servant's commonplace

by Servant Michael

Anonymous asked: What makes us have a proper standing before God?

Hi Anon!

In western Christianity, man has lost his standing in the favor of God because of the sin of his ancestor Adam, who disobeyed the commandment of God and was judged guilty for this transgression. Not only did Adam bring about God’s judgement on himself, but God  also imputes his guilt to all of his progeny. In this view the Second Person of the Trinity takes on human nature in order to fulfill the punishment that humanity’s guilt requires, he dies on the cross and takes upon Himself the wrath of God.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, however, we do not hold such a view of original sin. We don’t understand the fallen condition of man to be a falling out of favor with God but to be a corruption of the human person, resulting in death. Rather than God turning away from man, man has turned away from God. God however, being the lover of mankind, pursues his wayward creatures, showing Himself and His mercy throughout history and ultimately in his taking on a human nature as the God-Man Jesus Christ. In becoming incarnate he brought a new order to everything, the Kingdom of God, and everywhere he went the Kingdom was made visible: the blind saw, the deaf heard, the dead were brought back to life. In His crucifixion He entered into the state of the dead, but being God death could not contain him, and he burst forth, trampling down death by His death and bringing life to all.

So my answer is that I don’t think its an issue of being outside of God’s good favor, rather I believe that God’s favor is always with us. The question is whether we will accept that favor, turn to Him through the washing of Holy Baptism and be nourished by Him in the Holy Eucharist, the result of which will be the emptying of all our ego, pride, and sin, and our being transformed from glory to glory into the image of Jesus Christ.

I hope that helps, please feel free to ask any follow-up questions you’d like.

ICXC NIKA,

Servant Michael

PS: Steve Robinson has done a much better job at explaining this is the video I have posted below. Cheers!

Hi, my name is Michael, and I am a theonerd. (“Hi, Michael!”)

I mean that in the most pejorative sense possible. In the College Humor
“Religious People Are Geeks” sense. 16th Century Europe is my Middle
Earth. Geneva is my Galaxy Far, Far Away. Koine Greek is my Klingon. I
have collected books on theology and religion and church history like
others collect comic books or anime or vintage NES games. I have
attended conferences and shaken hands with Reformed luminaries. I never
dressed up as a Magisterial Reformer, thank God, but I’m ashamed to say
I almost did on an occasion or two. I drank beer with Michael Horton
once, and have had RC Sproul Jr’s homebrew and sausage sandwiches a few
times.

If you don’t know who those guys are, don’t worry. Like I said, I’m a
nerd. Except instead of being able to say I ate nachos with William
Shatner I can say that I had an In-N-Out burger (animal style!) with
Ligon Duncan. One time I almost bought a John Calvin bust at John
MacArthur’s church.

I tried to kick the habit on my own, but always failed miserably. So I’m
here to admit that I have a problem.

Even when I abandoned Reformed theology, the problem followed. But now
instead of collecting the works of John Owen I was attempting to geek
out on Eastern Orthodox stuff. Happily I got called out on it, and am
back on the wagon. No more buying theological books, frequenting
religious discussion boards, or trading theoflames on the Interwebs.

I’ve been internet argument free for six weeks! I’m hoping to stay that
way. But if you see me slipping, you have my permission to punch me in
the kidneys.

As a sort of semi-resolution for New Years, I decided to return to a
consistent, deliberate reading of the Scriptures. I hadn’t read them in
any kind of consistent way for about a year, and it was way past time to
start again. There are all kinds of systems for reading the Bible,
one-year plans or thematic plans and suchlike. We have a liturgical
calendar that has Epistle and Gospel lessons for each day as well. I
wanted a method of reading that was going to be most spiritually
beneficial for me as well as something that I could do consistently and
not become frustrated with or tempted to quit. I went and asked my
priest his advice, and he gave me some brilliant direction.

I was used to approaching the Scriptures for study, like when I would be
preparing a sermon or lesson or theological article. What I was not
accustomed to was reading simply. No commentaries, no language tools, no
Greek New Testament or multiple English translations. Father suggested a
translation that was clear and not archaic, and simply picking it up and
reading. He said to read twice a day, Old Testament in the morning and
New Testament in the evening, and to do so without an agenda of a
particular number of chapters or pages to read and without a goal of
time spent. Read, he said, until you find your mind wandering, and then
stop.

Father also addressed the manner of reading, suggesting reverencing the
book of the Scriptures the way one would venerate an icon, to cross
myself and say a prayer before I started reading. He said to read
slowly, paying attention to the words and not being so concerned about
making conclusions about what I am reading. He suggested picking times
to read that we’re connected to times of prayer, like immediately before
or after saying morning and evening prayers, and being sure to approach
the reading of the Scriptures as something sacred, having a prayerful
attitude and not treating it casually.

The goal of reading the Scriptures, Father said, is not to gather
information, to learn facts, or even to come away with life lessons.
Rather, it is the transformation of the human person to be like Jesus
Christ. To this end the Scriptures should not be read as an academic
textbook, but with meditation, storing its words up in one’s heart,
being immersed in them, being formed by them, learning with the soul and
not just with the brain.

Some of this was familiar to me, and some quite foreign. I had for
example never thought to kiss my Bible before reading it! But in the
last three years I’ve been re-learning how to be a Christian, how to
follow Jesus. Some of the things I’ve discovered have been surprising,
and even the things that are similar to what I used to know often have
completely different rationales, methods, reasons, effects, and
purposes. I’m glad to be able to re-learn how to read the Scriptures,
and to find their role in the life of an Orthodox believer.

*You can’t be serious that you believe what Rachel Held Evans believes
about Scripture,* someone tweeted to me some time ago. I think I had
linked to one of her blog posts that I appreciated. And I suppose this
guy was right, I likely don’t believe the same as Rachel Held Evans
about the Scriptures. But I like a lot of what she writes, and if I
appreciate something she says on her blog or in her books, I will
probably link it or talk about it without detailing every bit where I
might disagree with her.

The funny thing is, when I read Protestansts lately, the ones I find
myself gravitating towards are those who I might have once excoriated as
lefty emergent ‘heretics’ (although I don’t think that word means what I
thought it meant). I actually really liked Brian MacLaren’s The Secret
Message of Jesus, Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, Rachel
Held Evans’s Evolving In Monkey Town, Rob Bell’s Love Wins, and Don
Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. Of course I did not agree with everything in
those books, but one has the impression that those authors might be a
little creeped out if someone agreed with *everything* they said. Where
I disagreed with them, it was definitely not where my once Reformed
Protestant self would have disagreed. I find that there were things in
those books that were way closer to Eastern Orthodoxy than they were to
Evangelical Protestantism. Where I disagreed, it was usually in the
places where they were *closer* to traditional Protestantism than I am.

Do I agree with Rachel Held Evans’s view of Scripture? Of course not.
Her Bible only has 66 books.

Do I agree with Don Miller’s view of the Church? Nope. He doesn’t
believe its One.

Do I agree with Brian MacLaren on salvation? Not hardly. He sees no
saving role for the Mysteries of the Church.

I don’t think that complete agreement is necessary to learn from
someone, though.

And I’ve learned some amazing stuff from these folks.

* That the love of God is expansive, prodigal, and scandalous.

* That God’s scandalous love and expansive compassion should be
reflected in the life of a Christian by being their being expansively
loving and compassionate toward others, especially those whose
lifestyles and beliefs are different than our own.

* That the Gospel of Jesus is preached by actions of care and concern
and mercy and justice for our neighbor and not just by words.

* That we need to take the words of Jesus in Scripture as seriously as
we take those of St Paul.

* That theology is not the end all be all of the Christian life, but
that serving one’s neighbor might be a more orthodox Gospel than having
a correct systematic theology.

* That conformity to a certain subculture does not make one a better
Christian.

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I have no dog in any fight between
relative conservatives and relative liberals in the various Protestant
churches. I can therefore be free to learn from those who are good at
what they do regardless of which conferences they speak at or which
denominations sell their books. And I’m happy to be able to support them
in what they do well, even if it’s just by buying their books.

I’m not sure even how to write this without coming across as
sanctimonious or something, but I just need to get some thoughts out.

To be a Christian means in some sense to be someone who follows the
teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, right? And there are tons of people out
there that claim to be Christians, right? So why are there so many
explicit teachings of Jesus that we don’t actually follow generally?

I have in mind specifically the teaching of the Lord to feed the poor,
clothe the naked, give water to the thirsty, and visit the sick and
imprisoned. This is found in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew,
and it is a very familiar story to most Christians. We’ll recall that
those who did not do these things were never known by the Lord, and that
they had in ignoring service to those in need ignored service to the
Lord himself.

It’s not like we don’t know that this teaching is in the Scriptures. I
recall hearing it frequently as a child in Sunday School. But the way
that we attempt to follow it is in the most lazy and half-assed way
possible. We outsource it.

We’ve set up companies (we call them ‘ministries’) that will feed the
homeless and clothe the naked. No need to actually meet some homeless or
indigent people, to have to get one’s hands dirty, to do any of the
labor involved. We’ll donate to our charity of choice and bam! the work
gets done. We’ll hire a bunch of employees to do what we can’t be
bothered to.

Certainly those in need benefit from these companies. And from that
perspective they’re great. The people who are losing out is everyone out
there who says they are a Christian but can’t be bothered to do this bit
that Jesus said we should do. Because no matter what your theology is,
Jesus says there is an explicit link between your service to the needy
and your salvation. I’m not saying that one can earn salvation. I’m just
pointing out that there is a link.

I don’t think that we all need to go out and be Mother Theresa. I do
think that it will benefit us more spiritually to make an extra sandwich
when you put your lunch together and find someone to give it too. Carry
an extra coat in your trunk in case you find someone who’s cold. You
know that estranged second cousin who’s in jail for shoplifting or
criminal possession or DUI? Visit him. Don’t you think we should be
finding ways to personally fulfill these teachings and not how to
loophole out of them?

I’m not trying to disparage anyone, in fact this is mostly a rant
against myself since I suck at being a Christian and specifically
following the bits above. I’m no Shane Claiborne or Mother Theresa. I’ve
become so calloused in my heart that sometimes I can pass someone and
not even notice that he’s in need, in this sense people become invisible
to me. I’m trying to fix this, by God’s mercy I hope I will.

A couple of weeks after my dad reposed, I was packing up our apartment in anticipation of moving into the house I grew up in. We had two children and were expecting our third, so Hannah was tired and crashed shortly after the kids went to bed. I was up by myself, packing up books and papers from the office-corner in our living room. The numbness of the past two weeks had worn off and I was shot through with emotion.

I missed my dad so much. In the month or so before he died he and I had been talking on the phone every day, and it seemed like it was a particularly close time in our up-and-down relationship. Even in the ‘down’ times, if I was in need of anything or was having a particularly hard time I knew that I could call my dad and he would help. But not now. It was the worst of need in a sense, and he was not there to help. I felt the harsh irony of the situation acutely.

I was sad for my brothers, who seemed to be taking the loss far worse than I did. I was especially sad for Chris, who lived 14 hours away and had to return so quickly to work after a brief visit home. I was angry, but not at anyone in particular. I wasn’t angry at God, nor at my dad. I was just angry, perhaps at the situation of my own helplessness. I was overwhelmingly hot with anger that I had no way and no right to express. So I didn’t fly in to a rage or throw things or strike the walls. I just kept packing.

I felt far form my Christian friends who decided to give me platitudes about God’s sovereignty instead of just saying they were sorry. I wasn’t really angry with them but I was kind of hurt that their theology seemed to preclude sympathy.

I felt most distance from God. I tried to pray but couldn’t. I tried to think theologically about the circumstance, but that just made me upset because my Calvinistic theology only allowed me to see it as an arbitrary work of God for the sake of his own glory, and that just wasn’t a good enough explanation for me. I didn’t really want to have anything to do with a God so arbitrary.

My faith was teetering, my whole being was a wreck, all those whom I could depend on were gone. In the midst of packing books and papers I lost composure completely and sank weeping to the floor. Unbidden, the words came to my lips:

Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Hail Mary, Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

What came after was not a beatific vision, not a light from heaven, not even a feeling as such. It was a simple knowing. Knowing that the Holy Virgin was there, knowing that she understood loss, knowing that she prayed for me. I could go to the Theotokos and ask her prayers and take strength from her intercession. It was this moment in which a great affection and love and devotion was born in my soul for Mary. After this, I did not need a theological reason to speak of her as my Mother or my Lady. It was simply so. I needed no historical examples for ascribing her exalted titles or later to venerate her icon, this was as natural as embracing any other beloved person. It was not argument that brought me to love the Theotokos, but her gentle intercession when I needed her.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

I’ve been wanting to write a bit about the Virgin Mary for some time,
but it’s hard when there is so much potential for misunderstanding. So I
just have to be up front about a couple of things: I don’t worship Mary
as divine. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who honors the Theotokos
who thinks she should be the fourth member of the Trinity or any such
absurd thing, whether they are Catholic or Orthodox or whatever. It is
certainly possible that somewhere someone might honor her in a wrong or
excessive way, but I’ve not seen it.

I also have to disclose that I while I am convinced that the doctrine
taught by the Eastern Orthodox Church regarding the Theotokos is true, I
don’t really have a place for theological dispute in my life any longer.
I can’t be bothered to spend time debating the Immaculate Conception
with Catholics or the Perpetual Virginity with Protestants. It’s just
not something I’m interested in or have time for.

Of course as a Protestant I didn’t have a whole lot of regard for the
Holy Theotokos. I didn’t feel particularly strongly against her or those
who would venerate her, I honestly didn’t think about it very much. I do
remember being amused at one point by a story about the early Scottish
Protestant John Knox who cast a carving of the Virgin off the side of a
ship, but I don’t remember having particular animosity toward her.

I remember from early childhood that my grandmother was really into the
supposed appearances of the Theotokos at Fatima and Medjugorje and
Lourdes and such. She made pilgrimages to those places and reported
peaceful feelings from visiting. I thought it was all sort of weird -
still do, in fact. I don’t know what to make of such appearances, but
it’s not my business as I am not Catholic.

The first time I ever actually stopped to consider the veneration of the
Holy Virgin was when I first encountered Marian devotion in the Anglican
church. As I was pursuing ordination, I had to come to grips with the
fact that I might be serving people who believed differently than I did
regarding the role of saints and of Mary in particular in the life of
the believer. I started reading about Marian devotion in the Eastern and
Western churches and while I did not at this time adopt the practice
myself I at least didn’t consider it heretical and was content to be
part of an ecclesial community that accepted but did not prescribe such
devotion. I should note that where I live a substantial portion of
Anglicans are former Catholics who for one reason or another leave the
Latin church but retain their Catholic belief, so there are a good pile
of Anglicans who retain all of their various Catholic devotions.

At some point I learned not only to accept but also to appreciate those
who honored and asked the intercession of Mary. I found it beautiful
that they seemed to have a real relationship with the Mother of God and
it seemed to strengthen their relationship and devotion to the Lord
Jesus. I did not find in the people that I interacted with a single
instance where devotion to Christ was hindered by or took a back seat to
their devotion to Mary. This still however was not something I adopted
myself. It would take something of a crisis for me to flee to the
comforting embrace of Mother Mary.

Hannah and I watched the movie version of Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz last night. I had read the book a couple of years ago when I was an Anglican postulant exploring outside the Reformed tradition. I ended up liking the book a lot, and while I don’t really look to it for guidance as such, I appreciate a lot of the questions that it raised. Its been a while since I’ve read it but I recall sympathizing greatly with Miller’s spiritual journey.

I also find it really funny in retrospect that Miller described his ideal Christian as someone who smoked cigarettes, rode a vintage Triumph, and attended a Greek Orthodox church.

The film takes vignettes from the book and weaves them into one story, simplifying some of the situations and providing narrative structure. I think they’ve combined a couple of the characters as well, as in the case of Penny, who has attributes of at least two different characters in the book. While this serves to fictionalize Miller’s story, it did make it more compelling for the screen and I think it was a good choice on the part of Miller and writer/director Steve Taylor.

I think this film largely exists to separate being a Christian from all of the subcultural baggage that usually attends Christianity. I don’t know that it was entirely successful in that, but I’m happy that at least someone is trying to show that you can be a Christian but not a Republican or whatever. Something in this resonates for me, as I truly cannot remember a time when I was comfortable with being identified with evangelical subculture even back when I thought buying dc Talk albums was cool. There was always something too pat, too plastic, to ‘positive and encouraging’ to be real.

I appreciate that the film seems to have (as Miller himself does, I gather) a preference for liturgical Christianity over lower-church expressions. There is an obvious dichotomy set up between the ‘bad type of church’ as seen the Texas Baptist church of Miller’s youth and the liturgical church in Portland (which appears Episcopalian but this is never specified) to which Miller is eventually drawn. The transition from a more ‘contemporary’ to a more ritualistic or liturgical milieu is suggestive to me of a move from a faith that is abstract or ethereal to one that is grounded in mystical action. Or perhaps its somewhat counter-gnostic in a move from paradigm that rejects the physical side of faith toward one that embraces it.

I liked as well that the arc for the fictionalized Miller character was one of misplaced certainty leading to doubt/rejection and resolving to faith. There is a reason that Christians for two thousand years have been praying “Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.” Our paths may frequently lead us through valleys of doubt, but the greater enemy to faith may just be a false sense of certainty rooted in ignorance.

On the whole I appreciated the picture of a de-idealized Christianity. Following Jesus is after all not a matter of affirming abstract propositions nor of mere external action. A Christian is one who may doubt, may disagree, may have an uneasy relationship with other types of Christians, but still follows Jesus as best he can where he is. A hyper-idealized version of Christianity would disallow the existence of such a person, perhaps suggesting that such a person was not a Christian at all or worse, was destined to never be saved at all.

For my Protestant friends, one of the stranger practices of Orthodox Christianity is the use of icons. Often it is considered at best misguided, and at worst blasphemous or idolatrous. When I was a Baptist I considered the veneration of icons a profound abuse, akin to the sin of Aaron and the Israelites in the creation of a golden calf to worship as the deliverer from their captivity in Egypt. I started researching the veneration of icons as a means to argue against their use, and in the process of learning more came to appreciate the practice and eventually to begin using them in prayer myself. While the theological argument in favor of their use was compelling to me, what really brought me to understand the use of icons was the benefit that their use brought me.

My mind has a tendency to wander, not least when I am in prayer. Even when I began to favor the use of written prayers over praying extemporaneously, I’ve found it hard to keep my attention on the words I’m saying and on the Person that I am speaking to. Icons give me something to focus on, another point on which to anchor my attention. The visual element of the image of the Lord Jesus or the Holy Virgin or the saints complements the auditory element of the read prayers to capture my consciousness and does not easily let my errant mind escape.

Sometimes in prayer when my mind isn’t actively wandering, it might still happen that I forget that I am addressing a Divine Person, not an abstract. That God is invisible makes it difficult sometimes to remember that He is not an ethereal force or a concept. In the Incarnation, God became man in the Person of Jesus Christ, and keeping His holy image before my eyes helps remind me that I am not simply reciting theological ideas nor am I engaging in wishy thinking vaguely directed at a higher power somewhere in the ether. I’m reminded that I am in audience with the God-man Jesus Christ, that in His mercy he hears prayers as the King of everything.

On the icon screen in an Orthodox temple and in the icon corner in my home, there are more people than the just the Lord Jesus depicted there in icons. In church one would see the Holy Theotokos Mary, the Four Evangelists, John the Forerunner and Baptist, Stephen the Protomartyr, the patron saint for whom that particular church is named, and probably many others. In my house you’ll see in addition to Christ and the Theotokos icons of Michael the Archangel, Hannah the mother of the Prophet Samuel, Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, Seraphim of Sarov, Hermione the daughter of the Apostle Phillip, and Tabitha whom the Apostle Peter raised from the dead. When I pray before the images of these my forerunners and examples of faithfulness, I know that I do not pray to God by myself. There is a chorus of the faithful in the presence of God who pray with me and for me. My voice is just a small one among many.

Praying before icons also adds a physical dimension to what would otherwise be only a mental and verbal exercise. Not only is there the physical image to gaze upon, but it is the practice of Orthodox Christians to bow before the icons, make the sign of the cross, kiss the icons, and light candles before them. This is not to honor the icons themselves, but in reverence of who is depicted. When I kiss the icon of Christ, I am showing affection for my Lord. When I light a candle before the icon of the Theotokos, I am asking for her continual intercession. When I make the sign of the cross and bow, I acknowledge that to stand in the presence of God is no light thing, but is accomplished only by being united to Jesus Christ by the grace of his death and resurrection and that I must approach humbly.

So for these reasons, I’ve come not only to accept praying with icons, but to be edified by and love this practice. I’ve been brought nearer to my Savior in this way, and for that I cannot be grateful enough.

Social media is quite the doubled edged sword. Blogging especially often
facilitates the airing of the worst of human foibles without any type of
redeeming qualities. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I should be
doing things like blogging, and for now I do believe that I’ve come to a
peaceful decision about my use of at least this bit of social media. I
shall blog regularly again, but I have to say something up front: I am
not an expert on anything. Neither my education nor my experience is
sufficient to be at all competent to analyze or comment on issues for
other people. In fact, I am barely competent to come to my own
conclusions and have learned to not to trust myself on most things,
especially the ones I feel strongly about.

Additionally, I am no one’s authority. As I am not an expert I cannot
speak authoritatively on anything. I am also not a priest or bishop, not
a philosopher or theologian, not an executive or a lawmaker. I’m just a
guy. I sell steel by day and write other peoples’ stuff by night, in
between I spend time with my wife and kids and make it to church as much
as I can. I am excessively opinionated, but that is a vice that I am
working on and not a virtue to be extolled. There are only four people
that I have anything at all resembling authority over and they are all
under four feet tall.

So why blog? My answer to that question is a purely selfish one. I blog
for me. I blog because writing helps me sort out my thoughts. It helps
by forcing me to articulate ideas that float about in my head that seem
so reasonable until I have to actually express them. I have a tendency
to think of myself more highly than I ought, and when I find out that
those ideas that I thought were so brilliant while unexpressed are
really quite nonsense when articulated it brings my ego back down to
where it belongs.

Blogging is also a decent way to learn new perspectives on issues I
thought I had settled, especially when a post generates comments,
tweets, and the like. If I put something out for the world to see, I
want to receive feedback whether positive or negative and I want to be
receptive to any reader’s feedback.

So while my starting point is a selfish one, I hope that this can be an
endeavor that is ultimately helpful to more people that just myself. I
would like to be what Jesus of Nazareth called a ‘servant of all,’ and
to use even this medium to be a helper to my digital neighbor whether
distant or near in real life. I hope that any readers will find in the
midst of my goofiness, frequent wrongness, excessive opinion, and
general incompetence, something that might benefit them and just maybe
point them to that which is good, true, and beautiful.