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On Authentic Faith with St. John of Damascus

“God is not interested in what happens to turn out to be good or in what appears to be good. He is interested in the purpose for which a thing is done. As the holy fathers say, when the intellect forgets the purpose of a religious observance, the outward practice of virtue loses its value. For whatever is done indiscriminately and without purpose is not only of no benefit – even though good in itself – but actually does harm.”

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God Dragged me Kicking and Screaming or Facing My Fear of Vocational Ministry (Part 1)

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Picture Courtesy of GoodGuysWearBlack.Org

My mother tells me that when I was five years old she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. After listing several of the typical things little boys aspire to–a superhero, a policy officer, a fireman, etc.–I suddenly grew quite.

“You know what Mommy,” I said, evidently in the most serious tone, “what I really want to be is a pastor.”

When I was twelve I remember, during a time of private prayer and reflection, feeling very strongly that God was calling me to be a pastor and this filled my heart with joy. It gave me something to look forward to and to prepare for; a goal in life.  But, then, something changed.

When I got to high school I began to challenge this calling (big surprise I know). I became enamoured with art and music and spent all of my free time drawing, making independent films, and playing music. Leading up to graduation I became obsessed with being a professional rock star and dedicated every waking hour, outside of school, to an alternative/punk band I played the drums for. Touring the world and playing music was the only future I could imagine. The idea of being a pastor seemed increasingly irrelevant and positively boring.

This obsession carried on after high school as well. I moved back to my home town in Texas and began writing and recording my own music. Soon I befriended another young aspiring musician and we formed a band that played in venues all over Dallas and Fort Worth. Much to the consternation of my beautiful new bride, my friend and I spent nearly every waking hour rehearsing, writing, recording, and even choreographing our show.

Over time we began to see success. We performed at a local ‘battle of the bands’ and, within minutes of starting our set, had nearly half the auditorium crowding the stage and screaming. We lost the competition because we hadn’t brought enough people (part of your score was based on how many people bought tickets specifically to see your band play); yet, were swarmed by throngs of ‘fans’ asking for our autographs after the show. Even the band that won praised our performance. Soon we were offered a regular spot at a club in Deep Ellum Dallas and receiving invitations to play at other popular clubs as well.

In spite of this apparent success, I was a failure. I was neglecting my wife, neglecting my school work (yes, somehow I managed to stay enrolled at Tarrant County College), and performing poorly at work (surprisingly, playing in a band didn’t bring home the bacon). Most importantly, I was ignoring God.

For in the midst of everything I knew, deep down, that I was not meant to be a rock star and that, in truth, I was simply running away from vocational ministry. Music had become a false god in my life.  You see, there is nothing wrong with music, or art, or working hard at doing these things well. In fact, these things are GREAT goods that MUST be pursued to the best of our abilities for the glory of God. No, the problem wasn’t music; the problem was me. I was behaving like Jonah; I was fighting the Lord, running away from His direction, and had made an idol out of my song writing.

When this finally sunk in, I begrudgingly quite the band and began to focus on my studies at seminary. I had enrolled before the band broke up in a somewhat half hearted gesture at obeying the Lord.

While my experience at seminary was enriching and instilled in me a love for learning, it also opened up a new temptation. I began to obsess over philosophy and theology. Again, these things are GREAT goods and MUST be pursued. The problem was not with academics or learning; it was with me. I was still only half-heartedly serving the Lord and trying to find anything more interesting and important than fully embracing vocational ministry. Soon all I spoke about was philosophy and I began to obsess over the idea of earning postgraduate degrees and becoming a professor.

After graduating with a bachelor of arts in humanities I determined to apply to the University of Dallas to pursue a masters degree in philosophy. During this time my family and I (we now had two beautiful girls!) lived in a run down apartment and I worked as a manager at a homeless shelter in one of the most dangerous streets in the US. My wife was not comfortable with my decision to pursue further studies at that time, reminding me of my calling to vocational ministry. I knew she was right, but was too stubborn and selfish to admit it. Something was holding me back; something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I believe it was partly because I had a distorted view of what being a pastor actually entailed. I thought it meant abandoning my love for music and my love for learning and scholarship; and being someone I wasn’t.

Two incredible things happened that changed my life.

First, I literally lost my ability to write. I had visited the campus at UD, gotten references from former professors, and filled out most of the application. All that remained was a personal statement, expressing why I wanted to study philosophy, and containing a brief intellectual history. Only a few short paragraphs; easy right? Except that every time I sat down to write nothing happened. This went on for several weeks and I began to get stressed (as did my wife, who wondered why I hadn’t completed my application with the deadline quickly approaching). I remember spending six hours at a Starbucks and only typing one sentence. Something was desperately wrong.

The second thing involved alcohol . . . lots of alcohol.

At the homeless shelter I worked at the residents and guests were required to attend chapel before each meal. Most of the time local pastors would lead the service but, on occasion, someone would cancel or a spot would go unfilled. In the case of a vacancy I would often step in to preach the sermon and lead a prayer. Accordingly, I was known as being a preacher among many of the homeless men and women we served.

One evening, just before the sun went down, I walked from the main building to a storage facility directly across the street. Suddenly I heard a voice screaming my name, “Joshua! Joshua!” I turned and saw one of our regulars stumbling down the street, obviously inebriated, and headed in my direction. “Joshua!” he cried again as he came up to me and grabbed my shirt, “Don’t fight God’s calling! Don’t fight being a preacher! You must preach!” I put my hand on his shoulder and thanked him. Soon he drifted off, stumbling down the street and shouting random things at passers by.

The next evening at precisely the same time, as I crossed the street to go to our storage facility, I once again heard a voice shouting my name, “Joshua! Hey, Joshua!” I looked up and, to my great surprise, saw the same inebriated homeless man stumbling down the street in my direction. He caught up to me and grabbed me by the shirt again, the smell of alcohol nearly overwhelming, and stared at me in the eyes, “You must not fight God’s calling! You must be a preacher!” he shouted in a raspy voice. Once again, only this time somewhat shaken, I put my hand on his shoulder and thanked him. This time tears streamed down my cheeks. He then carried on down the street in his drunken stupor.

The following evening . . . you guessed it! . . . it happened again, only it was  a completely different man. Just as drunk and smelly, but delivering the same message, at the same time and in the same place as the other two incidents.

That night I cried. The tears I shed not out of sadness or fear or anger but from the overwhelming feeling of love. The love of a God who cared so much for me that He took time to speak directly to me; and through the most unlikely people in the most unlikely of places. I also felt extremely humbled. I told my wife what had happened and we agreed that I should stop pursuing an MA in philosophy at that time. Instead, I was going to apply to become an ordained minister in the C&MA*.

I contacted the District Superintendent (i.e., bishop) and went for an interview a few weeks later. After that I submitted a formal application. In the application I had to write several pages explaining why I wanted to become a pastor and provide a brief account of my spiritual history. Astoundingly, after months of writers block, I wrote everything with ease.

This, however, is only the beginning of my story. It has been five years from the day I was accepted into the C&MA’s ordination program but I am not yet a fully ordained minister. I am now living in the UK and about to begin my studies to become ordained as a deacon in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.  So, what’s up with that?

I’ll explain in part two . . .

*C&MA does not stand for ‘Country Music Awards’, or ‘Christian Mormon Association’, and is not some kind of cult. It stands for ‘Christian & Missionary Alliance’-an evangelical denomination which originated in New York in the 1800’s after a Presbyterian minister broke from his church to reach out to Italian doc workers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring the Eastern Catholic Church

As many of you know, my family and I came into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2013. This momentous event took place at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Mission in Raleigh NC – an Eastern Catholic parish of the Byzantine Rite.

Most of my Protestant friends and, surprisingly, the majority of Roman Catholics I know, have never encountered the eastern Church.  In fact, most assume “Eastern Catholicism” is just another name for Eastern Orthodoxy.

This common mistake is understandable.  Practically speaking, Eastern Catholics are Orthodox – they use the same liturgy, and share a common theological and spiritual tradition.  Like the Orthodox, Eastern Catholics utilize icons and incense in their worship and have married priests.

The only substantive difference is that Eastern Catholics are in full communion with Rome and the Pope.  That  means that they are fully Catholic.

If you find any of this interesting I encourage you to watch the video above!  Also, I would urge you to read this powerful apostolic letter written by St. John Paul II: Oriental Lumen.

 

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Vladimir Lossky on Theology and Mysticism

“If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone.  Outside the truth kept by the whole Church personal experience would be deprived of all certainty, of all objectivity.  It would be a mingling of truth and falsehood, of reality and of illusion: ‘mysticism’ in the bad sense of the word.  On the other hand, the teaching of the Church would have no hold on souls if it did not in some degree express an inner experience of truth, granted in different measure to each one of the faithful.  There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism.” – Vladimir Lossky

The Cosmic Importance of the Incarnation

Why did God become man?  Was this simply a reaction to Adam and Eve’s fall into sin?  Is the Incarnation merely contingent upon this event?  Or is there more to this story?

When I was a Protestant I often focused exclusively on one aspect of the Incarnation–namely its leading to the death of Christ and the atonement for sins.  While this is obviously of central importance (Christ most certainly did come to lay down his life for the world) it can lead to some misconceived and even detrimental notions.  One of them being that the Incarnation was simply an “accident”; namely, that it was not absolutely essential for the redemption of creation.  For many Protestants (not all) the Incarnation is viewed as merely a reaction to a particular event – the Fall of man into sin – rather than part of the cosmic destiny of creation itself.

I had…

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Understanding Apophatic Theology (Part One)

/  Apophaticism  (i.e. “negative theology” or “the way of negation”) is an essential feature of Eastern Catholic theology but is often misunderstood by Western theologians and thinkers.  This is the first of a series of articles designed to introduce apophatic theology to those who are unfamiliar with it . . . It should also prove useful for those who have a negative aversion to negative theology (pun intended).   /   

Apophatic theology is founded, first and foremost, upon the Incarnation.  For it is the incarnation of the Word that highlights the paradox of God’s nearness and immeasurable distance from creation.  In the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar :

The “I” of Jesus Christ is the measure of God’s distance from and nearness to man, that unimaginable nearness of him who is, and remains, even more unimaginably sublime above everything in the world (in similitudine major dissimilitudo)–and both things are equally true.  We shall never be in a position to encapsulate the mystery of this “I”, with its nearness and its distance, in a concept or a formula, for at its heart lies the mystery of the relationship between God, the Absolute, and man, the relative.

This antinomy is most clearly expressed in the first chapter of St. John’s gospel which proclaims that, “No one has seen God at any time.  The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18); and affirmed also by St. Paul who states that Christ is, “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1: 15).  Thus, the Incarnation is at once God’s ultimate and most intimate revelation of Himself to His creation and a fixed reminder of the mysterious and ineffable nature of the God who remains unseen and invisible.

As we shall see apophaticism is not synonymous to agnosticism; it is not an attempt to eradicate positive statements about God or deny our personal experience of God (as some believe).  Aristotle Papanikolaou explains that, “there is always a gap between our language about God and what God is.  In an apophatic approach, theology, attempts to stretch language in order to express the central antinomy revealed in the Incarnation–God’s transcendence and immanence.”  Apophaticism is, therefore, an acknowledgment of the complete transcendence and utter incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature and the humble admission that human beings lack the noetic capacities and linguistic tools needed to grasp or properly communicate the infinite, eternal, Godhead.  Furthermore, it is the acknowledgment that God loves His creation and condescends to make Himself known in spite of our limited capacities.

This fact–the radical ontological distinction between the creature and the Creator, the unknowability of God’s essence, and God’s desire to make Himself known–is vividly portrayed in the account of Moses on Mount Sinai in the Old Testament.  Scripture tells us that:

On the third day in the morning, there were thunderings and lightnings and a dark cloud on Mount Sinai; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, and all the people in the camp trembled.  And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because God descended upon it in fire.  Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the people were exceedingly amazed . . . and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  Then God spoke to Moses, “Go down and solemnly charge the people, lest they break through to gaze at God, and many of them perish” (Exodus 19:16-21).*

In this passage we see that God, in his unfailing love and desire for communion–and in order to initiate a covenant with Israel–manifested His presence in a physically provocative way; thus condescending to our human nature.  Yet what God is, His essence, is symbolized by the impenetrable cloud of darkness, thick smoke, and fire; for God is invisible and His nature a mystery.  His presence, if directly beheld by man, is so overwhelming that God warns Moses not to let the people ascend the mountain lest they gaze directly upon Him and die.

The complete inadequacy of creaturely language–with regard to its ability to describe God–becomes even more obvious as we read Moses’ own account of his experience on the mountain in the presence of God in chapter thirty-three:

But He [God] said, “You cannot see My face; for no man can see My face and live.”  Moreover, the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me you shall stand on the rock.  So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.  Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:20-23).*

For surely the Divine Nature is not a body–possessing hands and a face–but is incorporeal.  Our language is simply unable to explain that which transcends all creaturely categories; thus, Moses, writing metaphorically, speaks of God having a ‘face’ and ‘hands’ and a ‘back.’  For as the Lord Himself declares in this passage, “no man can see My face and live”–which is to say that no man can peer into the very essence of God; this knowledge is too great for us.  Yet, mysteriously, God allows Moses to experience Him indirectly; allowing him to see His “back.”  This, itself, is unhelpful for those who seek to understand what God is because there is know way for us to understand what it means to gaze upon the Lord’s back.  Here, again, human language fails us; Moses’ own experience was virtually indescribable (even to himself).

The stark contrast that we find in these passages and, throughout the Bible, between the creature and the Creator, are exactly what led the earliest Christian theologians to promote apophaticism.  For the Greek philosophers (namely those in the stream of Platonic and Aristotelian thought) believed that being or existence could be grasped by the human intellect and explained using purely human categories.  Christians, however, embracing the ontology of Scripture, recognized that Existence Himself, the great “I AM,” stood outside of all creaturely thought.  As Fr. John D. Zizioulas explains:

The message of apophatic theology was precisely that the closed Greek ontology had to be broken and transcended, since we are unable to use concepts of the human mind or of creation, for signifying God–the truth.  The absolute otherness of God’s being which is found at the heart of biblical theology is affirmed in such a manner that the biblical approach to God contrasts acutely with that of the Greeks.  Apophaticism rejects the Greek view of truth, emphasizing that what we know about being–about creation, that is–must not be ontologically identified with God.

Plato’s famous analogy of the cave makes the difference between Greek and Christian thought explicit.  For in Plato’s account truth can be grasped when we stop looking at the mere shadow of being on the wall–i.e., the imperfect copies of eternal forms–climb out of the cave, and fix our gaze directly on the sun–the good;  the immaterial and immutable realm of the forms; the, “cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything”  In Plato’s ontology, gazing directly at the good is possible through purely human intellectual effort.  In contrast, Christian theology teaches that the Good transcends all human distinctions and categories; the Good is completely other and, hence, unknowable by means of purely human effort.  For the Good says, “no man can see My face and live” (Exodus 33:20).*

Such considerations are what spurred Pseudo-Dionysius, that great champion of apophatic theology (and whose icon can be found at the top of this article), to proclaim:

Indeed the inscrutable One is out of the reach of every rational process.  Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being.  Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name.  It is and it is as no other being is.  Cause of all existence, and therefore itself transcending existence, it alone could give an authoritative account of what it really is.

 

*All Scripture quotations are taken from the Orthodox Study Bible which utilizes the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).  Therefore, the chapter and verse numbering might not correspond to those found in translations, e.g., ESV, NIV, KJV, etc., which utilize the oldest available Hebrew and Aramaic texts.