Believe

(By the grace of God, this icon was painted on a 3’x3′ board, with egg tempera and 24k gold.)

To my Orthodox friends, a blessed “Sunday of Thomas”. Because of our differing calendars, in the Latin church, we heard last week the Gospel of John describing Thomas’ confession of faith in our risen Savior.

I sometimes think it sad that this most blessed occurrence resulted in the term “doubting Thomas”, as though this beloved apostle had been unwilling to follow the Lord in faith.

Thomas was incredulous, not unwilling to believe but needing something more than the words of others to comprehend so amazing an event. I, for one, cannot blame him. “Rising from the dead” is so foreign to our human experience that it seems like only a fool would believe such a thing.

If I did not have the Church, my parents, and a significant subset of my culture believing in this truth, I certainly would want some proof. In fact, even with them, I need something more than their word to fully believe.

I do not demand of the Lord that he appear to me; I’d probably be scared out of my wits if he did. (There is a reason he says, “do not be afraid”, numerous times in the Gospels. He knows fear is our first reaction to an encounter with glory.)

But I do ask him for help in believing. I ask him to help me feel his presence, to know that he is with me in my heart. My mind can present endless questions but I know its limitations in comprehending what goes beyond my senses.

My heart, (i.e. my soul, the center of my being) on the other hand, was made to know and sense things on a different level. But even this “knowing” does not come easily. What faith I have is not of my own creation but a gift asked for and given.

Sadly, I do not ask nearly often enough.

Yet in the painting of this icon, the Lord allowed me to feel his presence. It is the true worship that I wrote of before (click here). As I contemplated how to portray this in image, I knew that our Savior loved Thomas and welcomed the probing of his hand into the wounds.

The Lord Jesus wanted Thomas to believe and therefore gave him what he needed. So too, he longs to give us whatever we need in order to believe.

Over and over, he gives. I am too weak to learn once and forever hold onto the Truth.

I grow tired and restless. My rational mind says it is impossible. The truth becomes stale in my mind because I do not pray as I ought.

Yet he doesn’t give up on me. Rather, he gives me more and more until all I can do is burst into color and form to proclaim it: Christ is risen!

Imperfectly I proclaim it, but with a mustard seed of faith awaiting its fullness to be known in me.

“My Lord and my God!”

Who needs to be saved anyway?

Well, I do.

Being “saved”, along with the notion of salvation in general, is very much out of fashion these days. The only people who need to be saved, it would seem, are those who believe in the myths of old, the fairy tales, that suggest humanity is in trouble, if not totally depraved.

The “saved” are those fanatics who approach us on street corners and other public places to demand that we tell them if we too are saved. “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?” they intrude.

But, quite honestly, no one has asked me that in a long time. Is it the pandemic? Or perhaps so few people remain open to belief that it is no longer worth their time.

I remember once, many, many years ago in my youth, when someone asked me if I was saved. A total stranger wanted to know this. I responded that God was saving me every day.

This was not a satisfactory answer. “But are you saved?” they entreated, as though the only possible mode of salvation was to experience a cataclysmic event that changed everything. No more sin, suffering, or sorrow. I have crossed over and am not longer subject to what the rest of humanity endures. A myth if ever there was one…

And then there is the “personal savior” question. Well, my Savior is not impersonal. Not at all, in fact. The love with which He approaches me is more intimate than my mind can grasp, and certainly more intimate than any experience shared with another created being.

So my Savior is personal, but that can be misleading. It implies that the saving of me is somehow separate from the saving of all. Yet how could that be?

But I digress.

Since I have admitted that I need to be saved, the natural question arises: what do I need to be saved from?

The traditional Western Christian response would be: from my sins, of course. Some might want to throw in the fires of hell as well. I need to be saved from hell.

Indeed I need to be saved from my sins. But there is more than that. My own sins are simply not that interesting or important. Certainly God would not enflesh himself and offer his life simply because I got cross with the cashier who wouldn’t honor my coupon, would He?

But there is a bigger problem with the fires of hell. I’m not sure that I believe in those, at least not as the infernalists preach it. God is Creator, Lover, Healer. He is not killer, torturer, prison guard.

Yet Scripture says, “Our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29). If being in Him is to be consumed by His fire, I have no desire to saved from that. I welcome it. Consume me, O Lord, in the fires of Your love.

What then is the “more” from which I need to be saved, if not hell or my paltry failings?

I need to be saved from the power of evil. Yes, that is it.

“Bah!” you say. “What ‘power of evil?’ That’s just part of the fairy tail about the red guy and his pointy tail. Absurdity. All you need to be saved from is your imaginary monsters.”

Ah, if only it were that simple.

I need to be saved from the power of evil. It is only too real.

I must try to explain, hard as it is for our post-modern minds to grasp.

I need to be saved from myself. This is something more than just my paltry sins and weaknesses. There is ever a battle for my soul. It is an insidious illness that creeps into my heart and does much more damage than my harsh words to the errant cashier (though they too did damage).

I am only aware of it occasionally. Often not at all. If we thought COVID-19 was a trickster, spreading itself through asymptomatic people, it pales in comparison to the true illness sown by the power of evil. COVID-19 is only one little seed sown among the millions dropping into and around us every day.

To understand the scope and impact of this disease is beyond my capacity to explain. Hence, I fear the casual reader will think me overly imaginative as I write of it.

But write of it I must. It is only in understanding this that we know how truly we need to be saved and thus turn to the only One who can free us.

As I am not saved alone, neither am I afflicted alone.

In other words, I need to be saved not only from my sins, but from your sins and the sins of the whole world. Not just the whole world now, but all of the generations that came before.

Ridiculous, you say?

But can we look around our world and deny it? We are clearly and obviously a broken species. As horrible as they are, our current wars and famines and tragedies are a mere drop in the bucket of how the power of evil has infiltrated our species.

Every generation looks at the evil in its world with horror. How can God allow this to happen?

(It is ironic that when we look at the work of evil, we suddenly believe there is a God and that He is responsible for all that has gone wrong.)

If there are personal sins that have been committed against me, like the actions of an abusive parent or a racist boss or a cheating spouse, certainly I need to be saved from those. If I think I can free myself from their bondage on my own, I do not know what freedom is.

For me, as a psychologist, to acknowledge this may seem rather shocking. However, I am not suggesting that psychotherapy does not heal but rather that its healing power is very limited if the Savior has not been regarded as essential in the process. (Even if His name is never mentioned, healing life’s hurts requires a forgiveness of sin that I cannot offer. I can forgive sin against me, but I cannot forgive the sins against you – or the sins that damaged the person who sinned against you.)

Beyond the personal sins committed against me, there are the sins of generations that impact me endlessly. In fact, it is so commonplace that few people stop to think of it as sin. For countless generations, human beings have been trashing this planet, unwittingly causing generations of people more cancers and illnesses than can be named. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

I need saving from all of these sins too. The sins of the world. The sins of all generations since homo sapiens became sentient.

As I write of these sins, I include all of my personal faults and yours and those of everyone I know. But it goes far beyond that.

There is an evil that wreaks havoc on all of the created world we know. These are the evils that we post-modern folk like to call “acts of God”. Or we like to explain them in scientific terms, imagining that with enough knowledge and medicine we can eliminate them all.

These evils manifest themselves in tornadoes and droughts and tsunamis, in cancers and viruses and plagues. But wait, why do I call them evils? Did not God create them?

Absolutely not! This is where so many of us lose the trail. We follow the logic that God is the Creator of all and so, when we observe these things, we assume that God created them.

(For those interested in theology, C. S. Lewis does an excellent job of debunking the notion that there are two supreme Beings, one good and the other evil, in case you’re tempted to believe that explanation.)

For there to be a power of evil, no evil god is needed nor a creature with a pointy tail and horns. The evils that we see are not the result of mere individual acts by individual people. As individuals, we participate in evil but we are not its source.

If I’m cranky with the cashier, this does not cause a tsunami. Yet we are all interconnected and our individual acts do impact us all. So, while my sins and yours are hardly negligible, they do not cause viruses to mutate.

If we look at the incredible wonders of creation, we can say with God in the creation story, “It is good.” But, I’m afraid, in reality, we would have to say, “It was good.”

What God created and continues to create is good, but it has been corrupted. So many of these good creations have been twisted into variations of themselves that appear scientifically so “natural” that we tend to accept them as a necessary aspect of the grand Creation.

Granted, I’m out on a limb here with something I cannot prove. I cannot prove that there is a power of evil that distorts, twists and destroys, that infects the good souls we were given with a disease that makes us prone to sin. I cannot prove that this evil originated in a created being like us, i.e. a being free to choose good or evil, a being so powerful that it could cause such widespread infection.

But I can’t rule it out either.

In any event, I need to be saved from it. I need to be saved from every illness of body, mind, and soul that has afflicted me personally and all of us globally. And I cannot be saved alone.

Why not? How could I be saved, pulled out of the raging river in which I’m drowning, if you or anyone else were still drowning and not to be rescued? Could I possible want such a salvation – an eternity of heaven for me while knowing that there was an eternity of hell for others?

It is unthinkable. May God forgive any theologian who has taught otherwise.

Not only do I need God to save me, but I need God to put right all of creation. Otherwise, I am trapped. Hypothetically, I could accept God’s mercy for me and within moments lose faith in that mercy as I gazed upon all of the horrible evil and suffering around me.

The saving of me is about much more than wiping my personal slate clean. It is about my healing and transformation as one afflicted by the disease of all sin, initiated by the power of evil. Only in such transformation can I too become a “merciful one”, prepared to spread the antidote for our bondage to the illness we call sin.

And, weak being that I am, I need to be healed and transformed many, many times. As we learn of people who have contracted COVID-19 two or three times, in the course of the battle, I too become reinfected repeatedly with the same disease.

In fact, having once been healed, I may be even more vulnerable to being reinfected. As in earthly battles, the enemy doesn’t fight fair. Once a “merciful one” is identified, there are no limits to what the enemy might do to bring them down.

Our only hope is the Merciful One who has shown that He cannot be brought down. Death, the final “victory” of the enemy, had no power over Him. Yes, He died, but yet He lives.

He lives, not only another mere human life, as broken as the rest, but He lives eternally, invulnerable, completely free.

How could He do what no other human could do? Because He was God’s “anointed One”, the God-man, like us but perfectly one with God. Only God could make right the widespread havoc created by the force of evil.

Only God can forgive the sins of all, mine, yours, and all of the generations before us and all the generations to come. Only God can heal the afflictions into which we were born.

But why then the Cross? Why then the continued presence of evil and suffering around us?

Because God looks upon us and still sees good. He does not want to unmake the beings to whom He gave the freedom to love Him. He still wants us to choose love, for He knows it is no longer love if forced upon us, even in an act of Mercy.

Hence, God, out of the necessity of His own love, needed to become human in order to make the choice that we are too ill to make, the choice to pour out Himself in love and mercy despite having been born into an infected world.

With His immunity, freely chosen, He entered the heart of His devastated creation, touching every diseased being that was and was to come, with His healing.

In Him, we are now free once again to choose love, to choose healing and transformation. To become “merciful ones” in the army of His Mercy, continually entering enemy territory, continually wounded, continually healed, until the battle is over.

War rages on. Not because God has lost control of His creation but because He wants to us to find Him and be healed.

He does not want a single one of us to be lost.

And so He gives everything. He makes the ultimate choice to love as a human. As God, He gives that choice its ultimate power.

Yes, I need to be saved. Over and over I come back to be healed and emerge stronger still because of His transforming victory.

Over and over, by His grace, I choose love.

By His mercy, may it ever be so.

Poem unfinished…

Before it is April, National Poetry Month in the United States, a poem awaits completion, hoping that this year perhaps it will be finished.

It began writing itself two years ago as the pandemic took hold and changed our lives. The lives of the growing things around us continued as usual. But did the change in our world go unnoticed by them?

I still cannot hear the words that draw this bit of verse to a close. Perhaps I never will. But in anticipation of National Poetry Month, I invite you to listen and see if you hear them, the words that give answer to the question. (Please share in the comments if any more verses make themselves known.)

no one told the tulips

nor did the daffodils know

that as they dreamed

their dormant dreams

 distance had started to grow.

their curious buds came poking

through blankets of mud and snow,

chanting together

their chorus of color

yet finding the world in woe.

Alas, our world is still in woe. May God bless us and world leaders with wisdom, compassion, and a genuine desire for peace.

The devil is afraid of us…

“The devil is afraid of us when we pray and make sacrifices. He is also afraid when we are humble and good. He is especially afraid when we love Jesus very much. He runs away when we make the sign of the Cross.”

-St. Anthony the Great (of Egypt). Feast day: January 17.

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(You are welcome to save or print this image for personal or nonprofit use.)

Art as worship

I have known the title of this post for a long time but I didn’t know if there would be any words to go with it.

Today, I felt the words come to me.

For some time, I have been both fascinated and puzzled by the word, “worship”. I know that I am to worship God and God alone – but what does that mean? How do I know if I am doing it?

I can consult the online dictionary as I am wont to do, but it only gives me similarly puzzling terms in response. To show “reverence” and “adoration” for a deity (quotation marks mine). But what is adoration? And reverence? I can find definitions for these words as well but they are of no help.

I need something more.

Memories from my childhood religious education conjure up images of people bowing down before God in heaven – endlessly. Scriptural accounts of the people of God “bowing down” before idols – or refusing to do so – likely fostered this notion. It does not make worship seem very attractive.

It also has little to do with true worship.

Having grown spiritually, at least a little, since then, I am aware that worship has much more to do with love – responding to God’s love with love. But how do I love what my senses cannot register? I cannot see or touch or hear God. Sometimes it feels like I am just trying to love a word or the air around me.

Perhaps what makes it so hard to define worship in its truest sense is that when worship emerges from an unseen place deep within my being, I know what it is. But I also know that I cannot make it happen.

I am to worship God but true worship is beyond my control. 

I can go through the motions of religious ritual (the “bowing down”) but that in and of itself is not true worship. At best, it is a longing for worship and seeking the gift that creates the deep movement within that I can only recognize through experience.

As I have ventured into art and iconography in particular, I have discovered worship anew. Certainly I do not worship icons – my own or others’. No, it is in the process of drawing or painting the holy that I am moved beyond the artistic ritual and into the presence of God.

Of course, God has always been here, ever within me, ever surrounding me, but something is uncovered – revealed. It is as though for a moment the scales fall from my eyes, as they did for Saul of Tarsus, enabling me to see a loving Truth so clearly that I cannot help but worship. I find myself in love.

God no longer seems a mere word or idea. God is, God reveals. And the only response to God’s Presence is worship.

But, of course, I cannot make this happen through art anymore than I can make it happen through religious ritual.

I can gild much gold and paint many images and get lost in all the distractions of technique and human notions of beauty. But, having once tasted true worship, I hunger for more and cannot stop, even when it seems I am lost in a merely human pursuit that has little to do with God.

At other times, while compelled to continue, I feel afraid. Who am I to paint the Son of God? Or His holy Mother or the saints? I only dare create such images because the Lord took on flesh in history, thus giving us permission to see and experience Him as human.

Today, I was given the gift of worship. I do not know why – I have done nothing whatsoever to deserve it. It is grace – pure and holy and loving.

I rejoice. I worship.

To Him be all praise and glory forever.

Amen. Amen.

(This image, drawn with pastels, is based on detail from an ancient icon of the Crucifixion housed at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert.)

There is no God, you say?

Believing in God is going out of style these days. This trend is nothing terribly new, I imagine. It’s just that people now feel free to be more open about their doubts.

After all, we are a modern, scientific people. There is so much that we know, that we can study and prove.

This business about God was likely made up by primitive people to explain things that they didn’t understand. We don’t need to do that. We can’t explain everything – yet. But eventually, given enough time, we’ll figure it out.

Besides, God was just invented to justify religion. And we know that religion was invented to control people.

I mean, it’s all right if God is your thing. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But that’s all it is – an opinion. You have yours and I have mine. Quit trying to control me and I won’t try to control you. Everyone will get along fine and there will be no reason to fight wars.

That’s another thing God and religion are good for – justifying wars. Quit trying to control others with your “god” and soon we will have peace.

Speaking of peace, I know a lot of people get all emotional when they see a sunset or a rainbow and mistake this sentimentality for proof that God exists. But now that we know what causes all these colors, we don’t need to invent God.

Go ahead, enjoy the pretty colors. But remember – that’s all it is. Pretty colors and stuff. When it’s over, it’s over. No need for fancy explanations as to why we’re here.

A few billion years and some natural selection. Poof! We’re here.

And then we’re not. It is what it is.

No big deal.

(This post is continued at https://wordpress.com/post/oholyearth.wordpress.com/653…)

Reflections on Trinity

There is something in us that longs for union.

At the most basic level, this is found not only in humans but in a vast number of species as the union, however brief, of one to another is the foundation for the most fundamental of life functions: reproduction.

If we look beyond reproduction, we see that the biology of all living things and even their component particles are based on a sort of “relationship”, an attraction, an interaction, an interdependence, without which higher life forms would not be possible.

This drive toward union suggests that the very building blocks of life are love in its simplest forms.

Thus, it is not surprising that we long for union. It is hardwired into our very cells.

But, for the believer, all of this is but a hinting at a much greater truth.

We believe that we were created to share in the divine life of God which is a life of complete and perfect union in love. We are not only physically driven to unite but we are spiritually designed for a union far beyond the biological.

Still, as much as we humans long for union, we also long to remain ourselves. Whether uniting in physical love or in a transcendent spiritual love, the very act of loving implies a separateness of sorts.

If there were no separateness, how could we call it union? A singularity that is one with itself remains a singularity. Love requires an “other”.

And thus we have a portrait of the Holy Trinity: complete and perfect union that retains the “otherness” necessary for love.

As simple as this concept sounds, it is very hard for us humans to comprehend. How can there be one God (perfect union) while there is still the otherness of three Persons within that very Being?

We do not understand, of course, because we do not understand perfect love. Our human attempts at love and union are, at best, mere attempts to imitate the Being in whose image we were created. At worst… well we know how those attempts turn out. We are a broken species.

There are many in our world who genuinely seek God and yet cannot accept the notion of Trinity.

In Islam, for example, it is taught that there is only one God and that Christians are worshipping three. To worship Jesus, whom they consider a human prophet, is an act of idolatry because one can only worship the one true God, not a human. This idolatrous act leads straight to hell.

Others, among them Jehovah Witnesses, believe in the goodness of Jesus but deny the Trinity. How can God have a son?

This is a valid question. If God has always existed and is pure Spirit, what sense does it make to say that He has a son? A son, by all human definitions, is the result of a reproductive act and necessarily implies that the son exists after his father, not simultaneously throughout time.

The problem with this line of reasoning, in my mind, is that it reasons backwards, i.e. it begins with human life and uses it as a basis for describing God. More correctly, we should begin with God as the model for understanding ourselves. We are made in God’s image, not the other way around.

Put another way, if it is true that Jesus is risen from the dead, we ought not dispute anything that he taught. He spoke of God as his Father and explained at the Last Supper that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father and that he and the Father are one.

Why did Jesus use this particular terminology, one that seems at odds with our understanding of parent-child relationships? I do not know, of course, but I do know that there are no human words that could make it any more understandable to us. Words inevitably fail. Yet I know this descriptor can be painful for those who have a negative association with the word, “father”.

Similarly, sometimes I find myself squirming mentally when I hear Jesus described as God’s “only begotten Son”. The term “begotten” or to “beget” is defined in our language as bringing a child into the world through an act of reproduction. This doesn’t sound right to my ears. By all human understanding, God doesn’t do that sort of thing.

But, in this dissonance, I find a clue emerging from my own notion of our backward reasoning. We reproduce. God “produces”, or better, “creates”. Our participation in the en-fleshing of soul (person) into body is a sort of copying, on a simple biological level, of God’s creative action.

Through human sexuality, God permits us, through the loving union of our bodies, to be co-creators with Him, our physical act a participation in His en-fleshing of a soul into a new body. A new person is created (ideally) through the synergy of human love and Divine love.

Sadly, we have cheapened this process through the corruption of our sexuality. But our sin does not stop God’s glorious design. Indeed, He responds to it with more love.

In the case of Jesus, eternal Word of the Father, there is also an “en-fleshing” of soul into human body. This act is different from what occurs in our human “begetting” in that it is the result of perfect love, a perfect love within God and a perfect love of God for His people. While the human body of the Virgin Mother receives the Son, no sexual act is needed. This is not a “reproduction”. The Son does not come into existence by the mixing of human DNA. He already is.

The Father’s act of “en-fleshing” His Son is the prototypical act of “begetting”. Our begetting of offspring is a but participation or imitation of that prototype. Jesus was truly and completely “begotten” as the result of divine Love. I was merely begotten by the love of my parents. I was begotten by a single act in time. Jesus was begotten in eternity through an eternal act of love.

I suspect we do not have a different word for these two types of begetting because the divine begetting is completely unique (“the only begotten Son”) and we typically do not have words that have only one usage, especially when we do not really understand the meaning we are trying to convey.

I’m afraid I’ve wandered off into theological territory about which I have no right to speculate. What do I know?

All I can say is that I believe: I believe in God the Father of all, in Jesus, His only begotten Son, and in the Holy Spirit, one God, eternally loving, endlessly merciful.

May He have mercy on me, a sinner.