living for today and the future

“A [Christian] should always act as if he was going to die tomorrow; yet he should treat his body as if it was going to live for many years.”

— Evagrios the Solitary, 4th cent. AD

The encouragement to ‘live today as if it was our last’ is somewhat trite and only partly correct.  While we should be motivated to act toward others as if today was our final day, we must always act towards ourselves as though we would live to be one hundred.

The first motivation keeps us from passing up opportunities to serve, to grow, to forgive, and to love.  Indeed, when looking back from our deathbeds, our lives will seem short and our missed opportunities many.  Carpe diem.  Let us seize the day, redeem our time, and make the most of each day–recognizing each as a gift that we dare not take for granted.

Simultaneously, the latter truth prevents us from neglecting our own health and wellness, without which it is impossible to do those things inspired by former.  We must care for ourselves–physically, emotionally, spiritually–precisely that we might seize today and act as though these hours were our final ones on earth.

Unfortunately, our society tends to reverse the truths taught by Evagrios.  We act as though we would live forever–putting off indefinitely those things we ought to be busy about right now.  At the same time, we treat our bodies as though we would die tomorrow–neglecting wellness in favor of the immediate satisfaction of gluttony and sloth.

We must get the order right, that we might make a real difference in the lives of those around us.

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The New Iconoclasm

Yesterday, Father Stephen wrote a wonderfully articulate and informative piece about icons and iconoclasm.  In it, he concisely presents the Orthodox understanding of icons, the theology behind them, and a brief outline of the history of iconoclasm (“icon smashing”).  Though he doesn’t develop the point further, as it does not pertain to the thrust of his article, one line has been running around my mind since I read it.  He says:

The plain truth of the matter is that God is an icon-maker. He first made man “in His own image.” And in becoming man, the man he became is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).

Throughout history, but especially since the time of the Reformation (at least in the West), people have reacted violently against icons and have worked themselves up into a frenzy at times to destroy them with great violence and rage.  This iconoclasm, Fr. Stephen writes, is “a spirit of hate and anger…[mistakenly] attributed to zeal or excused as exuberance.”  It is a sad testimony to Christian history, that brothers and sisters in Christ have reacted so violently against one another, especially in the name of piety and purity.

As unfortunate as religious iconoclasm is, my contemplation has not focused on God’s work and iconography but on God’s work and humanity.  Judaism and Christianity have always maintained that men and women (i.e. all of humanity), are wonderfully made in the image of God, the imago Dei.  In Genesis 1, we read:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”

So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.  (Gen 1.26-27, NLT)
God is the original icon maker, and the original icon (image) of God is humanity.  Sadly, our society reacts toward these icons created of flesh and blood in exactly the same way as the Iconoclasts reacted against the icons created of gold and paint–with violence, hatred, and rage.   Murder, abortion, rape, verbal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, hatred, racism, genocide, pornography, and violence / abuse of all kinds…these are the “new iconoclasm.”
The legacy of religious iconoclasm, according to Fr. Stephen, is secularization.  But what of the legacy of this “new iconoclasm”?  May God have mercy upon us…
Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.

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The Cross, Our Focus

The very fact that in my mind it goes without saying is probably reason to say it: as Christians, the Cross of Christ is our focus…our focus for doctrine, praxis, theology, liturgy, life in general, etc.

Over at ‘Glory to God for All Things,’ Fr. Stephen has compiled and reposted a lengthy post on the Cross as the foundation of (Orthodox) ecclesiology. It has taken me several days to read, re-read, and digest it all, but as usual, he makes some wonderful points that we would all do well to ponder. I found the following two points exceptionally helpful:

1. Theology cannot be compartmentalized.

As much as we rationalistic Americans (who are highly influenced by the Enlightenment) like to create nice, discreet ways of packaging, organizing, and presenting just about everything, we must resist this practice with respect to our theology and thinking about our salvation. Unfortunately, the most popular classes and topics of discussion at my seminary were Systematic Theology, which by its very definition compartmentalizes our thoughts of God into nice, tidy, discreet areas. I say unfortunately because, while this approach is well-suited for discussion, Scripture simply does not allow us to break God’s acts (or our thinking about them) into such perfect categories. Much to my discredit, as a young, budding Reformed theologian, I was over zealous to jump right into Systematics, prior to spending enough time on studying Scripture…the right approach would be to study Scripture first, then perhaps Biblical theology, and finally Systematic theology. Many years later, I am still trying to ‘get over it’ and give the testimony of Scripture the precedence it deserves over the proof-texting tendencies of Systematics.

As Fr. Stephen writes:

There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

Rightly, Fr. Stephen reminds us that all our salvation ‘is encompassed in the saving work of Christ.’ In other words, the cross must be the very center of our doctrine and practice. Even more, the cross must be the lens by which we understand the whole of Scripture. Because it may cause confusion, I may not use the exact words he does when he says, ‘All of our faith, is one,’ but I think I read him rightly and would agree with his understanding that, ‘Our salvation is one whole…encompassed in the saving work of Christ.’ It is difficult for us to think like this, as Fr. Stephen points out, but it is essential if we are to keep our mooring in the right place…the cross.

2. Theology (doctrine and praxis) must necessarily be cruciform (i.e., cross-centered).

Fr. Stephen uses four points to flesh this out more precisely, but we can profitably look only at the first here. (I encourage those who are interested to spend some time reading his entire post). He writes, “The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.”

One could spend an entire life thinking on this one point! At first we may be inclined to simply nod and assent to this first point. “Of course the cross is integral to understanding the work of Christ,” we say, giving our best Sunday School answer. There is so much more, however, that meets the eye here even in something as familiar as the cross. Perhaps our over-familiarity (if I may be so bold) with the cross, especially in Evangelical circles has made us unintentionally blind to the true depths of wonder going on at Calvary. Think with me for just a minute about all of the amazingly difficult tensions and truths of the cross:

  • The cross is the ultimate sacrifice for sin, a ransom (life for life) to pay a penalty and redeem those under a curse…we like to think we have a pretty good handle on this concept, but there is nothing even remotely close in our contemporary world (except perhaps capital punishment) as a blood sacrifice for sin
  • God the Father, in his wrath, requires payment of the infinite penalty of sin…a payment that cannot be waived in his justice
  • God the Son, in his love and mercy, voluntarily becomes the necessary sacrifice as the only one capable (as God and man) of offering an infinite ransom for an infinite penalty
  • At the cross, in a moment in time, an transaction of infinite worth (in its punishment and merit) took place in a finite point in time
  • Do I need to go on? I haven’t even touched the mystery of the incarnation, asked how the Trinity can be one in purpose yet seems to be divided here, etc.

The cross is the intersection of Law and Gospel…perfectly demonstrating both the infinite wrath of God against sin and the infinite mercy of God in providing a substitutionary sacrifice for sin. At the cross, these two seemingly mutually exclusive realities crash together in the world-changing event of all time! Our rationalistic tendencies are to discount the event altogether (atheism), try to explain away the difficulties for our own placation (liberalism), compartmentalize these events to ease explanation, etc. Alas, we cannot do any of these things! We are forced to stand (or better, to prostrate ourselves) in awe of the wonderful majesty of our Triune God.

In his famous sermon on the merits of meditating on the sufferings of Christ on the cross (a sermon found here), Luther speaks to those comfortable in their sins (at times each of us), reminds us of the terrible wrath of God against sin and sinners that necessitated the crucifixion, and points out that one proper response to thinking on the cross ought to be complete terror. At the same time, to those overwhelmed by their sins and despairing of hope (at times each of us), Luther reminds us of the great love of God in Christ who provided the total sacrifice for sin and points out the other proper response to thinking on the cross, complete comfort.

Surely all of these wonderful thoughts, and more, should guide our every thought, word and deed as we sojourn in this world. It must affect all aspects of:

  • our theology…as we focus not on the latest vapid fad (Left Behind, Prayer of Jabez, etc.) but on Christ alone
  • our ecclesiology, as Fr. Stephen points out…as we strive to imitate Christ (even) in our interactions with one another instead of how we sometimes shamefully treat one another in church
  • our worship…as we focus not on amusement and ‘relevance’ but the centrality of the cross and true gospel
  • our hope…which in all things can be found truly and only in Christ, nowhere else

Theology…Knowing God

Yesterday at Glory to God for All Things, Fr. Stephen posted marvelous words about placing emphasis in our lives on those things that are important to God.  In his post, he discussed both the necessity and the aim of theology…to know God:

And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.

Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.

Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He is person. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.

It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

These words ring especially true coming from a Reformed background and having attended a staunchly Calvinistic seminary.  Especially among the students in seminary, all too often our theological ‘studies’ tended to become little more than cataloging of facts about God rather than an effort to truly know him.  Whether formal students of theology or not, we are all guilty at times of the same offense.  We forget that God is not an object of study to be observed and researched–the depth of his will is not a divine ‘problem’ to be solved, the wonder of the incarnation not a mundane occurrence that is easily explained, the mystery of grace and sacraments not ‘parlor tricks’ to be explained away.

As analytical and logic-driven as our minds might be, and as Westerners we deceive ourselves if we claim not to be bound tenaciously by reason and logic, we must focus not on our speculations about theology but on truly knowing our Triune God through his gracious revelation to us–centering, of course, on the incarnation and revelation in Christ Jesus. We must be reminded of Jesus’ words, as Fr. Stephen as done beautifully, that to know God is life eternal.

Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for you timely yet gentle words.