“…more precious than gold.”

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Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. John 11:25-26

I am comfortable in my faith. I am not swayed this way or that way. I stand firmly in the promises from God. I am often asked if I know the bible. I usually laugh inside a little bit. My minor in college was Biblical Archeology. We did not study Scripture for memorizational purposes. We studied the Bible in order to verify archeological proofs of the existence of landmarks and relics which back up all the words contained in the Bible. And for me, even though I was undertaking this study at a secular university, I was still touched deeply by the proofs I was able see in front of me. But belief does not require us to touch proofs – faith!

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It is also the exact opposite – believing what is not there, not tangible. Our faith in the Word of God is an amazing thing. In the Eastern Churches, we stand in the Presence of God. When the Word is processed in, we sing and we stand. We elaborately decorate the Holy Book, containing the Word. We incense it; we hold it aloft; we kiss it; we venerate it. We believe God is just as Present in His Word as He is in the Eucharistic Presence. We also believe He is Present in His Church: “For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Matthew 18:20.  So when we hear the Word proclaimed during our Liturgies, joined as a community, we believe God is Present. We cannot see Him, but we believe Him to be with us.

And one of the things I love about being a faithful Christian is sharing the many and varied ways God makes Himself known to His people. I know He shares His Truth with millions around the world – we just celebrate it a little differently. We believe in the inherent truths contained in the Bible that was established through the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. At this Council the basic Canon of Scripture was codified and the world had the Bible. We were given the Word as it remains (for the most part) today. And we have faith in things unseen.

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So much of what we argue about in our religious discussions are pretty much opinion, not doctrine or dogma. Why is that? Very few people actually study what they believe or why they believe it. They prefer the “cliff notes” and get the “gist” and go from there. I cannot even tell you how many times I am asked by those near and dear to me, for me to tell them a plot line or explain something to them because, shock of all shocks, I am a reader. I LOVE TO READ. Anyone who knows me knows that I am forever involved in some sort of reading schedule, immersed in a story or plot of some sort. And I am that way about learning anything. I dive in with both feet until my curiosity is satiated and my knowledge has grown. I own it. I don’t rely on others to spout it for me. I make my information my own; I take responsibility for what I am diving into.

In my previous posts, I mentioned the transitory and also superficial nature of modern relationships and the effects social media has had on them. This applies to our faith as well. Many people just sit in the pew. They are spoon-fed their religion. Their faith is pretty superficial because it relies solely on others to give it to them. They know, however, if you make subtle changes on Sunday. Ever walk into a place you go to regularly and just know something is off? Well, if you try and make subtle changes to Liturgy, watch out! Just because it’s always been done that way, it must be the “right way.” Heaven forbid someone who has studied and learned tries to offer their expertise and experience to help the liturgical experience be more authentic. That’s when those who seemingly have these superficial ideas about what you’re supposed to be doing go all out – protesting and complaining. At least they are involved – at that point. And let’s face it – no one likes their apple cart upset.

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Well, I love apple pie and I’d love to take all those upset apples and make a pie. Not this time. Those who choose to complain the loudest get the most notice. Ha-Ha. But as I started this post with quotes from the Bible about our faith, our faith is there for us to rely on. And I am grateful beyond words for my Spiritual Fathers (most of whom live very far away) who lovingly guide me, even when others are questioning my faith. Christ made us promises, too. And I believe His promises more than I believe the words of men (and/or women) whom I can no longer trust. My Spiritual Fathers, I trust. Their words to me, I trust. And late at night when I toss and turn and worry over these things, their words, along side the Word of Christ, give me peace and joy in my heart.

“…and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.” 1Peter 3:17

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“Here’s your sign…”

Church spire

I have been thinking about signs. There are all sorts of signs in our lives. Sometimes we heed them, and quite often we obtusely ignore them. This will be a tired set of comments for those of you who know us, but there has been road construction in and around our house since July. They tore up the corner (we are not exactly on a corner, but there is not enough space between us and the corner for another house, if that makes sense) and the cross street adjacent to us in July. We live at a “T” intersection. They finally tore up the long part of the T, which is in front of our house, in August. We have had a huge hole in front of our driveway for the past month. They are replacing a sewer pump station, replacing poor storm drains, and putting in a paved trail area in the space between our house and the corner. Our town recently became part of the municipality and all these upgrades have followed. Apparently, there are curb requirements at intersections. We have never had a curb on our side of the street. And our side is where they pile the snow in winter, when they plow. So they are trying to put in curbs and also replace and flatten the dirt to repave the area. There have been “Road Closed” signs up for weeks. Apparently no one reads them. Each week, the crews flatten and grade this road. Each week idiots do their 4-wheeling best to tear up the grading and drive past the “Road Closed” signs. The only ones who do not have direct access to their home is us – and we’ve been taking the alternate route, adding considerable time to our commute. I was chatting with the work crew today, because I have to park our truck out on the graded dirt for the next three days while they attempt to pour cement curbbage in our area (did I mention it is pouring rain?). We spoke about ignoring signs. It is funny because it is only the convenience factor that has people ignoring the “Road Closed” signs; every single one of them can access their homes through the alternate route. In fact, at the top of our street (it’s a fairly decent hill) someone actually moved that “Road Closed” sign onto someone’s lawn, so they could drive through. It just amazes me. The workers and I discussed how it is taxpayer money (a state project no less) and grant money that people are wasting by 4-wheeling down graded roads and making them spend half their days redoing the roads. It was supposed to have been done a couple of weeks ago, but due to rain and traffic damage, they are way behind. They jokingly told us back in July that they hoped to be done by the first snows. And we all laughed. Perhaps they weren’t as far off as they joked. If only people would heed the signs.

And that brings me to reminisce on our feast day yesterday, “The Exultation of the Holy Cross,” as it is referred to in the Eastern Churches. We venerate and celebrate the Cross of Christ. Why would someone celebrate the Cross? Why would we even want to see a Cross? Many Christian sects around the world think it is wrong to celebrate and remember the Cross. Someone once told me a Catholic Crucifix is like wearing a photograph of a dead body around your neck. I guess I can see that. Somewhat. In the East and in Orthodoxy, we don’t normally wear a crucifix, but instead a Byzantine Cross.

Byzantine Cross

I am often asked why I wear this particular cross and what it means. People often assume it is some sort of Asian glyph. But it is not. To explain the meaning of it, the top cross beam represents the sign they hung above Christ, “Jesus Christ, King of the Jews.” The second cross beam is where they nailed His hands. The bottom one is where His feet were nailed. When they removed His body, the cross beam at the bottom slipped – the right side was raised, pointing to the Thief who obtained Paradise with Christ that very day; the left side, pointing downward, represents the thief who chose his fate in separation from Grace. It speaks volumes to me and is THE sign for me; THE sign that Christ gave His life for me.

There are signs all over, asking us to pay attention. My neighbors insist on ignoring the “Road Closed” signs and continue to “go around.” They cause ruin and lost time each and every time they ignore that sign. What do we ignore in our lives that also costs us? I know that God places signs all over the place for us to notice Him in our lives. Quite often they are small; but often they are 2 x 4s, slapping us up the side of the head. Have you ever been obstinate in something, continually seeking it, only to have it slip away? Or obstinate to the point of stubbornness? To the point where you throw caution to the wind and “do it anyway”? Have you ever ignored everyone’s advice (even when you asked for it) and gone and done something anyway? How did that work out for you? Most often, when I have pushed something, it does not end profitably for me. And profit is not just about money.

I dated idiots in my youth, thinking I could “fix” them. Yes, I dated some wonderful men who were great for me, but with whom I was not meant to share a life. But the proportionate of men who did not work out were “projects,” not dates. What was I thinking? Like I am some incredible woman and I know what’s best for them, so I can change them and make them better? Ha-Ha. I ignored every sign sent my way, all advice given to me. It is almost as if I was thinking, “I’ll show them! I know what’s best for me. But more importantly, I know what’s best for them!” Yeah. Stupid me. I have people in my life who consistently ask for advice, but they are not listening. They are preparing their response to me, in order to justify what they are going to do anyway. And hey, that’s just fine. More and more I give them lip service, because I know they aren’t truly listening, and are going to do what they choose, anyway. And that’s okay. But how often do we pray to God, seeking advice, while we’re already going to do something anyway??? How often do we go around those “Road Closed” signs and cause all sorts of damage?

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During the Exultation of the Holy Cross, we have some incredible prayers. There are several that I think apply to our world, and most especially to our Country. I only wish people would heed these signs, and pray some of these prayers:

Kontakion of the Cross: “O Christ our God, Who chose by Your own free volition to be elevated upon the Holy Cross, grant Your mercies to Your new people who are called by Your name. In Your power, gladded the hearts of our public authorities; strengthen them in every good deed so that Your true alliance may be for them a weapon of peace and a standard of Victory.

One of the Sessional Hymns for Orthros on this feast is: “O Lover of Mankind, we venerate the Wood of Your Cross, for You, the Life of all, were nailed upon it. O Savior, You opened Paradise to the thief who turned to You in faith, and You counted him worthy of blessedness when he confessed You by crying out, “Remember me O Lord!” Accept us, like him, for we cry out, “We all have sinned; in Your merciful kindness, do not reject us!

And we continually sing, throughout the Liturgy, “We bow in worship before Your Cross, O Christ, and we give praise to Your Holy Resurrection.”

How can we dismiss the signs Our Lord has left for us? We can witness to one another by wearing a cross. We can place stickers of them on our cars, hang them from our rear-view mirrors. We can offer them to others, as a sharing of this Sign from God. When we were first married, my husband had a wedding ring with a cross on it. He wanted me to wear one, too. At that point in my life, I realized I was not ready for the Sign of God on my hand.  I mean, what if I cut someone off in traffic? Used bad words in anger, while wearing a cross on my finger? I just could not do it. Nowadays, I feel naked if I do not have a cross on my person in some form, somewhere. I always wear one around my neck. For an anniversary my husband got me that matching ring with a cross on it, and when my fingers aren’t all swollen with arthritis, I wear it. Gladly, I wear it. Why? I need the reminder. I need the sign. I need it, whether anyone else does or not. Christ hung on that cross for three hours, for me. Whether or not there was another human being on earth, Christ would die for my sins, and mine alone. Each and every person, who believes in Him, was atoned because of Him. And His grace spreads… every where. We are so blessed with signs.

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Road Closed – Local Traffic Only. That’s the sign by my house. Which signs do you heed? Which signs do you ignore? Does your indifference to the signs you are given cause damage and cost those around you? Do you purposely thwart God and continually do it your own way? I saw a great little comment on Facebook this week:

“You cannot pray for an A on a test and study for a B. You cannot pray for a faithful relationship and still live an unfaithful life. Moral of the story is you cannot pray for something and act less.

Don’t question my God and His abilities when your actions don’t match your prayers.”

I love that. Don’t pray for something and act less. How often have I prayed for peace and been disgustingly cranky to everyone around me? How often have I brought peace to this world? How often have I begged God for something, but done nothing to help myself along? When we were discerning the radical move to Alaska, we sought sign after sign after sign. We asked that doors be not only closed, but removed and disintegrated. We asked that no other options present themselves to us, but to relocate. We sought peace in our decision. We sat in the presence of God and sought silent affirmation. We opened ourselves to His will. And we heeded the peace we found, the answers given to us. Just last night, on our drive home from Divine Liturgy, we thanked God once again for bringing us here. We are so blessed. We look consistently, and constantly, for God’s Will and His signs for us in our lives. We have missed a few, because He loves to whisper in this noisy world, but we have seen those errors and we try, fervently, to listen and watch for His will in our lives. It is the hardest thing I have ever done, being a Christian. But it is the most rewarding and peaceful thing, as well. As this world spins crazily on its axis and things get more and more insane around us, we cling to His Cross, to His Sign. We choose to listen to, and see His signs. We choose not to go around them. 

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“…nothing before His love…”

Ascension174 Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension.  This is the day Our Lord ascended to His Father, Body and Soul.  This day should change how people think of eternity, and how they think of death.  As Christians, we believe Christ rose from the dead after three days.  We believe the account in the Book of Acts when we are told that He spent 40 days among His Apostles.

“The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God…” (Acts 1:1-3).

Ascension IconIn the Book of Acts, we hear of many of the “proofs” given to His followers that He had, indeed, risen from the dead, as He foretold.  We believe this because eyewitnesses tell us, through this written record, but also through faith.  In the west, bells are normally rung at the moment of “transubstantiation,” or the point at which Jesus becomes present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the appearance of bread and wine.  In the east, we take the moment on faith, not delineating exactly when Christ manifests Himself on the altar, but we believe He is present.  We also believe He is equally present in His Word…which is why in the east, there is a procession before the Gospel is read, with the Gospel book held high and bows are made as the priest and deacon walk by with the Gospel, the same as when the Holy Gifts are brought to the altar. We also incense at both points in our Liturgy.  God is present in His people, in His word, and in His Body and Blood during communion – each is equal in many ways for those of us in the east. It is belief that what we do here on earth is mirrored in heaven.  We believe.  We believe it all.

The Ascension, as pictured in an icon above, is about so much more than what was written down.  Christ never set aside the fact or the reality that He was God.  He never set aside the fact or reality that He was Man.  He suffered for us in his Humanity.  He suffered just as we do, in all things except for Sin.  He was the “God made man.”  When He rose after the 40 days He spent instructing and being present to His apostles, He rose fully man, and fully God.  But He rose in the aspect of His Humanity, becoming the Risen Lord, the Lord of Hosts, in His Humanity.  We strive to be like Him.  As Christians it is our goal to become as Christ-like to everyone (and to ourselves) as we can be.  We believe that becoming Christ-like is the one true path to our eternity in Heaven, sharing it with God Himself.  Because we believe all of this, and we have written records of this event, and we have historical anecdotes about this and many of the events in the life of Christ (my minor in college was Biblical archeology – trust me, we have the proofs) we need to take a leap in our logical thinking here.  Take a leap of faith, if you want to call it that.  What is the leap?  It is called, “Theosis,” or becoming like God.  It is a progression we make in our spirituality in that we believe we will be present in eternity with God in our humanity.  That means that God, who resides in the heavenly realms in His Humanity, will welcome us to the same place, in our human bodies.  Christ deified His human form by rising into Heaven in His humanity; we will, as well, be welcomed into heaven in our human forms…we will be deified, too.

So many people freak out when you talk about this. But it is a thread of philosophy running through Christianity that has an actual name – Theosis.  It is such a huge subject and such a hard truth, that if you google it, you will be amazed at how many resources touch on the subject.  One article I enjoyed is linked here: http://www.antiochian.org/content/theosis-partaking-divine-nature

The goal in life is to be forgiven, to reach the heavenly realms and reside for eternity with God.  For me, if I am allowed through those “Pearly Gates,” I will be thrilled to just be allowed in.  Nosebleed seats work great for me.  The Ascension is a promise that our human nature can participate in the divine nature.  We will be among the saints who have gone before us.  People, just like you and me, who pursued heaven above all else.  In our culture today, that is not the popular thing to say or be a part of; certainly not the subject of any reality show I know of.  And most certainly not tweeting or twittering, instagramming or posting photos of those trying to become saints!  Our children’s heroes are not those struggling with their own demons and personal sanctity; most often they are sports or singing stars.  And we need to hold up the saints as heroes in our homes, rather than the other categories more prominent in our culture.

There is a movement that is based on “your body is a temple,” (and the western aspect of Theosis) and it is called, The Theology of the Body.”  (http://thetheologyofthebody.com/)  The Roman Catholic Church is trying to teach this premise, in order for our young people, and even us older folks, to have a more profound view of their/our bodies.  (http://catholiceducation.org/articles/sexuality/se0058.html)  Our bodies will be deified through our own Resurrection experience through death. And for many people these days, they do not respect others, let alone themselves or one another’s physical bodies.  Theology of the Body promotes this sense of the sacred in humanity, that within each of us, the spark of Godliness resides.  We are children of God and within each of us resides this essence of God (in the east we refer to this as the nous, or nesting place of God present in each of us).  We have the humanity of man before the Fall of Adam and Eve (Original Man); we have the struggle of man through the humanity of and sacrifice of Christ (Historical Man), and we have our own essence of self in the resurrected bodies we present to God in heaven (Eschatological Man).  If we take this theology of Theosis and the Theology of the Body and truly look at them, through the lens of the Ascension of Christ celebrated today, it should cause us to stop in our tracks.  If we become deified and perfected through our faith in the Ascended Lord, how much more should we respect our own bodies (for they will be with us through eternity) and the bodies of others?!  They truly are the Temple of the Lord.

Elder Porphyrios