attending to the struggle

Six years ago this week I made a decision that, over time, changed my inner world and launched me far from my own agenda about which church I should be attending.

In a sense, when joining the Orthodox Church I flipped. It was much like the time I let go of an airplane strut somewhere above Estacada, Oregon and tumbled, paratrooper-style, beneath a swiftly opening chute. I couldn't comprehend all that was happening after I jumped, but I knew that in a lucid moment I had signed on. My landing--safe or not--would be determined by the reality of the instruction I received from strangers, of the trustworthiness of their experience and skill.

Both times--skydiving and catechizing--I chose to place my life in the hands of other people and do something unexpected. Both times I did my best to keep my eyes open, to seriously engage in an intended practice, and to struggle. Stepping out under an airplane wing, after all, should never be a relaxed activity.

This week, fighting (and mostly losing to) a head cold, I rewatched Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity. I enjoy going back to something I really like and experiencing it through the eyes of my current perspective. Overall this time, the short-lived TV series and movie gave off hues of family--adopted, engaging; most of all, struggling.

During the past four months at my church, I've experienced people of a family persuasion struggling. Not so much with each other (and that is a kindness, as someone on Firefly might say). We've been going through a time of outward tribulation. I have whined and groaned about it aplenty. Thankfully, people still put up with me.

Characters on Firefly have much they are working on. Outwardly they strive to stay afloat and among the living. But it's the inward struggle that, I'm seeing, takes center stage. At the same time, they encounter people who've found a variety of ways to stop struggling.

What do I mean by ceasing this "inward" struggle? I could also call it a tendency in human beings to find ways to set it and forget it. To decide that my understanding, my way of carrying out life "in the 'verse" is just fine. It's deciding that the good world (good life, good behavior) I have put together is a sinless world.

No matter their social standing, the characters of Firefly who've stopped struggling all make the same sorts of decisions: they will keep on lying, stealing, and killing or they will continue attending fancy dinner parties and duels or they will once more kidnap townspeople or they will yet again cover up a terrible government mistake. The main problem isn't particularly how they live, it's that they don't seek to fight the tide of distraction from true living. They don't take stock of themselves or try to swim upstream.

By contrast, the characters joined to the crucible of family--in this case, at home within a spaceship most beloved--must, each in his or her fashion, wrestle mightily with failings they'd rather ignore. The work of this struggle binds each one to the others and helps them fight the current of inner falsehood. Here the choice is either sacrifice or selfishness. Only love will keep their ship from falling out of the sky.


there are houses

Regular old rain has returned. Rhythm and song, off the eaves of a morning now daylight by seven.

Seriously I consider--and I believe I've decided to--let my social media account of nearly nine years wane. I will entomb it, set it in stasis, or whatever the procedure is for dis-following and un-fellowshipping with it for, I hope, a few months at least.

It's kind of been like being cast in a TV series. I've had a good run. I'd like to go out while I'm sort of "on top." I saw a friend from church leave her account (she blogs, too), and the idea, which has floated close sometimes for more than a year, came around again.

Facebook is perfect for cousins and old friends, between whom there is history and affection but who have so much else to get to they can't often connect. For love of friendly cousins I will likely return at some point. Starting over has its place.

My kids are far off, but the phone brings them closer. Video chats are possible and sometimes those happen. Victoria and I move deep into conversation at opportune moments. (We forget to update each other on daily details, but that's the way we meander.) Last time, Edmund kept floating close and asking to talk to Grandma. "I want to hug you," he said and hugged the phone. So I hugged mine, too, and then asked him what's outside his window ("there are houses").

Tim and I continue, surprised by it each time, to welcome people under our roof. Westley warms up to them after a few days. The fireplace crackles, heating water for tea. I am no hostess. Our latest visiting friend, who lives in his car but whose car is waiting at a repair shop to be repaired, roasts his vegetables in the kitchen, learns from me about kombucha, and sometimes sweeps the floor. Tim's wall of movies comes in handy.

For now I gaze out my window at bare houses waiting for finch and pollinator to return--and find myself (after some adjustment, to be sure) gratefully sharing and receiving. Out here it's a clunky, crunchy universe. Mostly quiet. And sometimes someone sweeps the floor. Yay.


winter souls

Freezing days and nights are this season's signature, an  uncommon thing for Western Oregon. Snow remains around our edges in Eugene from a storm seven days ago. My chilly fingers type, as the woodstove rests quietly empty on a day in our valley of inverted air.

Seeking to allow people breathing space is admirable. I find myself expecting slower days, with moments of quiet, long-drawn breaths in relaxation. But there are people and happenings and many prayers to ponder, to experience, to keep me active. This is good. I am grateful.

Our geriatric Westley kitty continues his vocal living. He has become a skinny critter, and I think this helps his lot. Our resident musician, still calling Westley "Pooky", remarks that he is unique. Well, he did learn his ways from our (now long reposed) cat-sized doggy.

I've learned my ways from amazing souls. Some of whom I deeply miss, dark in this winter passage. Some can't help remaining distant, their lives all about growing and educating and maintaining a living best as they can, far from their previous valley home. They endure the blizzards, warming their faces by faithful flames. Some are wholly distant from this realm, though maybe not so far off as they seem. Some are here and not with me--our universes converge on rare occasions, by surprise. This is also good.

Every one met on this journey leaves an impression, a lasting ember with which to mark my prayers, my actions. Recently a young man stayed with us a few nights. Tim helped him hang his tent in the garage to dry. He asked for little, thanked us profusely, and returned to a universe where fingers only warm in spring.

Rarely do I sacrificially suffer for these dear ones, though I groan while cooking them pizza or enduring online package-sending mazes. Yet their presence in reality directs me toward that narrow passage so essential. They help me prepare to traverse it, for love, for freedom, and for enduring to the uttermost. Whether I freeze or thaw depends on me, but also with them, in the heart of my soul.


sprinkle the chaste

Earlier this week I thought, it's good to return once again to ordinary, obscure blogging. I had written on Facebook to my "Gutenbergean" friends--of whom quite a few read the previous series of posts--and conveyed my thanks for their gift of letting me say my piece (even if they think I'm delusional). Now they were free, and so was I.

Leaves out the back window were waving crimson and gold. Beside me on the sofa rested work to accomplish and a fascinating book (Fr. Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works). My laptop topped a lap desk (on my lap).

My dear Timothy built a fire in the woodstove. This man who enkindles my flames is by nature a sustainer, as well as being a chronicler (just check out his photos on FB of, alternately, the service for the feast of the Conception of St. John the Baptist at church and the progress of our bathroom floor replacement at home).

After Tim left for work, our resident musician emerged from his room to greet elderly Westley. These past months, the musician and our cat have become best buddies. They bonded in July, the week my dear sustainer and I were away at family camp (which, alas, could not be chronicled fully, due to a cell phone's escape over a cliff during an afternoon hike). Westley, who looks like Garfield, received the nickname Pooky, in honor of Garfield's toy teddy bear.

Now each morning the musician calls, "Hey, Pook!" and with his foot rubs the rickety feline's spine. In that moment it's possible both of them purr.

That's how it was for me this past week. Things fairly purring along, in life, in the prayers (Lord, sprinkle into my heart the dew of Thy grace).

Then Thursday, as usual, I was at the church bookstore, working (and reading) and meeting interesting people. St. John sits smack in the middle of The Whit, the colorful neighborhood my dad was born and raised in. Many unpredictable types come through our doors. Often I love their company. Sometimes one or another of us hanging around can help them.

Soon after I closed up the shop, a phonecall gave me unbelievable news: Fr. Daniel had been arrested on criminal charges.

I was stunned. Immediately I knew it had to have been for trying to help one of the interesting people. So many ways things can go wrong...so large a heart this man has for others...and he can be a little blind to possible dangers when dealing with some of them.

While I am not a knower of all truth, I knew not one reason to suspect my priest of his charges. There are people, sure, who lead lives in which those closest to them are deceived regarding their shady activity, until something comes out, until accusations are made. In those cases, the friends who've been deceived start thinking and recognize clues they were missing or ignoring. With Fr. Daniel, there is simply nothing like that. A precise word to describe his everyday behavior is "chaste." He is not, by any means, perfect, but he is chaste.

Knowing Fr. Daniel and being where I was, my next move was clear. Entering the nave, I lit candles. Fumbling among prayer booklets, I found one with an extended prayer to God in times of trouble. In the silence (which is never ruffled by such news as had been delivered) I prayed softly, waiting for others to join me. Later the bells outside would ring, as always their sound joyous, pealing against a downpour's beginning, against the very dark and the unordinary.


important things 7: final thoughts


Recently I reread an old journal entry, jotted down back when my daughter was four. During those fleeting days I observed Victoria's life overflowing with imaginative stories. Often she needed a sidekick for the acting out of these tales: me. One evening, after she announced we would be playing Robin Hood, I asked if I could be Robin this time. "Of course not," Victoria responded. "I'm the imaginer. The imaginer plays the best part."

This memory struck me as relevant to my task here and perhaps relevant, as well, to the search for ultimate truth. Like my dear daughter in childhood, I have, to varying degrees throughout my life, tried to sort things out, to understand and recognize what is real. As a kid I depended heavily on imagination--not because I couldn't ask my parents questions. They were available as often as possible, but of course learning isn't accomplished solely by verbal instruction. There are a myriad ways one tests and probes one's universe; for a preschooler such experiments are all in a day's work.

When nothing is available to test, however, imagination serves a greater purpose. Via stories, songs, daydreams, toys, and so on (my illustrative "authorities" close at hand, if you will; my favorite gifts from this existence), I am putting together pieces of information and "make believing" my conclusions are true, until I can experience that which is actual.

No matter how "well" I have imagined, that which is actual always comes as a surprise. At age four I try to guess how it is to be a teenager; at 14 I imagine driving a car; at 18 I might wonder about marriage. My parental figures stand in doorways watching, and they smile, recognizing from my brazen statements the enlightenments I'm in for.

In a related sense, I think, the Orthodox Church has passed a memory down through many centuries of the state of the Jewish friends and relatives of Jesus who followed him around Palestine. In a process of varying lengths for different individuals, they each came to see the difference between what they had imagined (using the amazing, illustrative gifts of their existence within the Law), and the actual reality, the tremendous surprise, of Jesus their Messiah, son of David, the Son of God.

Once these people had experienced who Jesus was and what Jesus did, they looked back on things, particularly the messages of Scripture, and recognized completely in a new way that the Scriptures were intensely amazing in their illustrative preparation for Christ. Jesus truly opened the Scriptures for them, showing them the ways all these previous happenings had prepared believers to begin to know and understand his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. They also came to see that many other things--for people in many ways of life other than the Jewish way--could and would also be illustrative preparations for following Jesus, for a life of drawing near to him in reverence and awe.

The Main Thing

If you have borne with me so far through this series of posts, I thank you. Today I'd like to finish by expressing my main disagreement with Jack Crabtree, which comes from the point where he lays out his foundational ideas in the article, The Two Most Important Things I Have Learned.

Part III of Jack's article begins with five questions related to the meaning of life, and then Jack lays a groundwork (or gives a framework) of five truths for understanding his answers.

While at one time I really liked Jack's idea that the structure of reality is a narrative (Truth #1) and still do appreciate the creative, imaginative effort he put into it, I have come to see this is not a logical supposition. It follows that I don't believe it is a biblical one, either.

In the Orthodox Christian framework (which intrinsically includes the biblical narrative), there does not exist a "question of how God can be sovereign over all of reality at the same time that we are creatures who freely determine our own existence through free-will choices that we make." Here we find that God is sovereign over all of reality, and also that God is capable of creating human beings to truly exist and to make a real choice between embracing God and rejecting God.

In fact, the distinction I have found among the Orthodox is that to exist means to embrace God. Sin, in this understanding, is a move toward nonexistence, the acting out of the desire to return to the dark nothingness out of which God brought me in creation.

God is. He self-exists, is unoriginate. There aren't exact words to express this, from our creaturely perspective. God created humankind as one of his creatures. I, being a member of humankind, am a creature. I was created by God in God's reality. There is only one real reality. There is no "make believe" with God. To whom would God present his sculpture? For whom would he act out his story? Why would God need to use creative expression--to come to grips with something he doesn't yet understand? There is no sense in presuming this about God.

When Paul illustrates in his letter to the Romans something about being a creature, he uses the analogy of a potter shaping his clay. Paul has his readers imagine a lump of clay questioning why the potter shaped or made it the way the potter did (which, as was Paul's point, can't happen, because--I would stress--while the clay exists in the same ontological reality as the one shaping it, the clay is not the potter; it is clay). Paul's analogy does not address the creation of the substance of clay itself.

Each person's earthly life is completely "determined", "made", and "shaped" by God, down to the nanosecond. This truth does not contradict there being an ultimate choice each person freely makes for or against God. (In God's view this choice, in some way unfathomable by us, is ever-present.) God determines when and how each person will be hardened, or softened, or perhaps will go through a combination of these, according to their free, ultimate choice. The story will be tragic, interesting, completely surprising, and beautiful, this real story of reality, which God determines for the sake of those he elected in his foreknowledge (of their ultimate choice to draw near to him).


I have mentioned a very few of the "treasures old and new" which are brought out every day in Orthodox Christian services, which are examined, alluded to, or just hinted at, depending on the person and where they are in the process of drawing near. I find at church a determined attempt to keep from pushiness. Even the fairly monotone chanting of Psalms and other prayers allows one to enter in as little or as much as is desired.

When I first encountered Orthodox Christianity, I dismissed it because it contained tradition and ritual. Tradition and presuppositions are intertwined, and I came to see I was encountering a different tradition than my own. I began to recognize that ritual is simply the language expressing (to use Michael Polanyi's terms) a framework of interpretation. To one degree or another, my previous frameworks had lacked meaning, and so I was rightly suspicious, wary of empty ritual. Here I discovered, however, rituals brimful of coherent meaning, interpreting reality.

Besides being a life of surprise, the life of believing, of faith, is one of illustrative preparation. We discover, looking back, those elements which prepared us, in illustrative fashion, to interpret the surprise.

I will leave you with the following: my expression of the interpretive framework I came into by surprise. It's what I can say today, barely having crossed the threshold. I invite anyone interested to come and see.

God said, "Let there be light," extending light into darkness--existence into nonexistence, thus bringing forth life from nothingness. Then God separated light from darkness, because there is no fellowship between the two.

But when humankind, in pride and disbelief, chose darkness, God gave humankind, or Man, his choice. God darkened all so that all could experience the effects of unbelieving blindness upon reality, of sickness upon the health of reality, and of imagined reality upon true reality.

And then God, eternal Light and Being and Reality, entered into that same darkness to rescue humankind.

The power of the cross--and that of Christ's holy resurrection--is its complete humility. Humility is the soil where true forgiveness grows and in which mercy abounds, illumined by God's light in the face of the Son of God, which also enlightens and transfigures all who follow him, so that they may become truly humble, so that they may also truly forgive, igniting the light of compassionate mercy to begin to dispel their own darkness.

The process of true salvation for people--for human beings who begin to become connected to all humankind via prayers for all--is something I never saw anywhere (though I encountered everywhere hearts who longed for it). The process only truly exists in the true church. This church, provided by Jesus' shed blood, spans realms both visible and invisible. It is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

When I began to comprehend that it existed, and has always existed (as in my heart of hearts I hoped, rejoicing in the stories and ideas of others whose hearts carried this flicker of hope), when I finally started coming to see there is a real life in a real church, I naturally had to be there. No matter how many flawed and unbelieving hearts surround me (with my most-of-all flawed and unbelieving heart), no matter how many tensions and conflicts sharing a life in this present darkness brings, it is a do-able way of life, because there is reality. Gathering around that Reality, that Body, is the one, the only thing necessary--where It is, the eagles will gather.


important things 6: conflicting beliefs

1. Catching Up

Hello, again, after a couple months. Summer is fading in gold-emerald hues; another school year begins.

Late last year I first read Jack Crabtree's article, to which I decided to respond. Not until February did I really begin writing and wrestling with what to say. Then in the spring I learned things would be changing at Gutenberg College: Jack and his brother David Crabtree would be stepping down as tutors from this beloved great books school. (They were continuing a project, the initial fruits of which are now available online.) An interesting development.

In May I went ahead and sent the first post in this blog series to my friend Margaret, who graciously shared it with the group at Reformation Fellowship (the church Tim and I attended for more than a decade, where Jack and David still attend and teach). Since then I have slowly, slowly worked on approaching my subject, my response to a teacher I have deeply admired and will always be grateful for.

Today I reach a point of laying out two differing understandings of history and reality. This may be the main thing I've been trying to get at (and also procrastinating doing). It may be, after it's said, all I need to say.

Relatedly, the other day a quote on Facebook grabbed my attention. David Robertson (a recent Gutenberg grad, or almost grad) has shared with me his joy at studying Michael Polanyi, and here is part of what he quoted, regarding, in Polanyi's context, conflicting scientific presuppositional understandings:
Two conflicting systems of thought are separated by a logical gap, in the same sense as a problem is separated from the discovery which solves the problem. Formal operations relying on one framework of interpretation cannot demonstrate a proposition to persons who rely on another framework. Its advocates may not even succeed in getting a hearing from these, since they must first teach them a new language, and no one can learn a new language unless he first trusts that it means something. A hostile audience may in fact deliberately refuse to entertain novel conceptions such as those of Freud, Eddingtion, Rhine, or Lysenko, precisely because its members fear that once they have accepted this framework they will be led to conclusions which they--rightly or wrongly--abhor. Proponents of a new system can convince their audience only by first winning their intellectual sympathy for a doctrine they have not yet grasped. Those who listen sympathetically will discover for themselves what they would otherwise never have understood. Such an acceptance is a heuristic process, a self-modifying act, and to this extent a conversion. It produces disciples forming a school, the members of which are separated for the time being by a logical gap from those outside it. They think differently, speak a different language, live in a different world, and at least one of the two schools is excluded to this extent for the time being (whether rightly or wrongly) from the community.
If there is any way I have grown during the past five or so years, it is perhaps to have come to recognize the truth of the above statement (thanks, Mr. Polanyi for your philosophical aptitude!) and to accept the accompanying humility in a reality of Christian/biblical love, where the central goal is not to win intellectual sympathy (doing so is fine, obviously, but if it were the central, or at least the immediate goal, then Paul and the other martyred apostles were mainly dismal failures).

I mention this in order to say I recognize I have nothing to offer to gain your intellectual sympathy. Worse (from my view), the way I'm using language will sound dumb, compared to Jack Crabtree's brilliant way of using language. The following comes from a truly different "language" than any Jack has ever studied, which I have come to accept via a heuristic process. But it will sound as though I'm speaking from within a Roman Catholic/Protestant framework, simply because I'm using English words and phrases about which we all have certain presuppositions.

(I'm as okay with this as I can be, at my current place in life, in the process I struggle with inwardly, being very stiff-necked, prideful, and so on, regularly repenting of such. Just thought I would express this. Thanks.)

2. Concerning 4th-Century Christians

Last time, I gave a brief overview of the Orthodox Christian presupposition I came to accept regarding God as a multiplicity of Persons. (Each of these Persons is understood to be uncreated, or, you might say, outside of creation, which includes being outside of time--for example, "Today I have begotten you" is used as an expression of what is. Everything always "Is" for God in this presuppositional framework.) I hold this view in contrast with Jack Crabtree's understanding about Jesus.

Although in the article I'm responding to Jack merely says Jesus was "brought into existence by God, his Father," I have heard Jack explicitly state that Jesus is a man like any other human being, conceivably replaceable in his role in God's story by any other human being.

In contrast, I believe Jesus himself was referring to a different reality when he said, "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." Another time Jesus responded to Philip, who had asked him to reveal the Father to the gathered apostles, that the Father was "in" himself and he was "in" the Father. Jesus, therefore, maintained that only the Son (of God) "knows" the Father and that the Father is "in" the Son.

Jack's interpretive framework gave me a rule that said, "No person or being can be inside another person or being." If I heard him correctly, this is his understanding. It makes sense, according to what our five senses tell us. I now think there is evidence beyond our earthly senses for there to be something different happening, at least regarding God. This something can be expressed as a closeness beyond what any human being can have with another human being. It can be termed, as I sort of said before, a perfect concert of interaction. The word communion also fits.

As was pointed out in a comment last post, history shows us an exceedingly messy, sometimes humorous process of people coming to express in bulky, awkward human language what had been revealed by God through Jesus Christ to his apostles regarding himself in relation to his Father. Fourth century Constantinople was full of interested arguers from every social strata. Unlike at any time since Christ was born, it was now legal to openly theologize. In his book The Orthodox Church, Timothy Ware mentions this oft-lamentable situation with generosity: 
If Christians were at times acrimonious, it was because they cared about the Christian faith. Perhaps disorder is better than apathy. Orthodoxy [ancient Orthodox Christianity] recognizes that the councils were attended by imperfect humans, but it believes that these imperfect humans were guided by the Holy Spirit.
The model for these ancient councils was the council assembled in Jerusalem during the first century, attended by Paul, Barnabus, Peter, James, and others, which determined that the group known as Judaizers was heretical in what it taught Gentiles about Christianity. Whatever one believes about the fourth century gatherings and beyond, the original one recorded in Acts had at its core prayer and the Holy Spirit's guidance. (Somehow the apostles and all first Christians had been "filled" with the Holy Spirit. Jesus said the Holy Spirit "proceeds" from the Father.)

To return (at last) to Jack's article (Point II), another statement about the Jerusalem council might be that those men to whom Jesus gave "the true meaning and significance of what they had already learned as first-century Jews who had been taught the Scriptures in the synagogue" processed along their apostolic journey into a council, when it became necessary, in order to determine aspects of critical Christian understanding/teaching/doctrine and to write them down.

In his article Jack's view is clear. He believes the fourth-century council's bishops no longer practiced Christianity; rather, it had happened that:
By the end of Paul’s life, those who considered themselves followers of Jesus had largely turned away from this hard-fought understanding that Paul taught (2 Timothy 1:15). Having become interested in a significantly different understanding of the nature and significance of Jesus and what he accomplished, they began to teach a different Jesus and a different gospel...The founding of Christianity arose through teachers and leaders who are mostly unknown to us. These men invented an entirely new and different religion—a religion distinct from and independent of the decidedly Jewish worldview and gospel that Jesus and Paul had proclaimed.
The reason Jack believes this:
Through the original works of ancient writers, I have became acquainted with the thought forms and tendencies of the Church Fathers at the same time that I have become much more familiar with the worldview and concepts of ancient pagan philosophers...I came to realize the extent to which the reading of the Bible by the earliest Christians (in contradistinction to the earliest believers) failed to be an accurate exegesis of the biblical texts. Rather, it was the combining of various Hellenistic and pagan ideas with biblical concepts, language, and ideas.
If I haven't yet, it's important to make clear that I believe Jack's views come from legitimate reactions to the general religious form that passes in our culture for Christianity, and which came to us 21st century Americans via the broken, incomplete traditions of the Reformers (who were, themselves, reacting to broken, incomplete Roman Catholic traditions). Jack expresses this traditional Christian understanding very well, but his problem is that in ignorance he lumps Orthodox Christianity with it. This lumping seems completely rational to him, and I get that. But he stopped far too soon in his exploration of the interpretive framework of this ancient faith.

3. An Alternative Framework
Because Adam believed the devil who had told him his lies, and tasted of the tree of knowledge, therefore, as one who had believed a liar, he fell away from the truth. After this, human nature labored a great deal seeking the truth but could not find it. This is clearly confirmed by all the wise men of Greece, who could by no means harmonize, unify, and direct on the right path the varieties of human wisdom, despite the fact that many used means for this end and wrote a multitude of lengthy works in which they examined virtue and vice from all points of view.
~ St. Symeon the New Theologian (died in 1022 A.D.)
Orthodox Christian understanding relates to the scope of what God does and who God is. Not fully, of course, at all, but as God provides the means. One hymn we sing about Jesus' transfiguration on Mt. Tabor basically expresses that at this event the disciples Peter, James, and John beheld the Messiah's glory as far as they were capable of doing so.

The Scriptures are intrinsic to Orthodox Christian life. Everything is about what they are about, and we find they are about what God does and who God is in relation to humankind.

I'm someone who studied under Jack Crabtree and his friends for eleven years, fully engaged and enthralled--I audited Gutenberg classes, attended Oktoberfusses, Summer Institutes, and Art Conferences--and for years before that I interacted (jousting at our dining table) with people from Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Buddhism. I am a preacher's kid who didn't like the "churchyness" of church, because I grew up among much (though not total) artifice and worldliness.

Nothing I observed, studied, or listened to before Orthodox Christianity was so comprehensively engaged with Scripture, with the people who wrote the Scriptures and those about whom they wrote. (Nothing, I began to note grudgingly at first, was so doggone consistent.) Obviously I've been aware of other long-lived groups--Catholicism and Islam, for example--which claim to practice the truest Scriptural truth. But what they do and who they are, as far as I've seen, don't hold together. They (in history and theologically) are not all of a piece; they are in tatters at best. Such has also been the case, and even moreso, for Protestantism.

Orthodox church services draw heavily on their Jewish roots. Prayers in church are mainly from the Psalter; King David's hymns bookend everything. The recognition is ever present, on which St. Symeon's quote above touches, of humankind's fall and need for help, and of the nature of humanity's failure to find its own way to wisdom.

For the Jews, synagogue worship was not optional; it was central. Praising God happened in community, as well as privately in one's "closet" (the inner chamber of the heart). It was personal--God had interacted with the Hebrew people on a personal level--but it was not individual (it was never cut off from others). This manner or method of coming together, this aspect of the Law, was a great part of what Jesus came not to abolish, but to fulfill, by establishing the Law of Liberty about which James wrote.

Jesus' first disciples, those people who began to be called Christians at Antioch, observed the world changing as they spread their good news. What context, what framework, were they broadcasting from? That of their worship services, the centrality of the Scripture-interpreting life of the nascent Church which Jesus established. The apostles delivered to the people the prayers of King David along with what those prayers (and what David's life) illustrated, as well as what every event in the now-old Testament had illustrated, preparing the world for the final and "fullest" Messiah. Everything that happened in the past had really happened, certainly, had been real in time to the people back then, but truly, for everyone who had lived in belief beforehand (that great cloud of witnesses Paul spoke of) there was joy in seeing how their life events had laid an illustrative foundation for the miraculous lives of Jesus and all who surrounded him.
When did human beings begin to abandon the worship of idols, except since the true God Word of God came among human beings? Or when have the oracles amongst the Greeks and everywhere ceased and become empty, except since the Savior revealed himself upon earth? Or when did those called gods and heroes by the poets begin to be condemned as merely mortal humans, except since the Lord erected the trophy over death and preserved incorruptible the body which he took, raising it from the dead?...And formerly everywhere was filled with the deceit of the oracles, and the utterances of those in Delphi and Dodona and Boeotia and Lycia and Libya and Egypt and Cabiri and the Pythoness were admired in the imagination of human beings. But now, since Christ is announced everywhere, their madness has also ceased and no longer is there anyone among them giving oracles. Formerly demons deceived human fancy, taking possession of springs or rivers, wood or stone, and by their tricks thus stupefied the simple. But now, after the Divine manifestation of the Word has taken place, their illusion has ceased.
~ On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius (299-328 A.D.)
Jesus' coming into the world changed history, changed everything, in ways we who are now far from it aren't aware of (while at the same time we benefit from it). The true church, the correct faith, is also Jesus himself continuing to dwell in history ("Behold, I am with you always"). The Son of God, being God by nature, can concurrently remain seated at the right hand of his Father in heaven (the unseen realm each of us will see the day we die), without having to change places or go back and forth. Heaven is actually, after all, closer to us than our own souls. Evidences for its reality provide faith, which is the hope of things not yet seen.
And as John was finishing his course, he said, "Who do you think I am? I am not he. But behold, there comes one after me, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to loose." Men and brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to you the word of this salvation has been sent. For those who dwell in Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they did not know him, nor even the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, have fulfilled them in condemning him.
~ Acts 13:25-27
The prophets are real people, who died and went "down" to Gehenna, or Hades, still waiting for their Messiah. This one the prophets foretold would "take flesh" and be born as John the Baptist's cousin. Jesus' grandparents, Joachim and Anna, would be buried in a sepulcher near a garden called Gethsemane, to which Jesus would come whenever possible to pray, to commune with his Father in the hidden chamber of his core being. He would do this perfectly, showing his disciples the way to imitate. Jesus would then be arrested in the garden, crucified on a cross, and buried. While his flesh lay "asleep" in the grave, he personally would trample down the gates of Hades and rescue its captives: the prophets, King David, his grandparents, Adam and Eve, and all the rest who waited there, longing for him. He would take them to heaven, to Paradise, to be with him and a thief, who on the cross next to his had asked to be remembered in his ever-present, timeless Kingdom (which will exist in complete fullness for all in the future but which is a reality even now).

There is more I can say, and I realize I would like to make a few final points about Jack's article. Next post. Please respond to this one if you'd like to. Fire away.

The end is in view! Part 7 is here.


important things 5: terms, claims, nutshells

I'm sorry for my delay in getting back to this series. Thank you who are following along for your patience. I hope you are having a good summer.

Last post I ended by saying I would continue, this time, with what happened to me as I wrestled between my own two viewpoints or interpretations of Scripture. The first interpretation was influenced by eleven years as a student of Gutenberg College teachers, basically following many ideas espoused by Jack Crabtree (specifically expressed in his article that I'm responding to). The second interpretation, beginning in 2011, came from an immersion into Orthodox Christianity.

Today I'll present my observations about "Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, brought into existence by God, his Father."

Until I studied in the Orthodox church, my Trinitarian understanding originated in what I now view as a broken or incomplete tradition--that which came to me through history via Roman Catholics and Reformers (and probably others). This tradition distilled a definition of God into one sentence: Within the nature of the one God exist three Persons. I think my trouble with this defining claim began long before I listened to Jack Crabtree. Traditionally we find the Creator of all, the one true God, explained in ten words! Amazing.

Perhaps a problem with our Western culture's way of thinking is this desire to put many created things in a nutshell, let alone seeking to analyze God's true nature and plunk it down on paper. But of course human beings do this, have done this, not only in the West. Sometimes language is all we've got, and the moment calls for explanations.

The Orthodox understanding begins and ends (if one can say it has an ending) with Man and God. Adam and God. Eve and God. Cain and God. Abram and God. Jacob and God. David and God. Esther and God. Habakkuk and God. Zachariah and God. Symeon and God. Mary and God. Joseph and God. Peter and God. Paul and God. John and God.

None of these was seeking to diagram or explain God. Each was dealing with his or her own encounter with God. Just as each encounter with a person leads to specific things in the history of any life, so each encounter with God recorded in the Bible led to specific things. These encounters were with a Person. The reason this is said to be a capital P Person is that He is other than any person of mankind. This Person the biblical authors record meetings (and other sorts of encounters) with is not of our kind, is not a "kind" at all, being uncreated. There is none of our kind like this. There is only one God.

What I began to recognize is that, while the Bible doesn't describe any other being that is God, it also doesn't contain any writings that describe any other being that is Man, or human. Humanity illustrates something (as do all living creatures) by being created as one "thing." Which is why I can say Man encounters God and be talking about more than one human person, with no confusion on the part of my hearers. Language easily allows for Man (or even just man) to be plural.

Mankind, then, might be said to be a plurality. We know this by experience. This plurality of unique beings can still be called one Being. This is true, even though mankind is a very scattered, sundered being, spread hither and yon in ways beyond just space and time. Man is very disunified. Everyone goes his or her own way. And yet we all share mankind-ness. 

This sharing of our created kind-ness, or nature, or essence, still does not have sovereignty over us. What I mean by that is, I share humanity with others, but first of all, sovereignly, I am a unique identity. I don't exist as a generic human within humanity who contains my unique features. I exist as a unique identity, never before experienced by others until I came to be, who bears recognizable human features. We know from observing nature that this is true with every kind of thing: leaves, horses, snowflakes, and so on. Each molecule and star appears on the scene as a unique one of its kind. There is no repetition of identity in creation.

While instinctively I knew this concept, I had never observed this sort of understanding of mankind until I entered into what is unveiled and hymned in every Orthodox service. Not that it happens in a spooky way. The recognition is simply there and interacted with, by those who wish to at their own pace, soberly and with gratitude. Naturally involved with recognizing identities sharing the nature of man (as well as identities sharing the nature of angels, the "bodiless hosts") is a recognition of Identities sharing the nature of God. I have come to believe that this is why God made man the way He did, as one of gazillions of illustrations for us of reality.

In Orthodox interpretation, just as we find in other biblical traditions, God is the Source of everything. We use the term "God" to mean the Father, the One who created all that exists. That's really our starting point; we can't begin to comprehend anything "before the beginning" in what is God's territory of understanding and knowing. All we can do, soberly and with gratitude, is work with what God has revealed to humanity. The Bible tells us that God illumines the world via His one unique, only-begotten Son, the Revelation.

My wrestling match, from the day in 2011 when I willingly entered the Orthodox church, was between two possibilities. I already agreed (with Jack and the Orthodox, it became apparent) that God is not boxed into a nature that He must somehow share with two other beings known as God.

What I saw was my need to make a choice. First, I had accepted with Jack's help the concept of God being Jesus' Father by bringing the human Jesus into existence at a certain point in history, planned from before creation but not taking on any reality (not coming into the story) until nine months before his birth.

The second possibility I began to recognize was of God being Jesus' Father by some means incomprehensible to any creature (a total mystery to human beings where we are right now on the spectrum of existence), but related to the illustration we have of a man fathering a son--that God, the unoriginate, uncreated Creator of all, lives as a multiplicity of Identities, who have been, are, and ever will be complete, perfect Persons acting in perfect concert with one another, in the willing communion of Love which is God's highest Name, God's essence or nature. These Persons from before eternity share the nature of God, the same nature that human beings can become partakers of (2 Peter 1:4).

This second option involves the fullness of the story that the Orthodox believe the Bible is written about, regarding the Person Who was with God in the beginning, as the Apostle John tells us, through Whom all things were made. This Word by which all was spoken into existence came, not from nowhere, like I did as a created thing, but from somewhere, from the Father. No one has seen God at any time, but this Word has made God known, has enlightened the world. He did so by "being made flesh," "becoming flesh," "taking flesh." That Messiah which had been prophesied and illustrated throughout Jewish history came from the Father and, by the action of another Divine Person, the Holy Spirit, along with a human woman, was born into the line of humanity. Jesus is a combination of God and Man, a combining for the purpose of interaction, which is a rescuing action for mankind in his present, fallen state. 

Jesus in Orthodox Christian understanding is not a bizarre creature, split down the middle in the throes of belonging to two separate nature boxes, as the Western Christian tradition might cause one to try and picture. Rather, Jesus embodies the attributes of God's Nature along with the attributes of man's nature while remaining one sovereign Person, the One willed from before time by God to join these two natures into perfect concert with one another. In the same way God personally wishes to be "one with" each member of humanity, as He is in absolute unity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so His Son became an illustration of perfect unity between two natures, in harmony becoming as one while ever identifiable in the two.

And so we find me using language alone to try and express God in a nutshell. Forgive me; I know it can't be done. But I hope these paragraphs are helpful in delineating the two options I faced. After much deliberation I chose to study in the stream of Orthodox thought and practice, not, I hope you can see, because I found Jack's wording to be totally wrong, but simply because, knowing where it likely came from (a reaction to Western thoughts), I saw I preferred the fuller, deeper-digging task I had discovered. 

Next post I wish to discuss two possibilities for understanding how and why Jesus "taught his Jewish disciples the true meaning and significance of what they had already learned as first-century Jews who had been taught the Scriptures in the synagogue."

Installment 6 is here.


important things 4: Christianity's origins

The wonderful thing about this next part of Jack's article and talk, The Two Most Important Things I Have Learned--(I'm now responding to Point II)--is how clearly Jack expresses two differing understandings he has held on the nature of Christianity and its origins. This opens for me the opportunity to respond to what appear to be very solid points of thought, his specific ideas which have grown over decades and which alternately differ and dovetail in certain places with some of my own.

I'll start by looking at the introductory sentence about Jack's original understanding:
"Twenty years ago, my understanding of the origin of Christianity would have gone something like this: Jesus, the incarnation of God, came to earth to teach his disciples how to live as God wanted them to live."

I'll call this Jack's old picture.

If someone were to ask if my old picture used to be the same, I would answer yes and no. I did, similarly, believe Jesus to be the incarnation of God. It might be profitable to unpack that statement. Behind it, for me twenty years ago, was this presupposition: Within the nature of the one God exist three Persons.

I long believed the above claim, because it was an explanation of what I had always been taught. There were Bible verses to back it up. Besides, lots of things in life seemed to happen in threes.

I had grown a bit uncomfortable with my particular Trinitarian presupposition, however, after debating with people from non-Trinitarian groups. During our exchanges I couldn't help observing that, to support their views, they pulled out books by revered teachers of their views. To support my views, I also studied writings or listened to talks by revered teachers of my views.

I hadn't been able to ponder for myself what Jesus' incarnation truly means.

When I came into the Gutenberg group 16 years ago, I heard Jack processing his own presuppositions and ideas. He sought to interpret the Scriptures by using reason and delving deeply (with humility) into possibilities. I loved this refreshing approach. It blew away my one-sentence Trinitarian understanding. While they kept unfolding during the time I studied under Jack, I didn't mind waiting for his latest updated insights. I trusted they were leading me to the closest understanding possible of Jesus' incarnation.

While I did believe Jesus to be the incarnation of God, I don't think my understanding of the origin of Christianity hinged, as Jack's seems to have twenty years ago, on Jesus "teaching his disciples how to live as God wanted them to live." Learning to live God's way was certainly important, but my life experience had already given me an insight into Jesus' interaction with his disciples. Especially relevant to me were Peter's interactions with Jesus. Peter had recognized his need to do specifically what his Master--the Master he had betrayed and then been forgiven by--gave him to do. I wasn't looking, therefore, for general instructions on Christian living (nor do I think the apostles were looking for general instructions on Jewish living; they knew them). I was, 16 years ago, more interested in being freed from a lot of practices and expectations--you might call them rituals and doctrines--that I had known in my familiar, before-Gutenberg cultural Christian experience, which appeared to be missing something. These familiar ways of operating and believing were, I came to recognize, either empty and worthless or partial and lacking something deeply significant.

In all my years, encountering people from Catholic churches to nondenominational churches and several types of groups in between, I had observed those influenced by their peers to act and interpret, and also those improvising new ways to act and interpret. Being naturally an introvert, I noticed the more extroverted people often calling the shots regarding church life; they were flashier and braver than I, and often I resented them for this. I especially cringed when two groups of extroverts quarreled about issues I found tiresome.

Coming to Gutenberg was, again, refreshing, due to a lack of flashy improvisations. I was more than ready to discover alongside other studious people the original intent of the biblical authors. I longed for the significant, deep truth embedded in Scripture.

And so we see that my old picture of Christianity's origins was similar to Jack's--in that I believed Jesus to be God's incarnation--but was different (if I'm understanding him correctly) from Jack's in this sense: I did not consider the apostles' encounter with Jesus to have been "about" Jesus teaching them generally how to live (perhaps how to get along) in this world.

The basic sense I get is that Jack believed long ago that if he was in the right church he would be able to follow its practices and know he was doing all he could for God, so he could have peace of mind. I, on the other hand, by young adulthood sensed that all was not right with any church I had encountered. (And by this I don't mean I was discouraged because every church was made up of sinners. On the contrary, I found myself to be a great sinner, and yet I wanted to follow Jesus. I actually quit going to church until I had children, because, frustratingly, church wasn't "about" us all being sinners wanting to follow Jesus; it was more about doing things right and feeling good about ourselves, as in any social group.)

Regarding his old picture, Jack points out two ramifications he considers important: "(1) There was a faithful impartation of the Truth from Jesus to his apostles and to the original Christian church; and (2) the revealed Truth that was incorporated in the life of the original Christian church is currently reflected in those universally held doctrines, practices, beliefs, and perspectives of traditional Christianity."

These ramifications were not on my radar, because my life experience did not teach or show me that the Truth had been passed along very well. Something had gone wrong, somewhere, because life in the churches I knew often didn't make sense. Before I "found" Gutenberg, I figured all I could do was settle and do my best with what was offered, seeing as I wanted to follow Jesus, study the Bible, and raise my children with an awareness of these things, and somehow I knew God would show me the way.

So I came into the Gutenberg community from within my old picture, which showed me Jesus as God's incarnation, as well as a very broken church history, in some unknown-to-me fashion or another.

Eleven years after that, I was basically an adherent of Jack's new picture. As I've mentioned, I had studied the Bible under Jack's tutelage and trusted where his ideas were leading. At this date I would have started off comments about Christianity's origins using words similar to his: "Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, brought into existence by God, his Father, taught his Jewish disciples the true meaning and significance of what they had already learned as first-century Jews who had been taught the Scriptures in the synagogue."

My mind had changed from my old picture, which had been based on: Within the nature of the one God exist three Persons. I now accepted a new picture, that Jesus was, as I heard Jack saying it, the perfect Man who perfectly expressed God to his followers. I believed that, in this certain sense, Jesus was God. But I no longer believed Jesus existed within the nature of the one God as part of a Divine Trinity.

I had no clue that this understanding, my new picture (from Jack), would turn out to be a perfect preparation for me, when I unexpectedly launched into a serious consideration of Orthodox Christianity.

Obviously Jack was in a different spot, having read some early Church Fathers and dismissed their understanding as "enamored by and influenced by ancient pagan ideas, especially Platonic ideas." Jack believes their intellectual efforts "were less an attempt to understand the teaching of the apostles on its own terms—as the teaching of Jewish prophets who were articulating what God had revealed—and much more an attempt to understand Christian doctrine, practices, and religion in terms compatible with Hellenistic paganism."

For my own reasons, I came to need to dive into that universe of thought built upon the Scriptural interpretations of these ancient Fathers, rather than to continue my immersion in the Gutenberg understanding built largely upon Jack's Scriptural interpretations.

Because this post has grown so long already, I'll post next time on what happened as I wrestled between these viewpoints.

Here is Part 5.


important things 3: beginning to respond

Now, in truth, the question of what I have learned is not for me to answer. It is for someone else to answer—notably God. ~ Jack Crabtree

Introducing his article and talk, The Two Most Important Things I Have Learned, Dr. Crabtree humbly shares the above-quoted insightful recognition. Jack sees that those things best proclaiming a person’s understanding are what he or she does and who he or she is. I applaud and can attest to this man's commitment to studying the Bible so as to conform himself to its true understanding. This truly appears to be the focus of his intellectual life. Such commitment and focus have been, as long as I've known Jack, what he does and who he is.

In his introduction Jack lists four things about which his perspective has dramatically changed, the first of which is the Christian religion and its origins. I'll address this topic next post. In Section I he discusses the power of culture. The following are my observations on that.

Regarding culture, I basically agree with Jack. One’s culture is an enormous influence, and this influence is very difficult to recognize.

During the five years I’ve spent away from the Gutenberg community I have gained a perspective of myself that I simply couldn’t see while within the group. I now recognize my strong desire to be accepted by intellectual people. Academic minds are highly valued in our culture and throughout the world. As far as it goes, this isn’t a bad thing. People with PhD.s are often a real treat to talk with. Plus, the great minds of science, theology, literature, and the arts make contributions of inestimable value to society.

I don’t wish to criticize Jack’s insight regarding culture. I wish merely to point out the perspective I’ve gained regarding Gutenberg’s academic, intellectual culture in which Jack has worked on biblical interpretation and in which he received insights regarding historical Christianity. His insight, showing him the fact of people throughout history reading the Bible through lenses provided to them by a culture they are tempted to fear, might also apply to people reading the Bible who, like me, are tempted to fear what people of academic and/or intellectual giftedness think of them. This problem might lead to a somewhat blind acceptance of one’s teacher’s insights regarding Christianity.

I’ll take my point a step further. Within his remarks about Christianity and culture, Jack asserts that the follower of Jesus “must learn to trust his reason when it has been cut loose from its tether to other men. He must give heed to his intelligence as it receives counsel from the Bible and the Spirit of Truth.” My experience in the Orthodox Church provides me with another caveat, one that I believe comes down from the apostles. Before trusting his reason and intellect (with or without cultural influence), the apostolic understanding implores a man to recognize his need for transformation, for the renewing of his mind (nous in the Greek; see Romans 7 and 12, and elsewhere).

Absolutely, the man who follows Christ must receive counsel from the Spirit of Truth in order to interpret the Bible, but, as writers throughout the scriptures warn, he needs to “test the spirits” and make sure God is the Spirit informing his fallen, darkened intellectual understanding and guiding it along the true process toward healing. Without doing this, a man on his own is at great risk of descending into folly and self-deception. How often have people in many cultures seen this happen?

This series now continues with Christianity's Origins.


important things 2: preparing to respond

As I analogized last post, my wish is to spread across our shared table the sheets of ideas Jack Crabtree expressed a couple years ago in his paper and talk, The Two Most Important Things I Have Learned and (not without trepidation) to scrutinize them. My response will lay out the different ways I'm seeing things about faith from a five-years-new Orthodox Christian perspective.

Before I start, I'd like to share five important aspects of where I hope to be coming from:

1. These are just my observations.

Conflict is something I have a lot of trouble dealing with. I want to say I would rather run than argue, but the truth is I argue too easily. When the little furnace of emotion begins to ignite, I often rashly speak. And yet I truly do wish to (calmly, rationally) dialog about the most important things in reality, or I wouldn't be writing this. I know talking about belief in God--just stating it in most contexts--is asking for trouble, for argument, for pain. And so I want to state and repeat throughout this endeavor that I am making observations about Jack's ideas in comparison and contrast with Orthodox views. I'm not trying to coerce others to share those views.

When Tim and I sit down to talk finances, there are always moments when one or the other of us hits a sore spot regarding our different ideas about spending the money. This can't be helped, but we still love each other. Something like that scenario is what I hope for here.

2. Presuppositions are okay.

As someone from Gutenberg recently said, we can't very well exist without presuppositions. Each of us needs an operating framework for daily living. In my response I hope to point out presuppositions I've observed and how those might influence ideas (Jack's and mine).

One more thought on them for now is that throughout the gospel accounts we find people encountering Jesus and having their presuppositions shaken. The woman at the well in Sychar (Photina, as the Orthodox remember her) was amazed when Jesus spoke to her and even moreso when he told her things about her life he couldn't have known. Her amazement kept her talking to Jesus, kept her from fleeing when he exposed her presuppositions and made new claims for her to ponder. That element of surprise Photina experienced has been shared by just about everyone, I've noticed, who came into some form of contact with God in the Bible. I have to remind myself that it is part of faith's territory.

3. Culture is powerful.

I know I'm not shaking anyone's presuppositions with that statement. As someone who only ever was made to feel at home in the culture and community of Reformation Fellowship and Gutenberg College, I have sensed myself carrying that culture with me and rejoicing whenever I discover a similar spirit to it along life's way. I think I've really observed these past five years that, even though the prevailing cultures we inhabit shape and pull us in varying ways, there is a culture (of love) which can't be overcome, and perhaps it can't be completely defined or described, either, but when it shows up it is hard to deny.

4. Jack is right.

I can't tell you how many, many times over the past five years I have stepped back and marveled, when the "new" interpretations of scripture I've been exploring completely concur with those of Jack and his colleagues. Other times, it's been more like hearing the same note Jack "played" in his surmisings about things said in the Bible, yet in a more complex and deeper sense, sort of like a single horn compared to the full orchestra.

And so I want to emphasize in my response that I have observed Jack coming so close, right up to the doorstep, or right onto the station platform. Like the archeologist piecing together shards of bone, he has studied at the true "site" and is simply working out how this or that piece he's found might fit into the complete picture.

This is all to say that I have nothing on Jack as a scholar, philosopher, and imaginer. I might be terribly far wrong when I point out where I think he is missing something. I'd really like such errors in my thinking to be pointed out. (It happens fairly often, actually, in the studies I've done with Orthodox people--they will point out such errors on my part in critiquing Jack; this is how I've come to appreciate Jack's efforts even more than I did before.)

5. I am wrong.

Hopefully this follows from what I've already said. While I might never like to think so, I take a long time to truly get things. As an observer by nature, I tend to try and express what I think I'm seeing. This helps in reaching even tentative conclusions. It's like climbing a ladder or stepping onto the hiking trail. One rung, one effort at a time. If this is the wrong trail or a too-rickety ladder, I want to find that out.

But--and here's another observation--I need help in the process of seeking the truth. Sometimes it's really hard to see that one is shunning help and climbing the unsteady ladder alone. Hard for me, hard for Jack. For anyone. There's no sense, of course, in accepting help from an uncaring helper, from someone who chooses to remain stubbornly blind yet wishes to guide others. This was never the case for me with folks at Gutenberg/RF. And so I ask your help, and I hope for your consideration of the loving helpers I think I have discovered.

Next post, I will, really truly, begin my response to Jack's treatise.

Part 3 has arrived.