing love for people in prison and how He touched different lives in miraculous ways drawing them to HImself.  I talked about things I had personally witnessed over my many years as a prison chaplain and how those men had begun to live lives of repentance following their Baptisms and Chrismations into the Orthodox Faith.

As I finished one of the sessions, I opened it up for questions or comments. An older gentleman stood up and shocked all of us with his words:

“I don’t believe a word of it. There is no forgiveness for those people in prison. They should be locked up and their doors welded shut!”

I responded to the man by asking him if he had any loved ones in prison and discussed how everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. It doesn’t matter how tarnished or covered with the mud that image and likeness becomes, they are still loved by God and they still have the opportunity to repent and become a child of God. The gentleman simply shook his head in disapproval and sat back down.

Over the years, I have heard similar statements many, many times. It seems there are many people that believe there is no forgiveness or hope of repentance for those in prison. To hold this view truly brings God down to the level of being simply a “super” human being that refuses to forgive and it misses the great love that God has for all of us, no matter how far we have strayed.

In my daily devotions, I came across this wonderful story this morning:

“In the time of the Emperor Maurice, there was a well-known bandit in the region around Constantinople. Both in the countryside and in the capital itself, he inspired fear and trembling. Then the Emperor himself sent him a Cross, as a pledge that he would not punish him if he gave himself up. The bandit took the Cross, and did indeed give himself up.

Arriving in Constantinople, he fell at the Emperor’s feet and begged his forgiveness. The Emperor kept his word, had mercy on him and let him go free. Immediately after that, the bandit fell gravely ill and sensed that death was near. He began to repent bitterly of all his sins, and implored God with tears to forgive him as the Emperor had. He shed many tears in his prayer, so the handkerchief with which he wiped them became soaked, and he died after ten days of prayerful weeping.

 The night of his death, the doctor who had been attending him had a strange vision in a dream: When the bandit on the bed breathed his last, a number of demons gathered round him, flourishing bits of paper on which his sins were written, and two glorious angels also appeared. A pair of scales was placed in the middle, and the demons gleefully put all the bits of paper on it, and their side of the scales was loaded while the other was empty. ‘What can we put in?’ the angels asked each other. ‘Let’s look for something good in his life.’ Then there appeared in the hand of one of the angels the handkerchief soaked with tears of repentance. The angels quickly placed it on their side of the scales, and it at once outweighed the other side with all its papers. Then the demons fled, howling in anguish, the angels took the man’s soul and carried it to Paradise, glorifying God’s love for mankind.” (The Prologue from Ochrid, by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovc, Lazarica Press, Birmingham, 1986, Volume 4, page 81, October 18th)

May we never confuse God’s willingness to forgive sins with our own unwillingness to forgive others who have sinned. God’s invitation to repent of sins extends to everyone…including those precious souls in prisons. Indeed, some of our greatest saints were once murders, robbers, prostitutes, and more. Let us do our part in reaching out with the love of Christ to those in prison.

Praying in the Difficult Times

 

3rd Sunday of Luke

Have you ever gone through (or presently going through) a really difficult time in your life? It could be injuries from an accident or the diagnosis of a horrible disease or a precious relationship suddenly gone from your life or… there are so many possible things that we would call “difficult!” In fact, is there anyone who has not experienced some difficult times in life?

This being true, then the question arises as to how do we spiritually handle such adversity in our lives? Obviously, on the physical side, we should seek medical assistance for injuries or diseases. This article concerns the spiritual side of things. One reaction is to shake an angry fist at God saying: “Why me God?” Another is to plead with God over and over again to take away the pain and bring healing.

The great Saint Paul had many such adversities in his life (check out 2 Corinthians 11:23-32 for a list). Yet, for Saint Paul there was one issue that stood out more than the others. He called it his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Here was a great man of God, whose prayers were continually answered, pleading with God to take this from him. After three times of begging God to remove it, he received this response: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). Ouch…that would not be the response that I would be looking for from God!

Often my own prayers can be very self-centered when I am going through a bad injury or sickness until I am reminded that His Grace is sufficient for me. I am currently in the middle of a difficult time in my own life as I heal up from the fractures suffered in an accident. My doctors did a great job in getting me back home, but I am still in a battle with pain. In my down time, I am rereading the book; Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac (published by the Holy Monastery “Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian”, 2012). Elder Paisios is now recognized as Saint Paisios. His life and teachings leave no doubt about this man of God being recognized as a Saint of our Faith.

There were two quotes that leaped off the pages and caused me to change my whole approach to my own difficult time. Saint Paisios was suffering from a hernia. Here is the statement he made at that time:

“I have a hernia but I don’t want an operation. Let me have something wrong with me. It’s a great thing to be sick, to suffer; and not pray about it, but to pray for others. God really listens when someone who’s suffering prays for other people to get better.” (Page 274) Note that he is not saying it is a great thing to be sick or suffer, rather that it is a great thing to pray for others and not ourselves when these things happen. Later on the hernia worsened and he did get the needed surgery, but at first he wanted to focus on praying for others.

Wow, that got my attention and that very night my wife and I prayed the Akathist Hymn “Glory to God for All Things” and then offered prayers for everyone we knew who was suffering (most of them from much more than a few fractured bones). The joy that filled my heart as we finished our prayers was simply amazing. My focus was off me and on to the needs of others. Since then my joy is in praying for others without praying for myself.

The second quote I ran into was also so very impactful:

“Elder Paisios was able to ignore his pain. ‘You do your job, and I’ll do mine,’ he would say to his sicknesses, and continue praying, doing manual labor, or seeing people. Though he was suffering himself, he comforted others who were suffering.” (Page 310)

“Ignore my own pain and comfort others” is a huge step for most folks, yet the rewards are great!! It may be the only way that we can truly come to understand the Lord’s words: “My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Here is the challenge for each of us in this week ahead; whether we are in good health or terrible health; whether we are suffering in some way or in a place of absolutely no suffering:

There is nothing wrong with praying for yourself, but what would happen if you focused your prayers on others and not yourself? If you would like to try it, then over the next 7 days do not pray for yourself. Pray only for others. If you forget and begin praying for yourself, just stop and immediately focus on praying for others. Also, find someone who is suffering to comfort either in person or by phone, email, or letter. May it be blessed for you and may you be a blessing for others!

Capital Punishment

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

By Fr. Stephen Powley

St. Stephen being stoned

“’An eye for an eye’ seems right to the point.  Why should there be any further discussion on the matter of the death penalty?  If they violated the law and the penalty called for is death, then that settles it.  Put them to death!!”   I recently heard that said by a person who also seems very committed to their faith.  My namesake, Saint Stephen, was believed to have broken the law and the penalty called for was death.  The Icon above shows him being stoned as recorded in Acts 7.  Wait a minute, that’s not a fair comparison!!  Welcome to the debate on the death penalty in our modern world.

Capital Punishment is certainly a very divisive issue facing both our society and our Church in this world we live in.  Both sides of this issue are very emotional…many in favor of the death penalty and many opposed.  Even within Orthodox Christianity there seems to be a great deal of division… both among the people and among the clergy. So much so, in fact, that very few groups have issued an official statement on the subject.  I suspect that even within a local church there would be divided opinions. Even on a personal basis, I confess that I have believed both sides at different times in my life. With that in mind, let us proceed to take a closer look at the subject and ask ourselves some very difficult questions.

“Hey, the Bible supports capital punishment and that’s good enough for me!”  Those are the very words I hear when discussing the matter with someone who is in favor of the death penalty.  So let us begin with the Holy Scriptures, specifically the Old Testament. Capital Punishment was clearly a part of the Israelite society. The very stoning of St. Stephen was justified by their use of the Holy Scriptures at that time (what we call the Old Testament today):  “Anyone who blasphemes the Name of the Lord must be put to death…the entire assembly is to stone him”  (Leviticus 24:14-23).

God commanded the Israelites to put people to death for a great variety of things (such as: offering their children as sacrifices, cursing their father or mother, committing adultery or various other sexual practices outside of normal marriage, and being a medium or spiritist).  Here are just a few verses found in Leviticus chapter 20:

“The Lord said to Moses, Say to the people of Israel: ‘Any man of the people of Israel, or any strangers that sojourn in Israel, who gives any of his children to Molech shall be put to death.’

 ‘For everyone who curses his father or mother shall be put to death.’

 ‘If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.’

 

‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.’

 ‘A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death.’”

The first tough question we have to answer is: “Does the fact that the death penalty was practiced under Old Testament Law make it a legitimate practice for today?”

The New Testament

Many would say that if it is in the Bible then it is okay.  It is vital that we hear the whole counsel of God from the Bible, before we reach any Scriptural conclusions. By that I mean, what does the New Testament have to say?  Consider these words of Jesus found in Matthew 5:18:

“For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

This verse, taken by itself, would seem to point us toward legitimizing the death penalty by virtue of the Law.  It is important that verses of Holy Scripture be looked at within their context. We will do that in a moment, but first let us examine another passage dealing with our Lord Jesus Christ. In the 8th Chapter of the Gospel of John, we find the story of the woman caught in adultery.

The scribes and Pharisees brought this woman to Jesus saying:

“Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?”

It would seem fairly obvious from the verses both in Leviticus and in Matthew that were already quoted, that Jesus’ hands would be tied in this matter. The woman committed adultery and therefore would have to be put to death.  But amazingly, Jesus tells those standing there:

“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

When they heard these words of Jesus, all of them left, until only the woman and Jesus were together. Still, the Law is the Law, and Jesus is the One without sin…so he had the responsibility to carry out the punishment; to follow His Own Law.  Instead, the following conversation takes place:

“Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”

It would seem that Jesus had failed to obey His Own Law. He admitted she had sinned, yet he did not carry out the mandate of His Law.  Did Jesus violate the Law?  Did he abolish the Law?  No, you say…but why not?  Here we have “God-Come-In-The-Flesh”, seeming to not obeying His own law, refusing to utilize the death penalty. What is the world is going on here.  The answer is alluded to in Matthew 5, taking that earlier quotation in context. Jesus says this:

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished…For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus came to fulfill the Law. The scribes and Pharisees were the religious zealots of the time. They strived to keep the Law at all times. Yet, Jesus calls us to a righteousness that exceeds theirs. The rest of Matthew 5 explains that righteousness:

“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil.” “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

As we come to understand Jesus’ higher understanding of the Law, we begin to realize that we all deserve the death penalty. That’s why Jesus invited the scribes and Pharisees, who were without sin, to cast the first stone.  All of us have sinned; none of us is worthy to cast that first stone. Jesus now calls us to a higher level…that of living under His Grace.  Thank God for the Grace that we have in our Lord Jesus Christ.

If the scribes and Pharisees were unable to carry out the death penalty after speaking with Jesus, and if Jesus, Himself, did not carry it out, I believe we are quite safe to say that the Old Testament Law does not require us to execute people today.  But even if this is true, our current life situation brings us to another dilemma:  Can we, in our personal lives, live under the Grace of God, but as a society revert back to the Old Testament Law?

The United States of America is not a Theocracy, as was Israel when the Law was given.  We are a democracy, with human beings for our President and other leaders.  Our laws are passed by people and enforced by people. So this brings us to today and our society.  Our laws, both Federal and many States, have reinstated Capital Punishment.  Those in favor of the death penalty often quote Romans 13:1-2 as a reason:

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”

If we say that capital punishment is justified because it is the law handed down by our government, then we should perhaps think about other governments that have issued laws in the past that justified the death penalty for certain “crimes” against humanity.  This could begin with Rome and the death penalty for those practicing Christianity and extend right up to recent history.  Can any right thinking person really believe that St. Paul had in mind supporting the death penalty for Christians because the governing authorities had passed that law?  Saul may have believed that, but not the converted Paul!

According to the media, the vast majority of people in our country are in favor of the death penalty.  Some people say it is a matter of money, thinking it is cheaper to kill someone rather than imprison them for life.  In actuality, the most conservative estimates say that it costs 10 times more money to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life.  California did a study that showed the death penalty system cost the taxpayers in that state around 137 million dollars per year whereas a system which imposed a maximum penalty of life time incarceration instead of the death penalty would cost them 11.5 million dollars per year.  There is absolutely no evidence that would support the death penalty using money as a reason.

Other Ethical Issues to Consider

Capital Punishment is much more than a money issue anyway.  It is an ethical issue on which most of Christianity has avoided taking a position. There are other ethical issues on which Christianity has taken strong opposition. Perhaps it would be helpful to look at two of those issues to see if any of our own arguments would apply to Capital Punishment:

  • Abortion: The vast majority of Christians oppose abortion. Orthodox Christians oppose it because it is the taking of a human life. The debates within the abortion issue are usually over the point at which life begins. We oppose abortion because we believe life begins at conception. Our conclusion is that abortion is murder. That baby is made in the image and likeness of God, even in its mother’s womb.  That being the case, when did we decide that that human being ceased to be someone made in the image and likeness of God?  How is it that we can draw an imaginary line that allows us to take any human life through the death penalty? We can talk about the innocence of the baby and the guilt of the convict, but if we cannot stand on the Old Testament Law, then what gives us the right to take a human life, someone clearly made in the image and likeness of God?

 

2)     Euthanasia: Proponents of euthanasia usually hold up the quality of life as the reason for killing an elderly or sick person.  Certainly the abortion arguments are relevant here as well.  But, the argument I have most often heard against euthanasia goes like this: “What gives anyone the right to play God by taking the life of an elderly or sick person?”  If this is the Christian argument against euthanasia, then what gives us the right to “play God” when it comes to the death penalty?  Playing God” means that we are in some measure taking responsibility for the eternal destination of another human being.  That may sound too strong, but if we kill another person we have immediately placed that person before the Judgment Seat of Christ.  Could it be that we have sentenced that person to eternal separation from God with no further opportunity to live a life of repentance?  Only God knows!

A Life of Repentance?

This brings us to another question that Orthodox Christians need to ask themselves: Is it possible for a murderer to repent and be forgiven by God?  Is it possible for that murderer to experience the Grace of God in their lives?  I know a man that took a gun and killed another man with a shot to the head. The death penalty could have been given, but it was not. Many years later, this man is still in prison. But, he is living a life of repentance as an Orthodox Christian, having committed his whole life to Christ. I believe he is a different person through the Grace of God.  He will stay in prison, paying his debt to society, but he certainly has different hopes for eternity.  By living, even in prison, he was given the opportunity to find forgiveness in the waters of Holy Baptism and to live a life of repentance with Christ Jesus as his Lord.  His story is repeated over and over again by others who deserved, but did not receive the death penalty.

Certainly, the early Christians of our Faith understood this concept.  Lactantius (260 to 330 AD) wrote in The Divine Institutes, Book 6, Chapter 20:

When God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits the violence that is condemned by public laws, but he also forbids the violence that is deemed lawful by men…Nor is it [lawful] to accuse anyone of a capital offense. It makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or by the sword.  It is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.  Therefore, regarding this precept of God there should be no exception at all.  Rather it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred creature.

There were many great men and women of God that deserved (by today’s standards) the death penalty early in their lives, yet went on to live holy lives later.  St. Moses of Ethiopia (4th Century) comes to mind. He was an evil person who not only stole, but even went so far as to commit murder. Later he became a great Christian leader as the abbot of his monastery and eventually became holy martyr for the Faith.  There are countless similar stories.

Although not directed toward the death penalty, this quote from St. Maximos the Confessor (7th Century) seems very appropriate:

“But men have given up weeping for their own sins and have taken judgment away from the Son. They themselves judge and condemn one another as if they were sinless. Heaven was amazed at this and earth shuddered, but men in their obduracy are not ashamed” (Third Century on Love, 54).

In closing, let us consider one last question: In light of all that we have examined, how can we, as the “bearers” of the Good News of Jesus Christ, not take a stand against Capital Punishment, if for no other reason than the possible salvation of the souls of those human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, who would be put to death?

  

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FROM EARLY CHRISTIANS

 “Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”

  • ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

 

  • “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

 

  •  “It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God. Let the man who is to serve you receive your donative. I am a soldier of Christ; it is not permissible for me to fight.” ~ Martin of Tours (315AD – 397AD)

 

  • “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
    ~ Athanasius of Alexandria (293AD – 373AD)

 

  • The Christian poor are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.” ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

 

  • “I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command.” ~ Tatian of Assyria (died around 185AD)

 

  • “The Christian does not hurt even his enemy.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “None of us offers resistance when he is seized, or avenges himself for your unjust violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful…it is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when we render no requital for injury…we repay your hatred with kindness.”
    ~ St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (died 258AD)

 

  • “We Christians are a peaceful race…for it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”
    ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

 

  • “Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.” ~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

 

  • “We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.” ~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

 

  • “For what war should we not be fit and eager, even though unequal in numbers, we who are so willing to be slaughtered—if, according to that discipline of ours, it was not more lawful to be slain than to slay?” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established… brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, and gladiator…give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.” ~ Hippolytus (170AD – 236AD)

 

  • “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • Christians “love all people, and are persecuted by all;…they are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and are respectful.” ~ Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (late 2nd Century)

 

  • “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors…It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
    ~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.

 

  • “Say to those that hate and curse you, You are our brothers!”

~ Theophilus of Antioch (died around 185AD)

 

  • “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “For the Gentiles, hearing from our mouth the words of God, are impressed by their beauty and greatness: then, learning that our works are not worthy of the things we say, they turn to railing, saying that it is some deceitful tale. For when they hear from us that God says: ‘No thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you; but thanks will be due to you, if ye love your enemies and those that hate you’—when they hear this, they are impressed by the overplus of goodness: but when they see that we do not love, not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, they laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed.”
    ~ The 2nd Epistle of Clement (140-160AD)

 

  • “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God…. They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies…. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.”
    ~ Aristides (written around 137AD)

 

  • “We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.”
    ~ Athenagoras (133AD – 190AD)

 

  • “Learn about the incorruptible King, and know his heroes who never inflict slaughter on the peoples.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “Christians appeal to those who wrong them and make them friendly to themselves; they are eager to do good to their enemies; they are mild and conciliatory.”

~ Aristides of Athens (2nd Century)

 

  • “I recognize no empire of this present age.” ~ Speratus (martyred 180AD)

 

  • “For when God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but he warns us against the commission of those beings which are esteemed lawful among men….Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all, but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.” ~ Lactantius, instructor of Constantine’s son (240AD – 320AD)

 

  • “Shall we carry a flag? It is a rival to Christ.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “I am a Christian. He who answers thus has declared everything at once—his country, profession, family; the believer belongs to no city on earth but to the heavenly Jerusalem.”
    ~ St. John Chrysostom (347AD – 407AD)

 

  • “If anyone be a soldier or in authority, let him be taught not to oppress or to kill or to rob, or to be angry or to rage and afflict anyone. But let those rations suffice him which are given to him. But if they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the [post of] authority, and if not let them not be received. Let a catechumen or a believer of the people, if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not let him be rejected. For he hath despised God by his thought, and leaving the things of the Spirit, he hath perfected himself in the flesh and hath treated the faith with contempt.”

~ The Testament of Our Lord (4th or 5th Century AD)

 

  • “We have become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”

~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

 

  • “If you enroll as one of God’s people, then heaven is your country and God your lawgiver.”
    ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

 

  • “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors. It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
    ~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.

 

  • “God called Abraham and commanded him to go out from the country where he was living. With this call God has roused us all, and now we have left the state. We have renounced all the things the world offers…. The gods of the nations are demons.”

~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

 

  • “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts—for there is no agreement between the divine sacrament and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters—God and Caesar…But how will a Christian engage in war (indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime) without the sword, which the Lord has taken away?” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

 

  • “This is the way of life: first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, secondly, thy neighbor as thyself: and all things whatsoever thou wouldest not should happen to thee, do not thou to another. The teaching of these words is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast on behalf of those who persecute you: for what thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy.”
    ~ The Didache, also known as The Teachings of the 12 Apostles, is an early Christian document written between 80AD – 90AD

 

PRAYER FOR SOMEONE CONDEMNED TO DEATH

 

O Most-merciful, All-gracious and Compassionate Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, Son of God:

 

Out of Your love for sinful men, You graciously condescended to accept condemnation, even unto death, to be crucified for the sake of our salvation, and on the Cross, to give up Your righteous Spirit into the hands of God the Father.

 

We entreat You, Most-gracious Master:  With Your compassion, look also on (Name), who has been condemned to death by the judgment of men.

 

Forgive his (her) mortal transgression; inspire in his (her) heart true repentance, that he (she) may, if even in this hour before death, also confess You, his (her) God and Savior, as once did the wise Thief, and be granted mercy from you.

 

Yea, O Long-suffering Lord of many mercies, condemn not by Your just judgment this condemned sinner, (Name); pardon him (her) his (her) transgressions; deliver him (her), by this penalty of death, from the eternal death prepared for unrepentant sinners, that he (she) may glorify You with all the sinners who have repented and been justified through You, for You alone are sinless and to You are due all glory, honor and worship, together with Your Most-holy and Life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

 

Amen.

Burning Questions on the Issue of Cremation – A follow-up to “A Scriptural Defense of Cremation”

The previous article, “A Scriptural Defense of Cremation”, stirred many excellent comments and questions. Since many of the same questions were asked many times, it seemed like a good idea to take a close look at them in response. The following questions are a compilation of the similar type questions:

Question 1 – What is wrong with cremation since God is all-powerful and could do anything He wants to do? You are limiting God! He could resurrect ashes just as easily as he could bones. What about people who die in fires or airplane crashes? Are you saying they can’t be saved because they were burned up?

Response 1 – I would absolutely agree that God is not limited. He can do whatever He thinks best. The issue is not about what God can do. The issue is about our choices. Clearly, people who are burned up in tragic accidents did not make that choice and our God is perfectly able to resurrect them. That is not the issue. With cremation, we are making a decision that is not found in the Bible or in the entire history of Christianity until the 20th century. How could it now be okay for Christians? “Everyone is doing it” is not an appropriate answer to that question unless we really want to open up “Pandora’s box” within Christianity.

Some people say that because God is able to resurrect ashes, He gives us permission to be cremated. This is a very flawed argument, especially since cremation is not supported by the Bible or historical Christianity in any way. It would be along the same lines as the argument St. Paul provides in Romans 5 and 6. He writes that “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more. What shall we say then? Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!” (Roman 5:20-6:2)

 

Again, the “doctrine” of cremation is not about what God can do. It is solely about our decision making. Who are we to decide that it is okay with God to burn up a human body? Remember that when God created human beings He said: “It is very good!” (Genesis 1:31) Remember that we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). Remember that if you are “in Christ,” your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and, in the next verse, we are told to “honor God with your body!” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)  Could deciding to burn up your body truly honor God?

God does have guidelines for us as to how we should live, worship, etc. These have been in place over the centuries. Historically, the Christian Church buried folks because of the belief in the bodily resurrection. The Old Testament has a passage entitled: The Valley of Dry Bones (note that it is not the “Valley of Ashes”). It is found in Ezekiel 37:1-14. Listen to these words from verses 4-6: “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!  Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”’” At the end of that passage, God even clarifies further in verses 13-14: “Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live!”

One final thought on why we bury the body and do not cremate it. Again, looking at the Bible, consider this from 1 Thessalonians 5:23:  “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ!”  It really is a package deal! The body is not some separate entity that we can simply burn up as a useless piece of garbage. It is important to God and it should be important to each of His children.

Question 2 – I don’t get it. If there is nothing left of your body after decay, why would it matter whether you are buried or cremated? After all, the disposal of a soulless, lifeless body has nothing to do with the Bible anyway.

Response 2 – I would totally disagree with that last statement. The Bible has to do with all of life and death. One cannot hold to a “doctrine” of cremation and simply ignore everything the Bible has to say about the human body in death. To call a human body that has died “soulless” is a total misunderstanding of the Bible and the Christian Faith that has been followed for almost 2000 years now.

There are many, many things we “don’t get” in the Christian Faith and that is actually a very good thing. When it comes to the body being buried, St. Paul explains some of this to us in 1 Corinthians 15. He compares our bodily burial to a seed (verses 36-38):  “But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body.” I love this comparison since I like planting flowers. If I look closely at a marigold seed and then plant it in the ground, what comes up looks absolutely nothing like that seed. St. Paul is saying that about our bodies. We have no idea what our glorified body will look like. That is truly something we “don’t get” in this amazing Faith.

St. Paul goes on to say (verses 42-44):  “So also is the resurrection of the dead. “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.  It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”  St. Paul finishes up with this amazing word for us (verse 52): “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”  Our body is sown; not ashes, but our body. Just like the seed, we will plant a natural body and we will receive a spiritual body. The body that is raised will be incorruptible. Again, this is way beyond our understanding.

Question 3 – But Father, it is cheaper to have the body cremated, so why shouldn’t we save our loved ones some money? I’m afraid financial considerations have become the single criterion for most of us and having a settled, faithful opinion about cremation isn’t even in our sights.

Response 3 – Please, please look into the price of a burial done without embalming and with a simple casket. Caskets can be ordered from many Orthodox Christian sources at a very low price compared to some of the expensive models out there. You will find that financial considerations will no longer be the driving force.

One of the reasons for writing the first article, “A Scriptural Defense of Cremation”, was that the non-Scriptural basis of cremation was not “in the sights” of far too many Christians. It is hoped that readers will understand that the Bible does not support cremation in any way whatsoever. Christians who tell me they do their best to live according to the Bible should be questioning where this doctrine of cremation crept into Christianity. It was never held by our Christian Faith until well into the 20th century. This also should raise concerns.

Lastly, Christians should never allow money to guide theology. Make no mistake about this issue being about theology. It has everything to do with our beliefs regarding who we are as Christians, what happens to us at death, and what takes place at the resurrection of the dead.