Note to Readers: My historical fiction novel Prester John and the Brigand King is once again available to read in full. Just click on the novel's title in the "Full Series" menu on the sidebar.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Hiatus

I'm on vacation this week, so I'm going to take a break from blogging and come back next Monday, 7/6. Throughout July on my Friday posts, I'll be writing some reflections on recent controversial issues from current events. By waiting a few weeks to actually think about what I'm going to say, I'll be upholding the happy tradition of this blog, which is to eschew "relevance" and the overriding interests of the moment in favor of seeking deeper substance in the end.

 (Painting: "Waiting Room," by Vincent Van Gogh, 1884, oil on canvas.)
 

Friday, June 26, 2015

How to Be Pro-Gun without Being a Heretic

A note to our fashion-minded friends in open-carry states: If you're wearing your favorite top hat and pink sash, don't forget that a giant rifle really rounds out the look to great effect.
Every so often, our country comes back to one of its perennial questions: should ordinary citizens be allowed to have weapons explicitly designed for the killing of other people? I won't get into the political arguments here, except to point out that pretty much the entire rest of the world thinks that we're nuts, and that we suffer unthinkably high rates of gun violence in contrast to every other developed country. But what I really want to do is offer my humble services to the many novice theologians of the pro-gun lobby, to help them argue their case without being either ridiculous or heretical, because, unfortunately, they often end up being both.

Despite the many Christian-sounding pronouncements from pro-gun folks, it may surprise you to learn that Jesus never owned a gun (though you can see a rather fetching portrait of him posing with one here). There are, however, a couple instances where Jesus talks about the choice weapons of his own day, swords. These verses often get raised in pro-gun theological arguments. For instance, in Matt. 10:34 he says, "Do not suppose I have come to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Even clearer is Luke 22:36, where he instructs his disciples, "if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." Unfortunately, in both of these instances the best interpretation probably ought to be metaphorical, not actual advisements of the Prince of Peace toward owning personal weaponry. Why ought they not to be taken literally? For the very simple hermeneutical principle that Scripture is best interpreted by Scripture. We have remarkably clear examples in the Gospels of Jesus' teachings that contradict a pro-gun argument about the use of personal weapons. For instance, in Matt. 5:39, he says, "I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also." Since this teaching is far less ambiguous than his opaque statement about "coming to bring a sword," we must be careful not to read the Matt. 10 passage as saying something Jesus clearly didn't intend. It's hard to imagine that he was speaking approvingly of using one's personal sword when the Matt. 5 passage seems to preclude any such action. Likewise, all four gospels record the story of the disciples' use of a sword in defense of Christ at his arrest, and his rebuke to them is startlingly clear. Thus, his advice to "buy a sword" (which in Luke occurs immediately before his rebuke for actually using a sword) ought probably to be interpreted as a metaphor for preparedness, not as a literal exhortation to wield weaponry.

The overall teaching of the apostolic age clearly seems to follow this trajectory, of conceiving of the ideal Christian response as "turning the other cheek" rather than an ethic of violent defense in the cause of justice. There are numerous instances in the book of Acts where Christians could have conceivably used force in defense of Peter or Paul, and yet they never did. In fact, Paul seems to directly eschew the idea of using weaponry: "The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world" (2 Cor. 10:4). So, unfortunately, the pro-gun theological argument that we ought to own guns in order to defend the cause of justice and protect our families actually rests on a staggering amount of silence from Holy Scripture. Instead, Scripture seems to teach clearly that it is the government that has been endowed by God with the use of force for the purpose of justice (Rom. 13). And our call to obey the established authorities is so clear in that passage that, if on some future day the US government requires all citizens to hand in their firearms for the sake of civic safety, Christians should probably be first in line to obey that directive.

So, pro-gun folks, it's probably in your best interest to leave the Bible out of it when you want to argue about your right to bear arms. Argue from the Bill of Rights, because your argument actually has a foundation there. But Scripture, when taken as a whole, seems clearly to point in the direction that Christians are to be agents of peace, not through the use of weapons of war, but through our prayers, love, and compassion. It doesn't say outright that you ought not to own a weapon (for instance, I don't think Jesus would be against his disciples owning a few hunting rifles), so I think there's still a possibility of being both pro-gun and Christian. But it's a position you should think about carefully.

(Painting, above: "Schützenbrüder," by Christian Heyden, 1939, oil on canvas)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Greatest Self-Help Book Ever Written

(Painting: "Marcus Aurelius Distributing Bread to the People," by Jean-Marie Vien, 1765, oil on canvas)

 My first impression of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was a negative one. He appeared in a list of emperors under whom the persecution of Christians had gone on. He was, in fact, the addressee of some of the most notable works of 2nd-century Christians (such as the First Apology of Justin Martyr), and yet he remained apparently unmoved by the social stigmas and occasional bouts of persecution which his Christian citizens had to bear.

But that first impression was only a secondhand account of the man. Meeting him again reinforced the importance of not judging a person merely by someone else's report of them. (This is a particularly important lesson for us as US citizens approaching an election year--too often we blithely accept the caricatures of candidates handed out to us by our favorite pundits, without actually doing any perusal of the candidate's own statements.)

It was a sunny day in Littleton, Colorado, and I had a few hours of free time between my studies, so I walked the path that traced around the old cemetery and then over to the public library. There I used to spend many a happy time browsing through their unending sale of used books, and picking out life-changing classics for the price of a quarter or two. One of those books was by Marcus Aurelius--his Meditations. I read it in the following weeks, and then read it again this year. It is, quite probably, the greatest "self-help" book of all time. It was written as a simple list of important moral points that Marcus himself wanted to remember, so it was, quite literally, self-help. And because of its informal style and outline structure, it also happens to be a good deal more accessible than most works of ancient philosophical wisdom.

 Marcus Aurelius himself is one of the very best historical candidates to measure up to Plato's great ideal: "the philosopher king." Marcus was Roman emperor in the century where it reached the pinnacle of its territorial powers, and he himself helped in stabilizing its northern frontier. He was also a noted amateur philosopher, being an outspoken proponent of the most popular philosophical option of the day, Stoicism. (Of the other prevalent options, Platonism had long been in decline, though it was shortly to enjoy a renaissance, Aristotelianism had always been a minority school, and Epicureanism was the object of tremendously bad PR). Like all the others, this school of philosophy had its roots in the great Athenian teachers of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. If the name "Stoicism" doesn't strike you as all that appealing right off the bat, take care not to be fooled by our modern connotations. The Stoics were "stoic" in some of their attitudes toward emotiveness, but this stance was well-rooted in a coherent metaphysical sense of the universe and directed toward that great goal of modern soul-searching: finding peace. They were not Vulcans (though I do love Vulcans dearly), rather, they were concerned with the one great goal of true philosophy: how to live life well; and they were convinced that much of our failure on that point comes about because of the silly way we let our emotions run our lives. And, speaking at least for myself, I find myself very much in agreement with them. Stoicism has a great deal it could teach us today.

Marcus Aurelius' wisdom is a balm for our hyperactive 21st century individualism. It reminds us to go slow, to accept the course of events as coming from nature and from God, and not to hold too tightly to those things we have no control over. Though he himself was an emperor and a noted thinker, he tells us that fame doesn't matter at all. When we consider our own smallness and lack of discernment, what does it matter if other small and undiscerning creatures think we're the best thing ever? Most helpfully for me, Marcus Aurelius counsels us, over and over again, not to worry about things we cannot change. Since I've studied under his tutelage, I've begun to see this human instinct everywhere--we tie up our emotions into things that are entirely beyond our reach: a stretch of bad weather, the performance of a sports team, the way that a local culture irks us, the behavior of other people toward us, etc. But the trouble is, spending our time moodily obsessing about such things does no one any good, and to find peace we have to release those things and move toward an acceptance of the world around us as it is.

I'll close this post by letting the philosopher king speak a few nuggets of wisdom for himself:

"Is violence done you? Do no violence to yourself, my soul!" (2:6)

"Though you were to live three thousand years, or three million, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives...The longest and the shortest thus come to the same....For the present is the only thing a man can lose." (2:14)

"Bear in mind also that every man lives only in the present, which is an indivisible point, and that all the rest of his life is either past or uncertain. Short then is the time which any man lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this is handed on by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who knew not even themselves, much less one who died long ago." (3:10)

"If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly...if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this." (3:12)

"Does another do me wrong? Let him look to it. The disposition was his and the activity was his." (5:25)

"Practice even the things you despair of accomplishing." (12:6) 

"Wherever a man can live, there he can also live well." (5:16)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Children of Futungo

Here's a poem I wrote about ten years ago, while serving in Angola. At the time, that country was just coming out of a bitter, decades-long civil war, with millions of active land mines still scattered around the fields and roadsides. But the joy of the children in my neighborhood of the city of Menongue--in a bairro called Futungo--provided a brilliant contrast to the hopelessness of the violence that had haunted their homes for so long.


How can you heal a land
Where hollow laughter has replaced the tears
That vanished long ago,
When the wells of sorrow ran dry?
How can you heal a land so deeply scarred,
So caught up in the race to survive
That charity has been forgotten?
I search for traces of hope,
For a peace that transcends
The fragile silence of the guns.
And then, one night, I found it—
I saw it in the darkness of a starlit street,
In the dust kicked up by the exuberant dance
Of young feet, feet that have never felt
The horrific blast of a hidden landmine.
These are the children of Futungo,
The promise, the joy, the hope of their land.
They smile and laugh; they shout their songs
Against the stillness of the night.
Their hands reach out in the warm embrace of friendship,
Hands fitted perfectly to meet with other hands,
Not with the cold and vicious metal of a gun.
The hollow desperation of the war-haunted soldiers
Is foreign to their hearts;
They know only that they are together,
That they are for each other,
And that they love being together.
And as I listened to their song, I looked up
And saw that the angels and whirling stars
Had added the thunderous sound of radiant joy
To this exultant harmony of peace.
These are the children of Futungo,
The promise, the joy, the hope of their land.

Photo of the Week

The Lord will surely comfort Zion
And will look with compassion on all her ruins;
He will make her deserts like Eden,
Her wastelands like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found in her,
Thanksgiving and the sound of singing.
          - Isaiah 51:3

Monday, June 22, 2015

Quote of the Week: John Greenleaf Whittier

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

- John Greenleaf Whittier, American Quaker poet of the 19th century, from his poem "The Brewing of Soma," later adapted by Garrett Horder into the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind."

Friday, June 19, 2015

Popes and Scriptures: The Quest for Infallibility

"Hi, there! See this chair I'm sitting in? That means I'm infallible right now!"


Pope Francis has just issued an encyclical about Christian responsibility toward the environment, including an exhortation that modern nation-states should be doing something about global warming. This is helpful because Pope Francis is infallible, and we could never bring ourselves to say the same about Al Gore. Unfortunately, most scientists agree that we've already done too little too late to significantly alter some of the most dire effects of global warming, but at least now we know for sure how wrong we've been. I myself was convinced of the evidence for man-made global warming long before the Roman pope chimed in (I call him the "Roman pope" because there's also an Alexandrian pope, though possibly less infallible). I know there are a few remaining evangelicals who suspect that global warming is a grand liberal hoax perpetrated to force nation-states into surrendering their authority to an anti-capitalist world regime, and I may deal with those worries in a future post. But, since I find myself in agreement with the saintly man in white, I'm going to write today not about the environment, but about the commonly-held premise among Roman Catholics that the pope, when speaking "ex cathedra," is infallible.

Ex cathedra is Latin for "from the chair," and it refers to the special chair on which a bishop would sit. (This is where we get the word cathedral from, i.e. a church in which the bishop had his chair.) It's a shorthand way of referring to the idea that a Roman Catholic pope is considered infallible when teaching a doctrine of faith or morals in his capacity as the shepherd of the Church. Incidentally, I also have a cathedra in my church, right up front behind the pulpit. However, since I'm not a bishop, I never sit in it, and therefore have no clue as to whether or not it confers powers of infallibility. (The smaller chair at its left hand, which I do sit in, evidently does not.)

I've been poking fun at this idea, but the fact of the matter is that I have tremendous respect for the Roman Catholic tradition. What we evangelicals may not realize is that almost all Christians (including us) hold to the idea that there is indeed an infallible office held by some human at some particular time. For instance, I rather suspect that my older brother Josh may be infallible, which is not the most endearing trait to have in an older brother. No, in all seriousness, it's not too hard to pick out the characters for who stands in the "infallible" office for us. For Roman Catholics, it's the pope (under certain conditions). For the Orthodox, it's the conference of bishops (under certain conditions). For Protestants, it's the authors of Scripture, at least in their office of writing the books of the Bible. When we say that Scripture is "infallible" (or, as some would have it, "inerrant"), that necessarily includes the belief in a human actor functioning in an infallible office through the work of the Holy Spirit. Not that far off from a pope, in a way.

The bottom line is this: we all believe that the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit to the Church is infallible. It is infallible because it comes from God himself. The only place we differ is on the primary medium of that infallible message. We evangelicals claim it is the Bible; Orthodox and Roman Catholics would add to that the traditions of doctrine which issued from ecumenical councils and the teaching office of the Roman pope, respectively. We can certainly debate on the reasons for why we might disagree regarding these mediums, but one thing we cannot do as evangelicals is  think Roman Catholics are being silly for believing that a fallible human person could ever fulfill an infallible office, because most evangelicals believe the exact same thing.

Speaking for myself, though, I think the quest for infallibility might be a trifle overrated. When I see the scope of Christian history, the beauty of its many forms and the stories of its long debates, it seems to me that the work of the Holy Spirit is a work that enters into the very center of our fallibility. It accepts our humanity. Even in the Bible itself, there is such a broad range of personality and perspective in the writings that an "infallible" teaching on any particular doctrine (at least outside of the main core of Christian belief) is usually a matter of disputable interpretation. But that's what strikes me as part of the beauty of the whole arrangement--the Holy Spirit is an infallible guide, but the Spirit works through fallible human people. So in order to make sure I'm getting the guidance I need, rather than shooting off into my own self-absorbed delusions about proper doctrine, I need to be in conversation with the whole Body of Christ throughout its entire history. I need to be listening, patiently and attentively, to what the Spirit seemed to be saying to the early church fathers, to the monks of the Dark Ages, to the Reformers and Counter-Reformers, to the unchanging Orthodox and the hyper-changing "emerging church," to liberal Christians and conservatives. Because by myself, I am fallible. But the Holy Spirit speaks to the Body of Christ, made up of many millions of fallible parts; and somehow, through all the noise and commotion of its disjointed parts, we find in the center of that story a sweet stream of God's unchanging truth.

(Painting, above: Pope Alexander VII sitting beside his papal tiara; image is part of the Vatican City papal artifacts collection.)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Mountaintop Experience (Literally)


(Photo, American Kestrel, from the US Fish and Wildlife Service; image is in the public domain)

This story took place on Haystack Mountain, which rises from the far side of Mapleton in Aroostook County, Maine. It’s not a difficult climb, but the rocky top affords one a beautiful, open view for miles around. While I was home for the summer following my sophomore semester at college, I had made it a habit to climb up there and pray every few weeks. I had recently felt some stirrings in my conscience, prodding me to share my faith in conversations with acquaintances or even strangers, the thought of which makes the introvert in me want to curl up and hide. But as I prayed there on top of Haystack, I made a deal with God. Knowing that even though Haystack had a climbing-trail that was well-known in the area, it wasn’t a frequent occurrence to find others on the mountain at the same time as oneself, I prayed, “OK, God, if you really want me to witness to someone, send them up here to the mountaintop, and I’ll talk to them.” It was only about ten minutes later that I caught sight of a group ascending the mountain, led by a young, tattooed man with gold rings through his nipples. They made it to the top, a family group of four, who had apparently climbed the mountain to drink beer, swear, and chop away at an old stump with their jackknives while diligently ignoring my presence. I knew what I should do, but I certainly didn't want to. Both my own personality and the solitary culture of northern Maine held me back. I was so uncomfortable that I was writhing inside, and for a full half-hour I couldn’t make myself go over to them. Then I prayed, still hoping to get out of it: “OK, God, if you really want me to go over and talk to them, you’re going to have to give me a kick in the butt to get moving. Send me a sign!” Now, one should not pray for signs for things that you don’t want to do, because when they come, it leaves you in a very awkward place unless you buckle down and obey. Immediately after I prayed that prayer, quite literally as I was opening my eyes, I saw a small, brightly-colored falcon drop out of the sky and make one full circle around the mountaintop. This was my sign, and I knew it the moment I saw it. It was absolutely clear. Let me back up a bit to explain: when I was younger, I loved birds. I practically memorized my field guide. But the bird I loved most of all was a small, brightly-colored falcon called the American Kestrel. I had never actually seen one, not even in Aroostook County, where they’re not uncommon, but I loved that falcon nonetheless. As a boy, whenever my brother and I would make up superhero identities for ourselves, I would be “The Kestrel.” That bird came to symbolize life, joy, and, most of all, adventure. And now, in the split second after I prayed for a sign to embark on a heart-pounding adventure of my own, I see my very first kestrel drop out of the heavens above me. Well, that was enough for me. I got the message, swallowed my fear, and walked over to the family. I talked with them for about half an hour, mostly with the middle-aged mother, who seemed most receptive, while the three men kept whittling away at their stump-project. There was no mountaintop conversion that day, but I think I was able to bring some encouragement into her day, and it left me riding high at the wonderful, daring reality of a life lived in obedience to God.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

How I Learned to Be a Dad


I remember you telling us bedtime stories--
Fanciful stories, with fairy-tale characters all mixed up together.
          We loved them.
You taught me how to whistle and snap my fingers.
When I decided to walk along the outside 
Of an upper-story balcony railing,
You ran across the yard like a crazy man
          And made me climb back to safety.
                     Thanks, Dad.

I remember you holding me down
While Mom poured noxious, agonizing medicine in my ears--
Parents being forced to inflict pain on their child.
But you did it faithfully,
          Because you loved me.
When I had my last ear surgery,
You brought me a stuffed animal snow leopard.
I thought I was too old for stuffed animals.
But I loved that snow leopard.
          And I still have it.
                    Thanks, Dad.

I remember going with you to prayer meetings,
And singing next you in the church choir.
But what I loved best of all
Was those times in church,
          Every now and then,
When the words of a hymn struck you so deeply
That you had to stop singing.
In those moments,
          I wanted a faith like yours.
                    Thanks, Dad.

I only remember one time
When you got in my face and raised your voice.
          I deserved it.
But what strikes me now is that I only remember that one time,
When I'm sure I deserved it many more.
And every now and then you came up to my room
And apologized
          If you thought you'd gone too far.
                    Thanks, Dad.

I remember when we got put together
In the same canoe for our Brigade trip.
I was glad I got you--
          Even when our canoe was sinking.
You got a job at my high school
When I was halfway through.
Not every kid would've been wild about that idea,
          But I loved it.
I think I liked you
Even when it wasn't cool
          To like one's parents.
                    Thanks, Dad.

I remember that you were proud of me,
But in such a humble way
That it taught me to be humble, too.
You encouraged my strengths--
Like letting me take long hours
On our lone family computer
          To write my juvenilia.
And every so often, you nudged me forward
In areas that needed a little work--
Like when you made me go to prom
After my friends showed up
          To kidnap me there.
                    Thanks, Dad.

When I went off to college, 
          You prayed for me.
Even when I went to serve
In some of the most dangerous places in the world,
I never heard a word of dissuasion from you.
And when our home pastor left for other fields,
You put me in the pulpit first,
          Before I'd ever preached a sermon.
                    Thanks, Dad.

The very first time you met my future wife--
On a weekend where you met many of my friends--
You told me that she, she specifically, was great.
I wasn't about to take romantic advice from my dad.
          But you were right.
Later, the first time I brought her up to meet the family,
You told me right away
That it was OK if I wanted to marry her.
That time, I knew you were right
          Even before you said it.
                    Thanks, Dad.

You treat my wife like a treasured daughter.
You treat my kids like just about the greatest thing in the world,
And again you're right--
          Because that's exactly what they are.
Now I'm a dad--a good dad, I think--
But as I sit here and remember,
I know how lucky I am:
In the school of fatherhood,
          I was apprenticed to a master.
                    Thanks, Dad.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Photo of the Week


 
I will heal their waywardness
And love them freely,
For my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
He will blossom like a lily.
          - Hosea 14:4-5a (NIV)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Quote of the Week: Helen Keller

"I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble."

(Undated photo from the Library of Congress' George Grantham Bain Collection)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Stand in Prayer: Claiming Your Identity

Growing up in a traditional evangelical church, one quickly learned that there was a normative posture for prayer: head bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped, usually while seated (though standing was OK during special group prayers where everyone stood). The outstandingly pious would take it one step further and lean forward in a sort of penitential crouch, elbows resting on knees. You could also kneel in prayer, but this wasn't commonly done--not even at bedtime, though that was the classic conception of the kneeling prayer. Only much later, when I visited Catholic and Anglican church services, did I witness the regular practice of kneeling prayer in action. This is a pose that shows penitence or reverence, the position of a sinner or of a commoner in the presence of a king. 

It came as something of a surprise when I learned that none of these prayer-postures were considered normal (or, in some cases, even appropriate) in the early church tradition. The early church fathers would look at the way we pray and say, "You're doing it all wrong!" It seems that most early Christians said their prayers standing. In the early descriptions we have of prayer, not even the head is bowed or the hands clasped--rather, the hands are stretched out to heaven and the head lifted up. Why would this be so? Well, the early church tradition (and contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy), though acknowledging that we are sinners, did not make quite as big a deal of our sinfulness as we in the Western tradition now do, and so a penitential pose is not the first thing that would occur to them. Rather, their emphasis was on the inherent dignity of the human person as "the image of God." Their belief in the dignity and authority of human beings was so full that they actually forbade kneeling in prayer for certain seasons of the year. 

I'm sometimes asked the question, "Why would God so ordain things such that prayer is necessary?" (Though it's not usually worded exactly that way.) This question assumes, of course, that intercessory prayer is necessary. I suppose some theological schools, such as hardline predestinarians, might make the case that prayer is not strictly necessary, except insofar as God has predestined it to be used as a means of accomplishing his will. But I'm going to take the assumption that intercessory prayer is expected of us, and that certain things happen when we pray that wouldn't happen if we didn't pray. (This seems to me the clearest interpretation of the New Testament's teaching on prayer.) So let's look at that question again--why would God do it this way? Couldn't he just do everything himself, and not rely on the frail and fallible habits of us humans?

Part of the answer to that question, I think, comes to us from this old tradition of standing in prayer. We are to stand in prayer because of our dignity as human beings, because we are "the image of God." This phrase, which derives from the very first chapter of holy Scripture, has a multi-layered meaning. But one of the primary meanings, as most scholarly commentaries on Genesis would tell you, is that man is designed to be God's viceroy on earth, the physical stamp of his own authority towards the created realm. It is clear within Genesis 1-2 that humans are in just such a position of authority vis-a-vis creation. The early church fathers expanded on this idea and argued that because we humans are the only created beings with one foot in the spiritual world and one in the material world (in contrast to both angels and animals), we are "a microcosm of all creation," and thus act as priests of the created order, representing spiritual things to the material world and material things to the spiritual world. It is our duty to take this world and lift it up in perpetual prayer before God, because this is quite simply the identity of all mankind--it is what we were made for. New Testament teachings on prayer also seem to bear out this idea of human authority. Christ himself tells us that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven. So when you go to prayer, pray as if you are the royal ambassador of the King of all creation--because that's what you really are. You bear the seal of divine royalty,  and when you fulfill your calling to represent the brokenness of this world in the heavenly courts, you are being more truly yourself than in any other act. So claim your royal dignity in Christ, and pray with authority and perseverance. God has given us this role not because he is complacent or undecided as to what to do in this world, but so that we may become what he has meant us to be.

(Painting above: "Breton Girl Praying," by Paul Gauguin, 1894, oil on canvas; image is in the public domain)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Learning Doctrine with Your Eyes (Also, the Color of Your Soul)

(Modern Russian version of a classic Byzantine-form icon, titled "The Resurrection")

 Within the last couple years, I've begun to study and appreciate Eastern Orthodox icons. I remember when I was first exposed to them, at a showing at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity during my freshman year of college. In that semester, I and my fellow students had been spending hours at the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, taking in some of the greatest works of Western European painting. I remember thinking that the Orthodox icons looked flat and stale in comparison. Figures were two-dimensional, faces were always full-on or three-quarters view (no profile), there was no sense of depth and no contrast of light and dark, and the backgrounds were all the same--weirdly golden. My next exposure to icons also came during my college years, when I visited a Greek Orthodox church in Buffalo. Although a very kind and knowledgeable Sunday School teacher explained the meaning and use of icons to us, it was still a little too far beyond what I had known before for it to strike me as anything but strange. Orthodox worshipers would interact with the icons as if they were people--pausing to pray before them, even kissing them on the lips.

But in my seminary years, I began to study Eastern Orthodox theology itself, and that's where my appreciation of icons really began. You see, icons aren't simply paintings. They are specially designed to be portrayals of spiritual realities--of a particular saint, or of a particular doctrine. If you ever hear an art historian tell you that the art of Eastern Christianity ceased developing in the 15th century, feel free to disregard them, because they doesn't quite know what they're talking about. The forms of iconography are relatively static for a very good reason: they are depictions of Orthodox theology. And in Orthodox theology (unlike in Western art), individual creativity is not a virtue. Rather, faithfulness to what has been handed down to us is the primary virtue. Icons are not created to hang in art galleries, they are created to be sacred objects for use in prayer, either in churches or private homes. Even the process of designing an icon is different than creating a Western painting--the iconographer is a special sort of person, seen as the recipient of a spiritual gift, and his work is done prayerfully, as an exercise of devotion. After an icon is completed and blessed for use, it is regarded as a "window to heaven," as an actual incarnation of the spiritual reality it depicts. Orthodox theologians argue fiercely that iconography is a central expression of our belief in Christ's incarnation--that the ultimate reality, the being of God himself, has become accessible to us through matter, through flesh and blood. And in the church's sacraments, as well as in icons, those spiritual realities are actually really present with us here and now, not distantly removed in some vaulted heaven. This is why they are referred to as "icons" not "paintings"--"icon" is the very same Greek word used in the New Testament to say that Jesus is "the image of the invisible God." So if you ever get the privilege to go to an Orthodox church, and see the galleries of icons around you, understand that this is intended to show us that heaven is present with us in this place. When we worship, we worship in the company of saints and angels around the throne of God. 

Let's use this icon of the Resurrection (above) to go through some of the important stylistic points to know. This form is the classic depiction of the Resurrection within Orthodoxy. It does not seek to show an imaginative portrayal of the historical event, as Western paintings do, but to communicate to us the meaning of the dogma of the Resurrection. First, the words: the Cyrillic letters at the top spell out "he anastasis," that is, "The Resurrection." The "IC" and "XC" with lines on top are abbreviations of a sacred name, in this case, "Jesus" and "Christ." 

Now look at the golden sky. This is perhaps the most common element in icons, and it shows the heavenly nature of this reality. You'll also notice two jagged sets of stone rising behind the scene; this is typical iconographic topography, and here it seems to represent the rent-open cave of Christ's tomb. 

The radiant blue shell-like structure is commonly seen with Christ in icons of the Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension. It helps show us the divine nature of the human soul shot through with the uncreated light of God's own being, displayed openly in these revelatory events. This blue circle is a less-commonly-seen convention of the halo, but around Christ it is sometimes a whole-body affair. (Incidentally, there are several stories about the greatest Orthodox mystics having visions about the nature of one's soul in the highest levels of theosis; it turns out that the color they report is a brilliant shade of blue. So if you've ever wondered what the color of your soul was, there you have it.)

You'll also notice that there are a whole bunch of people around Jesus. In most portrayals, these are the Old Testament saints that he is liberating from Hades. John the Baptist is always there, usually accompanied by kings, patriarchs, and prophets. The two people Christ is lifting up by their wrists are Adam and Eve, being brought out of their tombs. The black void under his feet, and the bound man, are representations of Hades, and the boards and random pieces of links and keys floating in that void show the shattered pieces of the gates of Hell, which Christ has just smashed down. This puts into pictorial form the great liturgical proclamation of the ancient church: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."

So, the next time you see an icon, don't get stuck paying too much attention to the artistic details that we would normally look for in paintings. Because it's not primarily a piece of art, it's visual theology. Pause and study the meaning behind the form, and let it lead you into prayer.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Blackbird and the Praying Saint

Here's a poem I wrote this week about the legend of St. Kevin and the blackbird. I stumbled across this story for the first time a few days ago, and since I am a lover of birds, solitary prayer, and ancient Celtic Christianity, it took hold of my imagination. Saint Kevin (Coemgen in Irish) was a historical figure of the 6th century, noted especially for his relationships with animals and his work as a monastic founder in the area of Glendalough. (Incidentally, while I was working on my poem, I discovered that this legend was also the subject of a much more famous poem, by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. It's definitely worth a read.)


The Blackbird and the Praying Saint
 

Before he came to Glendalough,

Before his bed of stone gave rest,

Saint Kevin was a Cornwall monk,

And learned from Saint Petroc the bless’d.



Some men are fashioned for the crowd,

For hearty smiles and time with friends;

But Kevin, no, not one of these:

His were the mountains and the glens.



The company of saints and monks

Would be his calling and his kin;

But in his heart he longed to be

Among the wilds and the wind.



And so he took much time alone

Amid the hours in abbey walls,

To play the hermit on the hill,

Where skylark soars and blackbird calls.



One Lententide he prayed up there,

All by himself, but not alone;

For with him all creation prayed

Where river ran and sunlight shone.



He prayed with mind and with his mouth,

His heart confessed its sinful dross;

And with his body too he prayed,

His arms outstretched in holy cross.



Then on his palm he felt the touch

Of tiny feet and tiny claws;

He saw a blackbird roosting there,

And in its beak a clutch of straws.



It fashioned in his outstretched hand

A nest for raising up its chicks;

And there it settled, all at peace,

Within its bowl of straw and sticks.



Saint Kevin held the nest aloft

In sacred rev’rence of its load;

And he with bird, in patience prayed

Above the monastery road.



The eggs were laid, and still he stood

Like Moses o’er the battle fray,

And angels were his Aaron, Hur,

Upholding arms stretched out to pray.



Day after day he stood there, still,

While eggs were hatched inside the nest;

And chicks were fledged, and stood, and flew,

Before Saint Kevin earned his rest.



The legend says he stood in prayer

‘Til mother bird had gone her way;

Her nest had stood on his sure branch

All through that Lent, to Easter day.



Sometimes in life we are the bird,

And need a place of peace to rest;

So fly unto the holy cross,

And there alone construct your nest.



The cross will hold you, it is sure,

For it is fixed in God’s great love;

And at the cross you are upheld

By Christ himself, who reigns above.



And sometimes too we are the saint,

Called to stand and wait in prayer;

So be the blessing this world needs,

Be Saint Kevin, if you dare:



Your prayers, your love, can be the tool

To grant your neighbors peace from strife;

So persevere in loving prayer,

And bring the blessing through to life.