Monday, November 30, 2015

Quote of the Week

"Good speech is silver but silence is pure gold."

- Ephrem the Syrian, 4th century church father, as quoted in the anonymous spiritual classic  The Way of a Pilgrim

Monday, November 23, 2015


(Painting: "Waiting," by Edgar Degas, c.1882, pastel on paper)

It's a vacation week for me, so I'm taking a short break from the heady airs of the blogosphere. Posts will resume next week, Nov. 30.

Friday, November 20, 2015

On Grandpa Dourte's Passing

(Painting: "A Funeral," by Anna Ancher, 1891, oil on canvas)

Tomorrow I'm gathering with the extended family of my in-laws to celebrate the life and mourn the passing of my wife's grandfather. He was a believer in Christ all his years, sprung from a family of devout Christians, a pastor in work and a disciple in life, who, together with his wife, was a jewel in the crown of the Brethren in Christ. 

His passing, along with his wife's earlier this year, deserves a mention amid the rambling stream of this blog's reflections. I didn't know him or his wife long enough to be the fittest person to pen tributes, and I'm sure there will be tributes aplenty, from much more qualified people than I, at the funeral. But even though I only knew them towards the end, these two faithful servants of Christ stand as two of the most important people in my life. Why? Because of the way they shaped and blessed and prayed for my wife. If not for them, my wife would not be the woman she is today, and I would be a lesser man for it. She has been both inspiration and anchor for me, a teacher in the ways of Christlike empathy and a courageous fellow traveler in difficult times. Most of the character traits that I adore in her, and have benefited from, I can see in the lives of her parents and grandparents, and so it is to them that I am indebted. 

In the middle of the Ten Commandments (though often excluded from the nice little numbered lists we make for our Sunday School classes) is this verse: "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Ex. 20:5b). Often the first reaction people have to this verse is an offended sense of justice--"How is it fair to punish children for the sins of their fathers?" (On closer assessment, though, I think we would agree that this verse is a fit description of how the consequences of sinful lives do have negative effects that ripple down through their families for generations.) The negative part of this verse isn't really the main point, however, and it certainly isn't the most astonishing part. We can wrap our heads around the timescale of three or four generations, but take a moment to think about a thousand generations. If we assign a length of 25 years to a generation (conservative compared to the biblical figure of 40 years), it would take, naturally, 25,000 years to exhaust the scope of this verse's promise. Abraham himself, living 4,000 years ago, is only 160 generations back from us. In essence, God pledges his favor forever to those who follow his ways. The vast inequality between the scope of God's punishment and the scope of his favor is the main point of this verse. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

I include these reflections on this verse because I've often felt humbled and grateful by the family situation in which I find myself. In the case of both my family and my wife's family, we can claim to be among those "thousand generations," blessed not on our own merit, but because our grandfathers and grandmothers, our ancestors stretching back as far as memory will allow, were faithful lovers of Jesus Christ their Lord. My wife's grandfather was a man whom I am proud to call my family, and I know that now, even in his absence, I am blessed because of the way he loved his God and because of the way God loved him.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 13

                                                                                                                         © Matthew Burden, 2001
(See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters) 

Thomas clenched his teeth as his blade clashed with the brigand’s heavy broadsword.  The other man cursed and lashed back, swinging his sword like a battle-ax.  The light of furious hatred glowed in the Saxon’s eyes, his lip curved in a bitter sneer.
“Die, Norman dog!” he spat, bringing his sword down hard against Thomas’ breastplate.
The knight had been attempting to wheel his horse around and was caught off guard by the quick blow, ripping the breath out of his lungs.  He felt the cold steel bite into his flesh, and he cried out, falling from his horse to the hard earth.  His body screamed out against him, waves of dizzying agony spreading across his vision.
He struggled to his feet as fast as his body would allow, sword raised for another salvo of blows.  His training rushed back to him in an instant, calculating every advantage, every possibility.  Fighting a man on horseback was not a promising scenario, but he had little choice in the matter.  The other knights had been drawn away, all engaged against the remaining two brigands.  His assailant backed off for a moment, glancing aside to see how his companions fared.  In that same instant, both of the other brigands were cut down, the Normans’ advantage of numbers winning out.
He swore again and charged at Thomas.  Thomas held his shield ready to meet the blow, his sword waiting to return the gesture.  But, in an unexpected move, the Saxon smiled cruelly and rode past his shield, bringing his boot up to meet the knight’s chin.  Thomas crumpled unconscious at the blow, and the Saxon’s arm shot out to grip his own.  The brigand hauled his prisoner into position behind him, then set off into the woods before the remainder of the knights realized what had happened to their captain.
~ ~ ~
The boat rocked slightly from side to side as they set out from the little dock, turning to wave at Frederick before continuing on.  Hannah gripped the gunwales tightly at first, unaccustomed to traveling by boat.  The river was fairly low, but not rough, so it carried them along quickly toward Newcastle.  Raymond was kneeling in the stern, his hand on the long rudder-pole.  Edward sat in the middle, his hands ready on the oars in case they were needed.  But the river was gentle enough, and the sky clear.  The journey, it seemed, would prove to be uneventful.  Nevertheless, they kept a keen eye on both banks of the river, hoping that they would slip undetected past both the brigands and the watchful Templar knights.
As they rode along, Edward’s mind wandered back to the conversation he had had with Hannah.  They had not spoken since, and it was obvious that the discussion was still troubling her.  
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Raymond interrupted his thoughts.
“Yes,” Edward replied absently.  “Yes, it certainly is.”
The knight smiled.  “I can’t wait to get home,” he confessed.  “All this conflict becomes tiresome after a while.”
“I know what you mean.  I have always been a man of peace myself.”
“Oh?  You’ve never fought?”
He shook his head.  “I’ve often felt I needed to fight to survive, but—no, I never did.  Not since I left my father’s house, anyway.  It seemed to me that the life of Christ was one of peace.”
“What have you been doing, then?  Have you always been a missionary?”
“No,” he tilted his head, leaning back to study the sky.  “No, I was a monk for a few years.  At Lindisfarne.”
Raymond smiled and nodded.  “I have often felt like becoming a monk, but…well, I would not be able to do the things I do now.”
Edward raised a questioning eyebrow, so Raymond continued.
“First, I had my wife.  After she died, I would have considered joining the brethren, except for the fact that I had to look after Felice, my daughter.  And then I began to care for the parish’s orphans.  If I was a monk, I would not be able to serve God the way I do now.”
That’s rather why I left, too," said Edward. "Some men are called to a life of prayer alone, but my vocation was something different--to speak the grace of the Gospel to the least of Christ's little ones, and to help them walk in his ways.”
“It appears we are brothers of the same heart, Edward.  Were it not for Felice, I may have long since taken up holy orders and left to preach the Gospel in some other place.”  He sighed.  “I’m not complaining, mind you. I love Felice dearly, and have never regretted an instant I spent with her.  But now she is nearly grown.”
Edward smiled, watching the love in the older man’s face.  He did not understand, and perhaps he never would, these feelings of love for one's own child.  He had seen the same love in his father’s eyes once, and he had felt its warmth, but he did not know it for himself.
“Well,” Raymond shrugged, “I must confess, the only things I know of Melrose come from the battles years ago.  What are things like there?”
“It's a fine town. It’s built to serve the abbey there, so for the most part it’s quiet and orderly.  It’s very peaceful, and the people are open and warm, and above all stubborn. But they are wonderful people, especially my young friend, Malcolm, and his wife.  He’s the leader of the local warband, but he has a great heart when it comes down to things that matter.”
Raymond nodded.  “I would like to meet him sometime.  Perhaps when this whole affair is ended, we will have time for all of that.”
Edward nodded, turning to gaze back over the rippling waters.  “When this is ended, I think my life will never be the same again.”  He sighed, turning to look over at Raymond.  Though he had only known the knight for one day, he already sensed he had found a man he could confide in.  “My heart is breaking for my brother,” he said.  “He has no idea of the true consequences of what he does.”
“There are old wounds between you?”
“Old wounds, now open and raw once again.  I only hope I can find it in myself to forgive him.  So far I’ve failed miserably on that count.  I can’t seem to discipline myself to hold my tongue.”
“I will offer a prayer for you and your brother when next I pray the hours," said Raymond.
“Thank you.  I think you must be an answer to my own prayer.  How I have needed a true brother beside me to strengthen me in these days.”
~ ~ ~
Thomas bit hard into the grimy rag that bound his mouth, hoping to tear it apart.  The Saxon was standing quietly by a tree, watching him with amusement.
“Leave it, Captain,” the brigand spoke mockingly.  “If you keep it up, I would derive too much pleasure in slaying you.”
Thomas tried to curse him, but the gag forced the oath out as an incomprehensible snarl.
“Now, now,” he laughed coldly.  “If you’re lucky and your men are wise, you may live to see a few more years yet.  But,” he stalked over, delivering a savage blow at the knight’s face, “if you don’t cooperate with me, I will spare no time in killing you.  Do you understand?”
Thomas stared back at him with fire in his eyes.  The Saxon shook his head and turned away.  Thomas tried once again to stretch his fingers and reach the knots that bound his wrists, but it was to no avail.  He laid back quietly, his eyes studying his captor, hoping for some window of opportunity to escape.
~ ~ ~
Hannah jerked back and shook Edward’s shoulder.  After a moment, he looked up with a smile, which immediately faded away upon seeing the distress in her face.  He followed her gaze toward the north bank, where a group of riders was moving quickly over the terrain towards the city.
He drew in a quick breath as he recognized the heavily-built forms of his brother’s men.  There were only three of them, and no sign of Alfred, but he knew it was best not to take chances.  “Quick, get down,” he hissed to the other two.  The three companions quietly lowered their bodies into the belly of the little boat so that no one could be seen occupying the craft.
Nevertheless, only a moment went by before a shout went up from the shore.  
“Is there anyone in it?” one voice called over the steady drumming of the hoofs.
“I can’t see,” another responded.
“Wait,” said the first voice as the hoofbeats slowed.  “I have a…” the words were lost to Edward’s ears as the rushing river drew them away from where the riders had halted.  He raised himself up to a point where he could glance back over the stern of the ship, his eyes scanning the shoreline with Raymond’s. 
         Within a few seconds, though, the brigands appeared behind them, riding hard again.  The lead rider had a longbow in his on hand, his other on the reins.  But notched against the string was a long arrow, its tip wrapped in an oil-drenched cloth, already blazing bright with flame.  Raymond took hold of the rudder and tried to steer the little boat near to the far shore.
Hannah leaned forward, whispering into Edward's ear.  “There are three of us.  Maybe we could fight them off.”
“They have bows, Hannah.  We’d be dead before the boat hit shore.”
She frowned and slumped back into the curve of the boat.  “What’s to stop them from raining arrows down on us anyway?”
He risked peeking over the edge one more time.  He could see that the motion of the boat away from them had forced them to realize their situation, and they were riding along quickly, trying to come to a good vantage point from which to fire the first of their flaming projectiles.
The river rushed around a bend, coming up on a large bluff that hung out over the water’s edge.  Edward shook his head when he saw this.  The riders would reach it first, and they would take advantage of it.  He could now see two of the flames burning as they rode along, and he knew it would not be long before he would have to ward them off.
Thinking quickly, he stripped off his outer robe, holding it at ready.  If he could hold off the first two arrows, the brigands would have to halt their chase to be able to light new ones.  
He kept a close watch on the riders as they approached the bluff.  He watched them slow to a stop as they reached it, the column of dust behind them whisked away by the wind.  Raymond was sitting upright now, his eyes flashing back and forth between the riders and the river, his hand fastened firmly to the rudder-stick. 
The first arrow was released from its bowstring with a snap, a thin trail of smoke following its downward course.  It fell too short by several yards, immediately doused by the current as it landed with a hiss.  
As the second shot came, Edward could see that it was more on target than its predecessor was.  Holding out his cloak as a net, he stood off the side.  As soon as the arrow hit the thin fabric of his cloak, it erupted into flame.  Without thinking twice, he heaved it over the side of the boat, where it floated for a second, then sank beneath the rippling waves.
Edward glanced at Hannah, who smiled nervously, her eyes going back to the riders again.  He followed her gaze, and saw the two archers stringing normal arrows on, still riding slowly, keeping within sight of the boat. 
Hannah lowered herself back down as the first two arrows whizzed over their heads, splashing into the water on the opposite side.  Edward hunched down as far as he could and began working the oars, adding whatever extra speed was possible to the little boat.
“Pray, Hannah,” he said as he grunted against the weight of the water.  
He kept a close watch on the riders, but was encouraged to see that the boat was slowly leaving them behind.  Every so often he had to yell a word of warning for Raymond to duck.  Once he had to leap out of the way himself, and very nearly capsized the boat as the arrow buried itself into the tough wood.
It was not long, though, before the brigands vanished around a bend in the river.  They kept up the same rigorous pace for the better part of the afternoon, but saw no more of their pursuers.  As the sun was setting hours later, the shimmering hearth-lights of Newcastle began to come into view in the distance.
Hannah breathed a sigh of relief.  “How much farther is it now, Raymond?”
The knight tilted his head, analyzing the distance.  “We’ll disembark in a few minutes, I suppose.  Then we’ll have to walk a ways to my farm, but we should reach it before midnight sets in.”
“Good,” Edward replied, his eyes fixed on the city.  “I am well ready to bid this river goodbye.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Family of the Friend of God

Here's a prayer in response to the recent terrorist attacks in France. The imagery is derived from Genesis 16:12 and Romans 11:17-24.

The Family of the Friend of God

Heal, O Lord,
        The shattered family
                Of Thy servant Abraham.
Let Isaac come home,
        A natural branch restored
                To the tree of covenant-love.
May his perseverant faith,
        Forged through centuries of fire, awake
                To its long-expected, long-offered fulfillment.
Let Ishmael come home,
        Raising his hand no longer
                Against the nations of the world.
May his hostility,
        Prophesied from of old,
                Be transfigured into solidarity.
And may he too, a broken limb,
        Be gently grafted back
                Onto his father’s spreading tree,
So that all the offspring
        Of the friend of God
                Together may confess
That there is one Lord,
        One faith, one baptism,
                One God and Father of us all.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Photo of the Week

Who are these that fly along like clouds,
    like doves to their nests?

Surely the islands look to me;
    in the lead are the ships of Tarshish,
bringing your children from afar,
    with their silver and gold,
to the honor of the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has endowed you with splendor.

                       - Isaiah 60:8-9

Monday, November 16, 2015

Quote of the Week

"Virtue only comes to a character which has been thoroughly schooled and trained and brought to a pitch of perfection by unremitting practice. We are born for it, but not with it."

- Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Letter XC

(Image: "Virtudes," by Rafael, 16th cent.)

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Meaning of Salvation

(This is a reblog of a piece I put up several years ago--one of my most important posts, especially if you've never experienced Christian theology outside of a Western frame of thinking.)

Over the past couple years I've been reading a fair dose of the early church fathers' writings, as well as a few secondary sources on their theology. Specifically, my reading has included Athanasius, Augustine, John Cassian, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory the Great, Ephrem the Syrian, Maximus the Confessor, Irenaeus of Lyons, Basil of Caesarea, Origen, Pseudo-Macarius, Aphrahat the Persian, and Eusebius of Caesarea. I take the time to list them merely to point out that most of my readings have focused on the eastern end of the early Christian world. (Only two of my sources--Augustine and Gregory the Great--fall securely in the western tradition. Two others fall somewhere in the middle: John Cassian lived and worked in the West, but his thought was derived almost entirely from the eastern desert fathers, and Irenaeus of Lyons, though also in the West, grew up in the East and developed a theology that was carried on largely by the eastern tradition).

In the midst of this reading, what I discovered from the East was a theological milieu that developed and flourished with some very different points of emphasis than the western-Christian theology that I was familiar with. And those differences struck down to the very root of the Gospel. I grew up with the normal evangelical-Protestant understanding of salvation: humans are sinful, including me, and my sins have separated me from the all-holy God; those sins need to be paid for somehow, or else I'll be damned to spend eternity in hell; and so, because of his love for me, and to save me from hell, Jesus paid the price for my sins; now that my sins are atoned for, I can be accepted by God and spend eternity in heaven. That's overly simplistic, of course, but that's the gist of it.

But the Eastern Fathers had quite a different way of looking at salvation. They didn't seem to talk about sin as much as good evangelicals do. In fact, although they acknowledged sin as a problem, they didn't seem to talk about it as the root problem. And they had a different sense of the goal of salvation--although they would acknowledge the fact that whether an individual spends eternity in heaven or hell was part of the answer, their solution was more all-encompassing. And while they focused on the cross of Christ, they also made a much bigger deal over other aspects of Christ's life--the fact of the Incarnation itself, the Resurrection, and the Ascension--each one integral in their theology of salvation.

I'll try to trace out the basics of the Eastern Fathers' view of salvation, now largely carried on by the theology of the Eastern Orthodox churches. First of all, the problem of humanity is sin, death, and Satan. Sin, in the fathers' view, is both a description of the human condition and of an individual's actions. Urged on by Satan, sin is what causes spiritual death; and now that spiritual death is in force over humanity, sin is as much a symptom as a cause of our separation from God. While we evangelicals speak of the problem of sin largely in legal, penal terms--sin as a crime against God, a crime that must be punished or atoned for--the fathers prefer to speak of it in relational terms--sin as separation. So now, enslaved by sin and Satan, we are separated from God and subject to death, both spiritual and physical. In the fathers' view, this element--death--is much more the problem of humanity than is humanity's ledger of sinful crimes against God's authority. But, on the whole, it's just a different point of emphasis than the evangelical view.

But here's where the fathers' theology adds a few elements that might be a bit less familiar to us. Since separation from God--which is the very meaning of death--is the problem, the solution as revealed in Jesus Christ is a solution defined by the overcoming of that separation. Thus, the very fact of the Incarnation is foundationally more essential than even the events that arise from it--the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. And to understand how the Incarnation accomplishes the annulment of our separation from God, we must step outside of our western individualism for a moment. The fathers conceived of human nature in a mystical sense, as something that all humans everywhere share--it is the stuff of our being, that which defines us as human beings, and it means that we are all connected to one another in a very real and essential way.

In the words of Gregory of Nyssa (Catechetical Orations): "It is the same for humanity as a whole, which forms, so to speak, a single living being: the resurrection of one member extends to all, and that of a part to the whole, by virtue of the unity and cohesion of human nature."

Because all humans share collectively in "human nature," the fact of the Incarnation means that humanity itself has been united with the Divine life. Human nature--the very human nature that is essentially connected to you and me--was taken into the life and being of the Godhood in the person of Jesus Christ. As God and Man, he shares in our humanity. And we, by extension, may share in his divinity.

Gregory of Nyssa (Against Apollinarius): "The Word, in taking flesh, was mingled with humanity, and took our nature within himself, so that the human should be deified by mingling with God: the stuff of our nature was entirely sanctified by Christ." And listen to how Irenaeus describes the purpose of Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection, in terms of union and "absorption" rather than in terms of sin and atonement: "This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption become Sons of God...How could we have united ourselves with immortality if immortality had not become what we are, in such a way that we should be absorbed by it?"

It is at this point that we evangelicals run up against a doctrine that's awfully hard for us to swallow: deification. Instead of pointing to the goal of salvation as individual redemption from the punishment of sin, the fathers, almost unanimously, point to something more breathtaking and all-encompassing--the envelopment of human beings into the life of the Godhood itself. While we would not lose our individual essence and nature, we are granted to share in the deepest energies of the life of God himself. The fathers, from Irenaeus to Athanasius to the Cappadocian Fathers, emphasize this to the point where they regularly speak of Christians "becoming God"--that is, sharing in his very life. In the words of an anonymous Easter Homily inspired by Hippolytus' Treatise on Easter: "God has shown himself as man and humanity has ascended and become God!" While it takes some careful, thoughtful reading to get to the heart of what the fathers are really saying when they spout what sound like blasphemies to us, this doctrine has grown more and more appealing to me: How great is the love of God, that he would not only forgive us, but gather us in to share in the depths of who he is in a union so intimate and rich as to defy description!

And all of this, though also supported by a few references from the NT epistles, comes mainly from the idea of the Incarnation itself--the union of humanity and divinity in Christ as the firstfruits and sign of the union that we may someday enjoy with God. By Christ's intimate union with us, he has bridged the separation between man and God. The Crucifixion, then, is largely his act of union with us--embracing all the murder, depravity, and violence that lies at the heart of fallen human nature. It is his act of undergoing death--taking head-on the deepest curse of our separation from God--and defeating it, thus opening the way for all humanity to share in the Resurrection, both spiritual and (eventually) physical. (By contast, with merely a penal substitution model of the atonement, we're forced to reduce the meaning of Resurrection to a "sign" of Christ's victory, since the main work of gaining forgiveness for sins had already been accomplished on the Cross.) As Cyril of Alexandria says, "He put on our flesh to set it free from death." And in the words of Gregory of Nyssa: "He mingled himself with our being to deify it by contact with him, after he had snatched it from death...For his resurrection becomes for mortals the promise of their return to immortal life." And this is all echoed by Gregory of Nazianzus, "Is it not evident that the Father accepts the sacrifice [of Christ on the cross], not because he demands it or feels some need for it, but in order to carry out his plan? Humanity had to be brought back to life by the humanity of God...It was necessary that God should take flesh and die so that we might have new life...Nothing can equal the miracle of my salvation; a few drops of blood redeem the whole universe!"

The Ascension is the final act of this wonderful drama--it is the ultimate symbol of what Christ has done for humanity, bringing it into the presence of God in heaven. As Christ the God-Man shares in the divine communion of the Trinity, so do we also share that communion, because we share in Christ's human nature. Maximus the Confessor writes: "Christ, having completed for us his saving work and ascended to heaven with the body which he had taken to himself, accomplishes in his own self the union of heaven and earth."

So that's the picture that the fathers paint for us--a picture of salvation that is much more than merely the forgiveness of sins, but rather of the dynamic union of humanity and divinity, an act of love that welcomes us to share in the life and nature of God himself. I present these thoughts not as a challenge to the evangelical gospel and the penal substitution model of the atonement--I don't think they're mutually contradictory. But I do think we may have settled for one rather small piece of a much grander picture. It's worth considering. It's worth reading the Fathers to explore for yourselves.