Category Archives: Uncategorized

Can You Hear the Beauty of Nature?

If you’re wondering what you can do or should think about the environment, then what follows is for you. In fact, every teen and young adult should pause on a regular basis – look up from their phones – and appreciate the glory and majesty of creation which is all around us.

While we live in a world with amazing gadgets, less diseases, bigger houses, fancier cars and the latest handheld devices, we are also surrounded by wondrous flowers, trees, mountains, lakes, streams, birds, animals and the beauty of God’s creation.

I have to ask – are you as connected to God’s wonders as you are to your devices?

Being so connected to our devices comes at a cost, because the world around us – and the environment in particular – is changing now, dramatically, and quickly all around us. we can all take part in  caring for the beauty of God’s creation, but where do we start?

A professor and mentor from my days in seminary used to say, “Listening is love in action.” I have returned to this phrase many times over the years for a variety of topics and situations, but I think listening is also important when we consider what God’s creation has to say to us.

What should we listen to?

In preparation for September 1, the annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation as established by His All-Holiness, Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople in 1989, here are a few suggestions:

Listen to the Scriptures

Genesis begins with the story of creation – God’s creation of the earth – make a list of the verses which speak directly to creation and our place within it. Read them with an open mind, on your knees, and ponder them in your heart. Don’t think of the act of creation as God’s gift to us to use however we see fit. The earth is not here for us to subdue, abuse or misuse. Remember, John the Evangelist tells us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…”

Jesus Christ came for the salvation of all creation – to restore all of it to that full communion and beauty as it was in the beginning. The Book of the Psalms celebrates the beauty of God’s creation and reminds us that His works are wonderful, boundless, and intended to be good – shouldn’t we see nature in that same Light?

Listen to the Life of Christ

Jesus Christ – the second person of the Holy Trinity – entered creation, became part of it, and through it, saved us and entirety of the cosmos.

We not only proclaim, as part of our Gospel, that God became Man, but we also say that in doing so he took on the atoms, the water, the soil, and the stuff of earth which comprise the physical body. And after He took on our sins, was crucified and died, He destroyed death – resurrecting His earthly body and restored and transformed all of creation.

He then enthroned all this (and us) after His Ascension. There is no greater honour God can give the cosmos than to enthrone it in Himself. Think of what that means – God loves the cosmos so much, that he died so He could restore everything, so that we could be like Him in caring for those around us and the very planet we live on, so that we may walk in newness of life and one day, eternal life with Him.

Listen to the Saints

Read what the fathers and mothers of the church say about the Christian life, read their lives to understand how they saw the love of God in all things. Have you seen the icon of St. Seraphim with a bear? Or of St. Herman of Alaska taming the winds of the sea? These examples are not some exception to the rule, but should inspire us to think about how we can experience the love of God flowing throughout the cosmos.

Listen to the Indigenous Peoples

As Orthodox Christians on this continent, we have the unique heritage of the native peoples of Alaska who adopted Orthodox Christianity from St. Herman and those early missionaries who arrived in 1794. The Aleuts, Tlinkit, Athabascan, Yupik and other Alaskan peoples have relied on the world around them for centuries to provide sustenance, shelter and their basic needs.

When the native peoples of Alaska were baptized and Chrismated, they understood more fully, the wonders of God’s creation – they already understood the value of taking only what they needed, sharing with their neighbors, but now they learned the value of thanking God for the gifts they received – appreciating what they had received as gifts provided by Our Lord.

We can learn quite a bit from these ancient people who don’t rely on limitless supplies of fast food and electricity, but live modestly and with an appreciation for the world around them. Their intimate knowledge of the natural world can also teach us to recognize how the earth is changing around us now.

Listen to the Scientists

There are some who say that science is at odds with the teachings of the church. Yet, just as we must read the scriptures and seek to grow closer to God, we must listen to the knowledge and experience of the scientists and climatologists to truly understand the earth’s complex ecosystems and how we are affecting them.

These people have devoted both their personal and professional lives to understanding the earth and how humanity’s limitless consumption and abuse of creation is accelerating transitions and creating extreme conditions. They deserve our respect, and most of all deserve our attention. Listening to them is not easy, but is necessary, because doing so will help us understand the true gravity of how we are changing our earthly home.

Listen to the Earth

The first time I realized that God had something to say to me, I was 12 years old and hiking in the Kananaskis region of the Rocky Mountains to the west of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. My family and I had spent a long weekend trekking to a remote lake high in the alpine, reached only by a steep shale traverse up a mountain pass. The pass presented itself only at the end of an already long day of hiking, and climbing it seemed to take forever.

When the trail levelled, however, and the view opened, my eyes widened at the sight waiting for us. An alpine meadow stretched as far as I could see, flanked by two snowy peaks, and crammed with red paintbrushes, purple crocuses, blue forget-me-nots, pink moss casinos, white Wedgeleaf, yellow varileaf, fuchsia and shooting stars. These wildflowers were bright with the sun under a wide blue sky and swooning this way and that in the haphazard breezes from the slopes.

I had seen such beauty before, but what I had stumbled into as a dorky pre-teen boy was indeed a new planet, not a different one, but this planet seen through eyes of wonder and awe. Thomas Treherne claims that, “if we would see this world as the angels do, we would be ravished and enraptured as the angels are.”

Those who have ‘ears to hear’ will discover the beauty, wonder, joy, and life-giving nature of the God which our earth, and the whole creation, proclaims in myriad ways all the time – and more consistently than we do, to be honest.

Indeed, the natural world is radiant, even symphonic, with the revelation of the living and loving God. And all this revelation is calling us continuously back to communion with God in and through the natural world.

Listening and Living … and Doing!

As Orthodox Christians, we need to live the way God intends, freely and responsibly.  It means picking up  a piece of trash, or recycling whenever possible.  We can honor the presence of God in the flowers and animals.  ‘We can live very well upon the earth,’ as the Akathist to God proclaims.  We can begin to uphold the love which God displays for the earth in our own lives and personal witness.  Each of us will do so uniquely, but we are each capable of it.

Knowing this and taking this journey requires listening – to God, and seeing His creation through His eyes, as wonderful, beautiful, holy and sacred.

In the words of the fourth century Christian father, St. John Chrysostom, “Creation is not evil. It is both good and a pattern of God’s wisdom, power and love of mankind…. It leads us to knowledge of God (and) makes us know the Master better.” And as St. Isaac the Syrian says, God brought the world into existence in love, and it is in love that God is going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state.

May we hear the beauty of nature all around us, and on September 1, give thanks to God for the wonders of nature all around us, to Him be glory, dominion, honor and majesty unto ages of ages. Amen.

================

Fr John (Kaleeg) Hainsworth lives in Vancouver, BC and can usually be found exploring the sacredness of nature. His book “An Altar in the Wilderness” is available for purchase here: http://www.rmbooks.com/book_details.php?isbn_upc=9781771600361

ProjectoMexico-1Young adults from St. Paul’s Church in Las Vegas, Nevada recently returned from a week-long house building mission at Project Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico.

For some, this was a return visit while others were traveling south of the border for the first time.

But for each of the 19 team members, the visit provided them with an opportunity to draw closer to God by helping those less fortunate.

Let’s hear from three participants about their experiences this year:


While I was at Project Mexico this year I made it a goal to journal my everyday experiences / encounters. And I wanted to share this particular experience that I wrote about on one of my journal entries.

On the last day of our time at Project Mexico, I reflected about the first morning service of Project Mexico, I felt like I was being cleansed. Something about the service felt like a breath of fresh air.

Maybe it was the different prayers that made me listen and pay more attention, but all I know is on that first day, I immediately knew that my soul needed this. And while I was following along with the lovely service, I was joined by God’s presence.

On my first day of being in Mexico, I was able to find God so easily. It was truly beautiful, I felt at peace. And this experience made me wonder how I found God in a third world country so much easier than I did when I was back home in the States. I always thought it would be the complete opposite.

And after a week of being here, I’m pretty sure I’ve come to the answer. Something about the quietness here due to the lack of technology and all the distractions we are so accustomed to, makes it easier to find God.

ProjectoMexico-5I remember reading bible verses about how it is in the stillness and silence where God is found. So it makes sense! But then I also realized that this quietness that is a big part of Project Mexico almost left me feeling a bit vulnerable those first couple days of the week.

Because not only I, but most of the youth here are so used to using noise to distract themselves from the quiet. So much so that it led us to almost in a way fear it, by avoiding it. In the silence is also where our own troubling thoughts come in, and also temptations from demons because they know that in the quiet God is found.

They do their best to keep you away from the silence. So many people feel vulnerable and uncomfortable in the silence. But I learned that barrier could be crossed.

At first keeping quiet and meditating on God’s words was hard, especially for a talker like me! I was tempted with troubling thoughts but I continued in that silence. And by staying silent through the temptations I found myself, once again in God’s presence.

Because of this experience in Project Mexico, I learned that one must be vulnerable before they can become strong. One of the many things that makes Mexico amazing is the effect it has on your spiritual life.

Being here points out your weaknesses and true self which allows you to change and become strong. And all this is achieved by doing the work of God.
– Lidya Abraham


“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in… Then the righteous will answer him ”˜Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink, when did we see you a starved and invite you in?.. The King will reply ”˜Truly I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
– Matthew 25:35-40

ProjectoMexico-3Wow.
I wish I could put into words how magnificent Project Mexico actually was. Building a home for a beautiful and humble family of 8 was honestly a life-changing experience.

There is truly an unexplainable feeling you get whenever you do the work of God, and Project Mexico is that feeling in a nutshell. This year was my second year at Project Mexico, and it definitely will not be my last.

I would recommend it to anyone any age or size. What other opportunity do you have to build a home straight from scratch in 4 days for a family in need?
– Ivy Tesfay


Project Mexico, in itself, is not only a non-profit organization but a long lasting experience. This summer I had the pleasure of returning to Tijuana and continuing my Orthodox basic training for a second year.

ProjectoMexico-4Like many others, I felt a rush of depression and attachment to the city when forced to leave. These feelings derive from the immense love I felt towards the orphanage, the family I had built the house for, the interns, and lastly feeling God’s presence within each and every one of us.

We were fulfilling His work and spreading His words by simply building this house and serving those who are living impoverished lives.

Not only that, but I was surrounded by people who share a common faith and with this my faith grew stronger. I learned how to consistently maintain my daily prayers by attending the morning and evening prayer services. I also learned how to humble myself and once again serve others.

These are basic humane qualities that so many people deny here in the States.

As a citizen of a first world country, I too was once subject to this denial. By living a materialistic life, I was in a way ignoring my purpose as an Orthodox Christian.

One could say, I found my purpose at Project Mexico. It’s almost as if I found the light at the end of the tunnel and am no longer subject to darkness.
– Eden Tesfay


Share your memories of Project Mexico in the comments section below!

Learn how you can help Project Mexico or to be on a mission team at Project Mexico by visiting their website.

Except Through Prayer and Fasting

EXCEPT THROUGH PRAYER AND FASTING
An early lesson for the (so-called) “other authors”

Fr Richard Flom

Before Peter, James and John were apostles, and long before Peter or John ever composed their epistles, these men were the closest three disciples to our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry also contains several passages of critical and formative lessons for these soon-to-be apostles, preachers, and evangelists. One such lesson is found in Matthew 17:14-21

In the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, have come down from the mountain top where Jesus was transfigured before them. When they had came to where the other disciples and a crowd were gathered, a man came up to Jesus, knelt before him, and said: “Lord, have mercy on my son for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly…. I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.”

jesushealsAfter Jesus had cast out the demon and the crowd had dispersed, the disciples asked Jesus: “Why could we not cast it out?”

This question arises from their past experience of healing the sick and casting out demons at the instruction of Jesus recorded in Luke 9:1, “Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.”

Upon their return to Jesus, recorded in Matthew 10:17, they were excited! They proclaimed: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”

If the disciples had previously cast out demons in the name of Jesus, why could they not cast out this demon?

Jesus explained to the disciples that because they had not spiritually prepared and strengthened themselves by prayer and fasting, they could not cast out this demon (MT 17: 21).

Prayer and fasting are two of the basic spiritual tools necessary for our Christian way of life. Prayer and fasting are necessary for us to overcome the demons in our own lives ””our passions.

What is prayer? As lungs are our body’s breath; prayer is our soul’s breath. We cannot have life, if we have no lungs; we cannot have spiritual life, if we have no prayer.

Prayer is a continuous appeal of our heart in the presence of God. It is willingly being humble before God, willingly opening our heart to Him, willingly laying our life in His hands and recognizing Him as Lord of our life and of our death ””to have complete, total trust in Him as our Lord, Master and Savior.

Prayer is not bringing before God a “laundry”list of wants, wishes and desires. Many saints have prayerhandswritten that these types of prayers are in fact themselves sin.

The Church fathers and saints have identified many tools to aid us in our growth in prayer. These tools include: the services of the Church, including Vespers, Matins, the Divine Liturgy; an Orthodox Prayer Book and the Psalter; recitation of the Jesus Prayer or short memorized prayers from the Psalms while using a prayer rope; as well as the reading and study of Holy Scripture, especially the Gospels and the Psalms.

What is fasting? Is fasting only the avoidance of animal products, dairy products, fish, wine and oil (olive) on those days the Church prescribes fasting? The saints write that if we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself. Fasting isto be adenial of self-indulgence, an abstinence from sin.

f we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself.

“…if we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself.”

“Scripture does not forbid anything which God has given us for our use; but it condemns immoderation and thoughtless behavior”(St. Maximos the Confessor, Philokalia). Fasting is to struggle against our passions in order to control our unreasonable biological desires and instincts. It is abstaining from the attractions and distractions of this world ””yes, even from our smartphones, computers, TVs and the many other forms of entertainment, etc.

By the tool of fasting, we become more transparent and more receptive in our communication with God; we become freed from a particular passion, whether it be greed, gluttony, lust, pride, etc.

Neither prayer nor fasting are an end in themselves. They are only a means of reaching out to God Who is our Life and our goal.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said: ”[…] prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices … do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although … they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, [they are only the] means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.”

Our goal is God himself! Prayer and fasting are merely tools to assist us in achieving our goal.

JesusTemptedintheDesertIconPrayer and fasting are hard work; they require much effort and diligence.   But modern Christianity all too often does not consist of struggle, hard work and diligent effort. Rather, it teaches an easy, feel-good, cheap religiosity of recent creation. It is a belief in a salvation without struggle or sacrifice; a salvation without holiness or righteousness. It is a belief that one can be secular all week, except the time allotted for church on Sunday morning. It is a belief in an easy “cheap”grace without any cost.

Sergius Nilus, in 1831, wrote the following introduction to a book of the notes of a meeting between Nicholas Motovilov and Saint Seraphim: “people have forgotten the fundamental truths of Christian life and are immersed in the darkness of materialism or the exterior and routine performance of ”˜ascetic labors…’”””in secularism and false spirituality.

This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, nor the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church. Nor is this your personal life experience. You have not succeeded or excelled at anything without hard work, effort and struggle. If you are an athlete, you did not reach your level of excellence, without considerable and diligent effort and work. If you are a professional, you did not reach your level of expertise without much diligent effort and work. So too is the Orthodox Way of Life ””the way of Him who is Life, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Orthodox Christian way of life is a continuous struggle toward His righteousness and His holiness! Therefore, as St. Paul wrote (Eph. 5.17): “Do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”But, (Col .3.1-5) “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. […] Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…”

Bothers and sister in Christ Jesus, the Scriptures and Holy Fathers tell us that we are to “be holy, [because He is] holy”(Lev 11: 45; 1 Pet 1.16).

prayfasthandsThe spiritual tools to aid us in growth unto His holiness and righteousness are prayer and fasting. There is no communion with God without prayer; there is no over-coming of our passions without fasting ””not just from certain foods but from our uncontrolled passions ””our demons.

St. Theophan the Recluse wrote that “Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are the demons.” The demons, our passions, are cast out only by prayer and fasting.
Therefore, be strong in the Lord and pray without ceasing and fast.

O God, empty me of self, and make Thine abode in me! Amen.

AFTER YOU BELIEVE: Instructions from 1 Peter

AFTER YOU BELIEVE: Instructions from 1 Peter

By Fr. Dustin M. Lyon

In hearing the Gospels, many of you will have noticed that Jesus was known to have walked around asking, “Who do people say I am?” He got many different answers to this question, including some strange ones. The best answer he got was from his disciple Peter, who said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). However good this answer is, a question still remains: what does it mean to be the Son of God?ST PETER

There are a few ways to answer that question. Jesus tells St. Peter that for him to be the Son of God means that he is the Savior, and he must undergo crucifixion on a cross, but in three days God will raise him from the dead (Matthew 16:21).  Jesus goes on to say that we should follow in these same footsteps (16:24).  St. Paul says the same thing in his letter to the Philippians. There, St. Paul tells us we should have the same mind of Christ, who humbled himself to die on a cross – that is, we should be willing to also put aside our pride in order to follow God, even if it’s hard for us to do that (Philippians 2:5-11).

Now that we have an image of Christ dying on the cross, what can we say about the gospel message? I believe we can say a few things. Firstly, this was a voluntary act. God did not force Jesus to die on the cross; and because it was a voluntary act, we can say that it was an act of love. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus, and Jesus so loved the world that he was willing to die for our sins. We can also say that this act of love, this death on the cross, and this resurrection from the dead, is an event in history that is so earth shattering that everything changes. It means that it is now possible for anyone, no matter what your background, to join the people of God and receive all the blessings that this entails.

cross_followHaving established this foundation, we can now turn to the First Epistle of St. Peter.  Many scholars believe that this epistle was originally a homily given at a baptism service. Because it was probably written in the 1st century, it is most likely that those who were baptized were adults. It is also to these ”˜newly illumined’ adults that St. Peter was writing. This makes sense if you consider that a large part of this epistle is about how to live life after baptism (chapters 3, 4, and 5).

St. Peter opens his epistle proclaiming that the good news is that Jesus Christ has regenerated us to a living hope through the resurrection (1:3). Through this hope, God has given us a promise, that through Christ we have an inheritance that is incorrupt, undefiled, and unfading (1:4). However, this promise will come to pass at the end of time – it’s yet to happen. In the meantime we must endure trials, which may lead to suffering (1:7). Though this won’t be fun, we should try to understand our suffering as a test, and if we pass this test – if we endure – then it will be to the glory of God (1:9). In other words, it will make us stronger and lead us closer to God. It will be an aid to our salvation.

Here’s where an understanding of Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection comes in. It helps answer the question: how, exactly, does God call us to endure suffering? He calls us to endure suffering in the same manner that Jesus endured suffering. Jesus went to the cross willingly, out of love. We too should confront our suffering -whatever it is – with love (1:23). But it’s much more than that. It’s not just a way to confront suffering, but it’s also a model for our entire life. In everything we do we are to remember how Christ acted as a servant out of love for others. Our approach in dealing with others should also be out of our love for them. St. Peter gives many different examples in his epistle: wives, husbands, slaves, masters, presbyters (priests), people under authority, etc.

The key to all of this is that Christ’s suffering was earth shattering. His resurrection from the dead starts a transformation of the world, though it won’t be complete until the end of time. Through our baptism, we participate in this earth shattering moment; and because we have now “put on Christ” – as we sing at baptisms – we are united to Christ and become the people of God. This is why the cross becomes a model for our lives. Though it may be tough to live up to these standards, we are called, nonetheless, to try.

A royal priesthood; a chosen nation (1 Peter 2:9)

A royal priesthood; a chosen nation (1 Peter 2:9)

As Christians we are the people of God, and we should be honored. St. Peter says we are, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for a possession” (2:9). In short, when we practice being the people of God – dealing with others out of love – then they will know that we are Christians. In this way, we are to be a light in the darkness. We extend God’s love of the world into the world. In return, God continues to look after us, and take care of us. St. Peter ends his epistle very beautifully; he reminds us of the great love God has for us, “ And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (5:10).

 

We Shall See Him

“We Shall See Him”
Harrison Russin

Having moved recently to North Carolina, it was time for me to get a North Carolina driver’s license. It was an arduous process; finally, on my third trip to the license center, I had all the appropriate paperwork. Only one obstacle remained: the vision test.

I have terrible vision. I’ve worn glasses since I was in kindergarten, but with glasses my vision is perfect. So I easily glided through the first part of the vision test:

C G H D     E J F K     L P D R             

Got that.    Then, the road signs:

Road-Signs-Vol-3-Keep-right-no-text1

 

Easy. Keep right.

uturn

 

 

Got this. No U-turns.    Next:

rrnotext
Uh. So where are the words?

I have seen it before, hundreds of times. But I had no idea what it meant.  And again:

schoolnotext

 

These darn yellow signs.

In North Carolina, like many other states, you’re expected to know these signs just by their shape, regardless of the words.

This got me thinking about how I look at things. I was expected to be recognize these signs by their shapes; their meanings lay not in the X, not in the RR. The color and shape gave dim figurations of meaning.

More than half of our New Testament is attributed to the Apostle Paul, an apostle who never really “saw” Jesus in the way the other apostles did: in the flesh. Yet when we read the accounts of those who actually did sojourn with Our Lord on this earth, I don’t get the impression of the road sign; “5 feet, 5 inches, dark hair, blue eyes.” We don’t have much to go on about what Jesus actually looked like.

Reading the epistles of John the Theologian, I realize how important seeing is for him.  But it’s not seeing in the sense of physical description. It’s seeing in the sense of icons. With those road signs, the mere shape and color designates the meaning. In John’s writings, the fact that Jesus is both God and man gives us the color and shape. But he never fills in the interior: “hairy arms, bushy eyebrows…”

Our eyes, actually, tend to lead us in the wrong direction. “[E]verything there is in the world””disordered bodily desires, disordered desires of the eyes, pride in possession””is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world, with all its disordered desires, is passing away.” (1 John 2:16-17, New Jerusalem Bible).

We can see, though, with clear eyes, whtransfigen we recognize God’s work in this world. “You must see what great love the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God’s children””which is what we are!” (1 John 3:1) And coming to know God””coming to read his signs, and be able to see him without seeing the interior of the sign””means seeing him: “We are well aware that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is.” (1 John 3:2)

St John makes the point again: “No one has ever seen God, but as long as we love each other, God remains in us and his love comes to its perfection in us.” (1 John 4:12) Effectively, I think, St John is painting an icon here. St John, so often covering his eyes in the depiction of the Transfiguration, and so often covering his mouth in his own icon.

stjohn

And yet, through his words, he gives us an icon of what he saw. But St John did not see “flesh and bones,” he did not need to look into the interior of that sign; he gives us its meaning.

So why is St John, the beloved disciple, an eyewitness of the Lord, the last to write an account of the gospel, so reticent to show us a movie? A play-by-play of Jesus’ life? Why is he so cryptic and allusive, chiastic and literary in his structure and so intent on claiming his own vision of the Lord?

Or, posed another way: if Saint John the theologian had had an iPhone, would he have used it? Videos provide such reassuring visual proof and sedulous veracity to the facts. We’re obsessed with them now””the typical consumer can now purchase a dash cam for his car to support his side in any accident; YouTube nets about $1.5 billion dollars a year, and we all know how much we love watching crazy but true events caught on camera.

xcsuperstarSo why doesn’t St John give us a video? Why is he so evasive and elusive? Sometimes we just want a movie, like Jesus Christ Superstar.  Or Mel Gibson, or Franco Zeffirelli, or Pier Paolo Pasolini, or Martin Scorcese? Jesus obviously makes good fodder for Hollywood, but St John’s language and narrative is more poetic and literary than filmic and life-like.

In the end, St John leaves us with a seemingly scattered, impressionistic view. He’s painting an icon and not filming with his iPhone.  Our “disordered desires of the eyes” want that assurance, the knowledge of how Jesus appeared on this earth. But the reality is that St John never saw Jesus Christ as God while on this earth. After Jesus dies and is risen””after Jesus reveals the power and mercy of God””St John can see Jesus as God; and then those interior signifiers, like his face and diet and manner of speech, become insignificant. “We shall see him as he really is.” St John can’t really give us more information than that, because when we get there, we’ll look just like him.

Of Word and Of Deed: ‘Working’ through the Epistle of James

Of Word and of Deed:
‘Working’ through the Epistle of James

Dn Jason Ketz

0104james-lordsbrother10After reading through the Epistle of James a few times, I found myself struck with a number of questions. The questions formed roughly as follows:

1)      What is this strange obsession with faith versus works? What triggered this lengthy discourse?
2)      How does St James then transition from emphasizing deeds to discussing words
3)      By the way, where is Jesus in this whole letter???

The last question eventually became such a distraction for me that I may as well work through it now.  Jesus is mentioned by name only twice in the epistle: in the opening verse, by way of introducing the author “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1), and again at 2:1, “my brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  Paul wrote his epistles without heavy recitation of or reliance on themes from the life of Christ, but Paul certainly factored Christ into his teachings, his theological framework, his doxologies. And of course, the theological significance Paul placed on Jesus’ death on the cross is unmistakable.

James does not go nearly so far. In fact, it has been suggested that the epistle could function as a Jewish text if these two verses were removed. Perhaps that is so, but Christians have long been willing to identify Christian themes in texts (like the entire Old Testament) which lack explicit references to Jesus of Nazareth. Further, although James’ epistle is nearly as light on theistic references as the Book of Esther, this simple reasoning by word-count masks the fact that this epistle has a thoroughly ”˜New Testament’ character. Several Gospel themes, including a few from Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, factor heavily into this epistle, as do a number of Old (and New) Testament teachings and values. And a great deal of the logical argument seems to complement (or contrast) a very Pauline perspective on faith.

Finally, it deserves mention that this document is ostensibly a letter to an audience.  One does not write this way to strangers, so some common ground (and common belief) between author and audience is to be expected. So what, then, should we make of the absence of reference to Christ?  Ultimately, there is no cause for concern.  James felt no need to define his belief, but merely to confess it succinctly. And in fact the whole focus of the epistle seems to shift away from this topic of abstract theology. Therefore, we should not linger.

St James at the Council of Jerusalem

St James at the Council of Jerusalem

On faith versus works, James leaves us with a great deal more opportunity for exploration.  The veracity and length of the epistle’s position on this topic is stunning.  The basic argument is that authentic faith (in Christ) does not exist when the faithful person’s life is devoid of good works.  “But someone will say ”˜you have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (2:18).  James’ extended position on this topic seems to put him in conflict with Paul’s epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, and perhaps with the epistle to the Hebrews (which contains the repeated phrase “by faith…”), but this assessment is too simplistic.  Certainly, there is tension, but it is the tension of two ideas which occupy opposite ends of the same scale; opposite sides of the same coin.  In fact, neither Paul nor James proposes that faith or works can exist independently.  Paul is willing to go so far as to say that faith can be expressed without specifically predefined works (ie, the Law of Moses), but neither would propose that a Christian can be such without acting in a certain manner, with respect to God, one’s self, and one’s neighbor.  Unfortunately, any deeper dive into the discussion comes at the risk faithworksof importing the Luther / Catholic debates of sola fide into these ancient and timeless epistles that together form the harmonious cornerstone of our faith.  That is not to say the matter cannot be parsed, only that it takes a great deal of energy and time.  Time that, in fact, neither apostle felt the need to spend on the topic. James was concerned about his community’s behavior – the human expression of faith.  And he calls them””and us!””out on some truly insidious behavior, not the least of which is glossing over people’s physical needs in order to preach faith in Christ.  “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ”˜Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:15-17).  How many times have we been anything except generous with our possessions? What drives that behavior, and how can we be so comfortable returning to Church the following week?  In fact, with this passage, St James also provides the answer to a distracting verse in Christ’s sermon on the mount, from the Gospel of Matthew:  “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow … if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” (Mt 6:28-30). In fact, as the apostle James understands it, it is now our responsibility to provide for others, in God’s name.

"Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire! And the tongue is a fire." (Jas 3:5-6)

“Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire! And the tongue is a fire.” (James 3:5-6)

Halfway through the epistle, St James makes a transition from talking about various actions to discussing the spoken word. He discusses the dangers of a loose tongue, of sloppy teaching or hypocrisy amongst teachers, about the incompatibility of prayer and praise with profane speech, alludes to proper versus improper prayer,  and chastises for planning our future as if we have control over, well, anything.  The transition feels odd in some respects, because speech (and clearly constructed ”˜speech-like’ thought patterns are usually categorized separately from more physical ”˜actions.’  Our pre-communion prayer parses sins into those “of word and of deed.”  But this distinction is ultimately foreign to the apostle James.  Rather, in the context of this epistle, speech is unquestionably a form of action – a work.  Therefore, improper speech (boasting, cursing, ”˜bitter ambition and selfish hearts’) constitutes bad works, indicative of flawed or dead faith, while proper speech and speech-centered behavior (ie, gratitude, humility, patience as regards the future, repentance and lamentation) testifies to a true faith in Christ.  So at once the faithful are expected to feed others whenever possible, and we are also expected to pray””fervently!””for our own needs. Both are the acts of a Christian.

Many epistles focus on Christian behavior – this idea is hardly unique in the New Testament epistles. However, the Epistle of James expands on the salvific impact of our attitudes and actions in a positive, thorough manner which finds no equal in the New Testament.  And lest we depart from this survey thinking that the apostle James is heavy on the practical advice but light on theological insight, we can close with a passage from his epistle which is already familiar to us from the

"The Ossuary of St James"  - a first century Hebrew ossuary with a hotly debated inscription denoting the resting place of James...the brother of Jesus

“The Ossuary of St James” – a first century Hebrew ossuary with a hotly debated inscription denoting the resting place of James … the brother of Jesus

concluding prayer of the Divine Liturgy: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures (Jas 1:17-18).