Category Archives: Uncategorized

Pray for us…

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God 

that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ…

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(My belated Christmas card/icon for 2019. Wishing all of you much happiness and holiness in the New Year. You are welcome to download or print this or any of my images for your personal use.)

The Christmas present

I never know what God is going to give me for Christmas.

This may seem like an odd thing for a Christian to say. After all, doesn’t He always give me the same thing – Himself, present in the Word made flesh?

Indeed. But He is also full of surprises. While sometimes surprises are fun and exciting, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are confusing, even painful.

But God’s surprises are always good, even when they aren’t what I wanted and feel most unwelcome when they appear.

As I reflected on this matter last night, I found myself being reminded of so many gifts given in past years – some I had forgotten and was delighted to rediscover. Others have been fondly cherished through the years.

Going back some 30+ years, I will always treasure that one Christmas where I had a bad upper respiratory infection.  My parents lived in Buffalo, NY and I in Cleveland. I wasn’t sure I was well enough to make the drive but God made the decision for me.

The snowfall was so heavy that they closed the roads between our two cities. And so I was home alone with the stillness, broken only by my coughing and the unexpected visit of a friend.

I was completely free of commercial Christmas and I could rest with the newborn Christ. I would never have asked for this gift but it was one of my favorites of all times.

Then there was the Christmas just 5 years ago… the first since my father had passed and I found my mother terribly sick with the flu. (Before I leave Minnesota). I had never seen her so debilitated. At her age, I did not know if she would live through it. Rather than go to my family’s gathering, I sat home with her. She slept and slept, waking for short intervals – until it hit her intestines and drained her further.

Never would I have asked for this. Yet it was a gift. There was a peacefulness in being her child, of staying by her even though I could do nothing to help her but be there. In some way I cannot explain, it was like being at the first Christmas.

Of course, not all of God’s Christmas presents involve someone getting sick. There was the year He gave me the poem, “I am the hay”, which became one of my favorites (When heaven came to earth). And there were a couple of years that He surprised me with stories. Only my most hardy of my readers will remember “The little hibiscus” (recording). Just last night, I reread The Infant and was deeply touched.

I had completely forgotten the precious gift He gave me on Christmas Eve, 2016 (The only gift) when He instructed me to turn off my computer and “Just become small…” Could He ever give me anything better than that?

Christmas, 2019, is but half over. Already I’ve been gifted: yesterday, by being present to encourage my mother to attempt the physical therapy that so frightens her since she fell and broke her arm last week; today, with a glorious liturgy punctuated with traditional English and African hymns.

Can there be still more? Like a child hopefully searching under the tree for yet one more present, I keep my eyes and heart open – just in case.

For the best gift is the one He is giving me right now – the present where I meet Him, whether in sickness or health, in sorrow or in joy. Every moment, every time, every place – it is all love…

Merry Christmas…

 

Universal Salvation – an addendum

As we approach the fifth anniversary of this blog’s existence, I am acutely aware that I have written almost nothing during the past year.

Although I sense a sort of wistfulness as I contemplate this reality, my regret cannot be too deep as I believe it is all part of God’s inscrutable plan. I suppose it might sound a bit pretentious to imagine that God has a particular plan for whether or not I write. Still nothing is so small as to escape His notice.

Oddly, I continue to write comments, some rather protracted, in such varied forums as Fr. Stephen’s blog and the New York Times. But, when it comes to writing original pieces, it seems as though there is little left to say.

I know, of course, that this is not true. There is still much that can be said but it seems that my heart is no longer in it. I get an idea and it drifts away like a leaf mozying downstream on a lazy summer afternoon, soon disappearing from sight without any active resistance.

Yet I am altogether obsessed with painting religious icons. God, it seems, has given me another way to proclaim His goodness and beauty.

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However, it has come to my attention that I need write an addendum regarding my ever-evolving awareness of the perfection of the divine economy.

In 2016, I wrote a piece on hell, relating that agony I felt at considering that such a thing could actually be in the plan of my loving God (link to article: Hell?). In one evening, I almost lost my faith over it. But, as usual, God rescued me from myself, hushing my sobs and wiping my tears, reminding that He wants nothing but love.

Two years later, I revisited the topic from a less frantic perspective, justifying the possibility of eternal punishment with the argument that God would never force salvation on anyone, not only because of the gift of free will but because love has to be voluntary in order to be love (link to original article: universal salvation).

Now, as 2019 draws to a close, I am given pause to question why I felt such a need to defend the doctrine of hell. Was it because the Church teaches it? Or was it because Scripture seemed to support it?

Probably the latter carried the greater weight. With other issues, I have been able to consider that the Church might be mistaken about something. Guided as we are by the Spirit, we are still human and can misunderstand what God is trying to tell us. But if Jesus taught it, well then I cannot possibly contradict it.

The only thing is that now I am no longer certain that this is what Jesus taught. In fact, I am becoming increasingly convinced of the opposite. Hence, this addendum.

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Without a doubt, Jesus used much imagery to convey to us that suffering was in store for those who failed to believe and thus did not love God and neighbor as the law commanded.

Indeed, He warned people of being thrown into Gehenna, a valley near Jerusalem which was a fiery garbage dump. The place was considered acursed as it was where kings of Judah had previously offered children in human sacrifice. I think we can safely assume the Jesus did not mean literally that anyone who called his brother a fool was going to end up in this valley. Just as He did not mean literally that we should cut off our right hand if it causes us to sin.

His point, of course, was to communicate that sin has very serious implications for us. We must take even the smallest inclination to sin very seriously. Even though He was bringing the Good News that our sins are forgiven, this was not to suggest that sin is harmless or that we shouldn’t be concerned about it.

Jesus seeks to warn us, with considerable urgency, that suffering is the natural consequence of sin. And He wants to save us from this suffering and so creates dire images that His listeners will take note of. Sin leads to suffering not so much because God has a need to punish us but because it is an incorrect way of living.

It is, I grant, a slippery slope when one declares what Jesus “really meant”. Yet, I do not think it is an unreasonable stretch to say the Jesus often spoke in parables and used metaphors when describing the consequences of sinful living. However, what is more central to the focus of this article is how, if not from Jesus, we came up with the notion of hell – and more specifically, of a hell that was conceived of as everlasting torment.

It seems that this mistaken notion is the result of some rather sketchy translations of the original Greek New Testament. Although David Bentley Hart’s book “That all shall be saved” has recently drawn considerable attention for his argument in favor of universal salvation, he is by far not the first to espouse this belief. Nor is he the only one to question the Greek translation that has led so many to believe that eternal damnation is part of God’s plan.

It is interesting to note that there is only one time in the New Testament that the Greek words rendered as “eternal” and “punishment” sit next to one another. Even more interesting (to me, at least) is that this occurs at Matthew 25: 46, precisely the passage I cited when I wrote my piece called “Hell?” Jesus is speaking of the separation of the sheep from the goats and designates that the uncharitable will go off to “eternal punishment”.

While it is very clear that Jesus is instructing us to be show love for the hungry, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned, it actually is not so clear at all that what He warned of was, indeed, eternal punishment for those who failed to do so.

The translation question that is easiest to understand is that of κόλασις (kolasis). According to a good number of sources, the original meaning of this word was “to prune”, as in a botanical instruction about how to prune a tree so that it would be more fruitful. As the word gradually came to be considered a form of punishment, it largely retained the implication that the action was for the good of the person/tree, i.e. it was a remedial sort of punishment. 

Ancient Greek had another term, τιμωρία (timoria), that was used when speaking of punishment for retribution, i.e. to given “satisfaction” to the injured party without regard for the reformation of the offender.

In this passage from the Gospel of Matthew, the term κόλασις was the one used. Without even examining the word translated as “eternal”, we can see the problem for interpreting κόλασις as constituting unending punishment. What would be the point of reforming a sinner if they were to remain in an eternal hell anyway? 

This understanding is also much more consistent with the Judeo-Christian God taught in both Old and New Testaments. As much as the Old Covenant God with His “blazing wrath” could seem rather formidable, He nonetheless was persistent in trying to draw back His chosen people who had strayed from Him, even when they worshipped false gods. He wants all to be saved, even if they do not merit it.

It is also noteworthy that native Greek speaking people of the ancient world, both Christian and secular, made quite distinct the difference between κόλασις (kolasis) and τιμωρία (timoria). Aristotle and Plato were among the secularists. An example for our purposes, however, is an excerpt from St. Clement of Alexandria,

“But as children are chastised (kolazo) by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish (timoreitai), for punishment (timoria) is retaliation for evil.” (Note: in Greek, the endings of words change when there is a different form of the word.)

And what about the word for “eternal”? We might wonder what it does mean, if not eternal, as it sits there next to κόλασις. 

This is more complicated to explain, especially given that I have extremely limited personal understanding of Greek. But it seems to boil down to the root word, aiōn, which means “age”. When two plural forms of this root appear (aiōnas and aiōnōn), it has commonly been translated into “forever and ever”, an idiomatic expression in English that would be incomprehensible to the ancient Greek speaker. To us, this means “eternal” but it is not so clear what it meant in the Greek of the New Testament.

Hence, it is the scholarly opinion of some, though not without controversy, that “aionas ton aionon” is better translated as something like “ages of ages” or “eons to eons”. An age or an eon is a limited period of time, though it may be a long time. Some apparently fret that translating “aionas ton aionon” in this way when referring to God would suggest that God Himself is not eternal. However, this is not so. Indeed, it tells us that God is the God of all ages, from the age of Moses to King David to today.

Of course, there are those who would argue that if aiōnas doesn’t mean eternal punishment neither does it mean eternal life for the righteous. (It is at points such as this that my head begins to buzz and I reaffirm that theology is not the field of study for me.)

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For this addendum to be complete, I suppose I should return, at least briefly, to my previous argument that God would not “force” anyone to be saved. He wants us to love and, for love to be love, it must be freely chosen. Having given us free will, we do, at least hypothetically, have the option to refuse salvation.

I say “hypothetically” because it is hard to comprehend that any human being, having been show the fullness of God’s goodness and love would refuse it in favor of eternal torment. There is no denying, of course, that people do evil things – sometimes very evil. As far as we can tell, there are also many who die unrepentant or at least not accepting of Christ. How can I resolve this with my growing acceptance of universalism?

David Bentley Hart makes far more intelligent arguments than I ever could. However, as a psychologist, I certainly cannot deny that there are many limits on every human being’s freedom to choose. From our genetics to our early childhoods to the sinful world into which we are born, can any of us really make a totally free choice about love and God?

I could counter my own argument, however, by noting that, while we are not all equally free, God knows exactly what degree of freedom each person has and can thus judge their personal culpability for sin with complete fairness.

Yet this is not about “fairness”, is it? As I have been considering this topic, it occurred to me that I have never worried greatly about eternal damnation for myself. My concern has been more for others – and for my understanding of God as all-loving. I have always assumed that God would be merciful to me. Why have I not assumed He would be equally merciful to others?

There is an odd notion in our culture that has also infiltrated the Church and that is the notion that justice and mercy are antithetical to one another. While sadly this may be true in the secular world where we define terms differently, it is surely not consistent with Christianity. We act as though God’s mercy must always be tempered by the opposing force of His justice but that cannot be.

Yet it is easy to be lured into this manner of thinking. God would necessarily be merciful to me, supposedly a small-time sinner, but His justice would require Him to damn the Stalins and Hitlers of this world. How could He not? We allow ourselves to think this way because that is what the world would consider “just”.

But the reality is that God’s justice is nearly the opposite of ours. His justice is one that forgives the sins of people who do not even ask for forgiveness (e.g. Matthew 9: 1-8). He welcomes into His kingdom a public sinner whose repentance is vaguely stated moments before his death (Luke 23: 40-43). He loves and pours out mercy on the undeserving – and that is all of us.

Could anyone resist this love, this mercy, for an eternity? I cannot imagine. But, of course, all things rest in the hands of God.

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I will say but a few more words. It may be concluded from their writings that a number of the early Church Fathers, including native Greek speakers, assumed that salvation was universal. Among these were Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa.

While this does not prove anything (God forbid that I try to prove anything about the meaning of Scripture), the notion that all are to be saved in the end is neither recent nor radical. Nor does it mean that sin is without painful consequence to the unrepentant sinner. I should want to avoid “pruning” as much as possible.

And yet, sinner that I am, if God deems that I need some burning “κόλασις” is order to know Him fully, I long for it with all my heart.

To Him be glory…

Christ the King

An excellent poem by Malcolm Guite…

Malcolm Guite

20111119-111210We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and the following Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden…

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What is real?

I recently read an article about the early life of Hitler and how he began his career as a propagandist. He became very skilled at it and, by the time he had risen up through the ranks, he had gained the ability to convince people of all sorts of things for which there was no basis. The article related how he might choose an issue of concern to people, find a way to make the Jews appear responsible for it and then create and repeat slogans until he had crowds of people chanting anti-Jewish slogans. As people’s passions were thus stirred, these ideas became “real” to people even though there was no truth in them.
 
Similarly, we live in an age where there is a proliferation of “conspiracy theories”. While such theories are not necessarily a new phenomena, the extent to which they can be transmitted and repeated for all to see is unique to this technological age. Arguments about what is true abound on the internet and “evidence” is denied as having been made up or manipulated for profit or political purposes – hence, the “conspiracy”.
 
I’m almost afraid to cite an example for fear that I will accidentally stir someone up but here goes: at one time, it was hypothesized that autism was tied to childhood vaccination. Well-conducted research has demonstrated that this is not true. However, there was some spurious research that gained a lot of attention. Despite the retraction of that spurious research, there are many people who still cling to the belief that vaccination is dangerous and they keep repeating it on the internet. Trying to dissuade them of this notion is interpreted as part of a conspiracy. Evidence no longer matters.
 
Why bring this up? Because it demonstrates a deep confusion in contemporary culture about what is real – to the point that many people have concluded that either (1) there is an objective reality but we cannot possibly know what it is, or (2) there is no objective reality and that all claims to a deeper reality are but “social constructs” or “your opinion”.
 
It is hard enough for people to agree on reality in politics and science, much less on the eternal Reality of Christ our Savior, the Logos of God. But it becomes truly frightening when a large percentage of the population seems to have drawn the conclusion that there is no point in seeking a higher Truth or examining the evidence for it because it is presumed not to exist.
 
As I found myself pondering this, I found myself wondering how a Christian is to respond to this state of affairs. It seems to me that it important to help people see that they are hungry – or else they will not seek nourishment. I recall something C.S. Lewis wrote – that hunger, while not proving that someone will actually have food, does prove that there is such a thing as food. In our contemporary culture, people are hungry but do not understand what they experience. Hence, they attempt to fill themselves with things that will never satisfy (money, sex, possession, drugs).
 
It is incredibly important that, as Christians, we live in such a way that people will want what we have – or at least be curious about it. Seeing in us an inner peace, an assurance that we are loved, a kindness and compassion that doesn’t argue but accepts and forgives and loves all – surely that will move some people to recognize that they are hungry and that things of this world are not satisfying them…
 
I pray for the grace to live in such a way. May God have mercy on me.

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(A version of this article was first posted as a comment on Fr. Stephen’s blog Glory to God for All Things. Unfortunately, he had to remove it because it stirred up controversy about vaccinations, validating my point but creating a distraction he understandably did not want as part of his post.)

Just a little note…

As you may have noticed, I haven’t written here in quite a while. Thankfully, I’m alive and well – just writing more in image than in words. Perhaps I shall post images in the future but, for now, I’m too busy making them. 🙂

It is also quite possible that God has decided that I have said enough. I am always willing to write for Him but nothing seems to take hold. An idea passes through my mind…and, before I know it, it is gone.

The purpose of this note is to let you know of a change to my little photography blog, O Holy Earth, that some of you have been kind enough to follow. If you think I’ve neglected this blog, I’ve neglected that one even worse! No posts for more than 1.5 years! Therefore, to save a bit of money, I’ve decided to give up the domain name (gasp) that cost me $18/year.

Rest assured that you are welcome to visit that blog anytime you want. However, it has a new, free address: https://oholyearth.wordpress.com/. If you want to be notified of any new posts there, feel free to become an email follower at the site. I have no plans to post anything there – but I have no plans to not post anything there either.

It is all up to God. My life belongs to Him and He may do with me what He wills. I trust that it is all for the good.

While contemplating this decision, I re-read some of my posts at O Holy Earth and was moved by them – moved by how much God has given me over the years. Thanks to be to Him for all of the Beauty – the beauty of the earth and of you, dear readers.

Please pray for me as I pray for you.

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(Note: I continue to pay the big bucks for this blog – to keep the domain name and make sure the blog is ad-free. It is too close to my heart to consider anything else – even if God’s plan is for me to remain silent…)