Saturday, February 15, 2014

Happy St. Onesimus Day!

I get a daily email with readings on the lives of saints remembered each day. Today's came with the story of Onesimus, the namesake of this blog. 

Today we commemorate :
Saint Onesimus, Apostle of the Seventy, who in his youth was a slave of Philemon, a Christian of distinguished lineage, living in the city of Colossae, Phrygia. Guilty of an offense against his master and fearing punishment, St Onesimus fled to Rome, but as a runaway slave he wound up in prison. In prison he encountered the Apostle Paul, was enlightened by him, and was baptized. 

In prison St Onesimus served the Apostle Paul like a son. St Paul was personally acquainted with Philemon, and wrote him a letter filled with love, asking him to forgive the runaway slave and to accept him like a brother. He sent St Onesimus with this letter to his master, depriving himself of help, of which he was very much in need. After he received the letter, St Philemon not only forgave Onesimus, but also sent him back to Rome to the apostle. 

Onesimus received by Philemon.

St Philemon was afterwards consecrated bishop of the city of Gaza (January 4, February 19, and November 22). After the death of the Apostle Paul, St Onesimus served the apostles until their end, and he was made a bishop. After the death of the holy apostles he preached the Gospel in many lands and cities: in Spain, Carpetania, Colossae, Patras. 

St. Onesimus of the Seventy

In his old age, St Onesimus occupied the bishop's throne at Ephesus, after the Apostle Timothy. When they took St Ignatius the God-Bearer (December 20) to Rome for execution, Bishop Onesimus came to meet with him with other Christians, as St Ignatius mentions in his Epistle to the Ephesians.

St. Onesimus, mosaic from St. Petka Chapel in Belgrade, Serbia

During the reign of the emperor Trajan (89-117), St Onesimus was arrested and brought to trial before the eparch Tertillus. He held the saint in prison for eighteen days, and then sent him to prison in the city of Puteoli. After a certain while, the eparch sent for the prisoner and, convincing himself that St Onesimus maintained his faith in Christ, had him stoned, after which they beheaded the saint with a sword. A certain illustrious woman took the body of the martyr and placed it in a silver coffin. This took place in the year 109.

Depiction of the Death of Onesimus, painting from 1000 CE.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Pain and Blessing of Exile

Calamity descended on the northern ten tribes of Israel in a storm of Assyrian siege engines, chariots and swords.  All attempts to warn the northern kingdom of the consequences of their covenant-breaking idolatry and compromise were unheeded.  Israel had broken faith with the God who had delivered them from Egypt to be his people.  In mercy the consequences were delayed, but eventually they fell full force.  Israel was removed from God’s presence and from the land God had given him.  Those who didn’t flee were either killed or herded off into exile never to return.

Taking captives into exile into Assyria

Calamity descended on tiny Judah as well, as the Babylonians one by one reduced her towns to piles of rubble, to just another layer in the tell for later archeologists to discover.  Life as everybody knew it ended badly.  The prophets had repeatedly warned of the unhappy consequences of idolatry and unfaithfulness to God, and even had the horrors experienced by their northern neighbors as graphic object lesson of what was at stake.  Celebrations and parties were replaced by mourning and funerals, if the dead were lucky.  The countryside was scoured.  Famine and despair crept into the surrounded cities.  Town walls were knocked down.  Fighting-aged men were killed, the women were raped.  The leftovers were marched off in chains to Babylon.

On a much smaller scale, almost unnoticeable outside the tiny confines of my life, a long season of calamity has descended upon me.  No longer living in Kenya, no longer a professor of history and theology, no longer a missionary, no longer welcome in my own home, I find myself answering phones at the local YMCA and taking my meals and sleeping in the home of an elderly widower who had mercy on me when I was homeless in August.  Hardly any of the things which defined my life even two years ago remain.

It is so very easy to pass judgment on someone else, especially when we think he/she is getting what they deserve.  And maybe I am getting what I deserve?  Maybe there are parallels between my experience and Biblical Israel and Judah’s experiences?  The difficult thing with this sort of calculus is that there is rather obviously no such thing as tit for tat divine justice today.  And for this we can all be grateful because if God did choose to pass sentence on each one of us for the things we have thought and said and done, then who could stand?  If each one of us got what we deserved, then this planet would be unpeopled in short order.  Furthermore, none of us live under the Sinai covenant, which carried blessings for keeping it and curses for breaking it.   And one of the chief curses for breaking God’s covenant (as a people, not as individuals) was exile from the land. 

Rather, God in mercy often chooses to do something else with those of us who are sinners (that is, those of us who realize that we are sinners).  Yes there are consequences to our wrong behavior, our wrong words, our wrong attitudes and thoughts, but the God of the New Testament does not array himself against us as a punitive judge, delivering a celestial smackdown to everyone who strays from the narrow way.  The incarnation betrays a radically different divine posture towards me and you – a shepherd in search of his lost sheep; a physician bringing saving antidote to a dying snakebit boy; a savior refusing to throw the first stone at an adulteress; a crucified God listening to a dying thief’s confession and replacing condemnation with reconciliation.  It’s not that God’s standards change; rather, our relationship with the Trinity is transformed.  It was that relationship that was marred and broken by the way we treated each other and, by extension, the way we treated God.  Our own receiving mercy transforms our perspective and our relationship with everyone else around us.  If our perspective and relationships are not transformed, then despite our credentials and loud professions, we literally don’t know what we are talking about.

Exile uproots one from home, from the familiar, from security, and plonks one into a place where everything must be done from scratch.  Everything is a decision, rather than falling into the groove of habit.  How do I spend my time?  Where can I find a job?  How can I get around? Where am I going to sleep tonight?  Where can I get more money after my last $150 is finished?  Do I pick myself up and go to church where nobody knows me?  Who will be my friend after those I knew before have believed another’s story and never bothered to ask me if it was true?  What’s left after my expansive and meaningful life of Christian ministry spread across three continents is reduced to a 10x12 upstairs room in somebody else’s house, where I sleep in somebody else’s bed and use somebody else’s sheets and blankets (and am grateful to have even that)?  I look back on what used to be and wonder, ‘What was that all about?’  As I clean toilets at my minimum wage job, the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes dub over the YouTube video of my life, ‘Meaningless, Meaningless, Everything is meaningless.’  Exile is a tough place to be.

I take comfort in the fact that God did not forsake his people in exile, that he sent his prophets even to them, made his promises even to them, promised to take even them by the hand and lead them back home.

In the meantime, I work on those things in me I can change and am choosing not to spend any more energy on those things, circumstances and people I can’t change.  After spending decades trying to change things and people and experiencing nothing but dysfunctional failure, there is great freedom in giving up and surrendering these people and circumstances to God.  I also work on identifying those resentments that, over the years, have been the engine driving some of my worst behaviors.  And there are pages of them.  Identifying them, owning them, surrendering them, and praying for the ones I resented – there is great healing here.  And I feel a tremendous relief that I don’t have to get on that treadmill anymore, one that never goes anywhere and just wears me out. 

Lastly, my readers will know that I am no fan of trite Christian clichés or the tawdry junk peddled in so-called Christian bookstores.  So it strikes me as ironic that I’ve been addressed by just such a phrase emblazoned on a coffee mug from just such a store.  ‘Bloom where you are planted’, the phrase jingles in bold typeface on a flower-bestrewn mug.  I refused on principle to engage with this mug for the first five months of my exile.  Then I realized that there was actually something in this cliché for me.  It is, essentially, what God said to his exiles in Babylon.  And it is what God is saying to me, his exile, in ends-of-the-earth Crozet:  Bloom where you are planted.  So I’m praying for the peace and prosperity of where I have been planted.  The man whose generosity has given me a little room upstairs, the local YMCA who have taken me on to answer their phones and wipe down their cardio equipment, the country roads where I run my miles and clear my head, the little church where I chant the liturgy and break my fast each week with a new circle of friends.  

 I am learning that there are advantages to being a nobody.  I can work hard on my stuff and not have to worry about keeping up appearances.  I can face the truth about me without having to defend the ‘me’ that I felt I had to be.  And that means I can experience grace and forgiveness.  And extend grace and forgiveness to others.  So I will keep trying to make myself useful, in this time and this place of obscurity, of exile. Because what may seem obscure to me is actually center stage of the universe. For where God is one also finds meaning.  And hope.  And the next step. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Forever Just Isn’t What It Used to Be

I was perusing the news this morning and came across this article on NPR:

‘Wikipedia Archiving Voices So You’ll Always Know How Celebs Sound,’ followed by: ‘Ten-second audio snippets of famous people’s voices will be preserved on Wikipedia forever.’

Yes it is amazing what new technology enables people to do these days.  But what catches my attention here is the use of the word ‘forever’.  The promise is held out that, even after ‘we’ lose these ‘famous people’ we will still have access to what their voices sounded like, stored in an archive of 10 second ‘snippets’, with access apparently guaranteed ‘forever’.

Forever, as it is currently used, is a rather elastic concept.  I most often hear it used in times of bereavement and grief: ‘I’ll remember her forever’ or ‘He left us a legacy that will endure forever.’  I’ve looked at ‘Legacy Pages’ provided by funeral homes which give the impression that your tribute will be there forever.  Somehow, somewhere in the far recesses of our soul, there resides a gnawing angst that, when all is said and done, and we are no longer around to draw attention to ourselves, we might be forgotten.  This is a legitimate concern.

Most of the world’s people have passed from memory.  They lived, just as we live today.  They had their friendships, their accomplishments, their heartaches, their tragedies, just as we do now.  They died, and if they were fortunate, there was a circle of people who felt grief at having been bereaved.  And time went on.  And one by one, every single person who knew him or her themselves died.  And soon there was nobody left who knew or even cared that such a person had ever existed.  Of all the billions of people who have lived and died, only a tiny handful have survived as a name to us today.  Even fewer have left a record of what they look like, or what their lives were actually like.

Nobody wants to be forgotten.  And we humans have devised some ingenious ways to make sure something of us will call someone’s attention to us long after we are gone.  The Lascaux cave paintings are an early example of such a record.  The early rulers in Egypt and the later Mesopotamian emperors went to stupendous lengths to ensure an appreciation of their glory and power.   

Abu Simbel

Rulers of all kinds in all ages fall for this sort of pathetic hubris, attempting to secure a kind of immortality by reminding subsequent generations that they were a somebody, really.  Academics attempt similar feats through manic publishing, hoping that their name on the spine of a book on a dark shelf on the seventh floor of the stacks in some research library will secure them a seat in the pantheon of science or history or literary gods and goddesses.  And then there are cemeteries, where the not-so-lofty, or their relatives, seek somehow to preserve their memory.  This is usually accomplished nowadays just as it has been for as far back as our cultural memory stretches, with a stone inscribed with an inscription, often with just the bare facts that so-and-so existed:  born January 21, 1939, died February 4, 2014.  With more resources, one can opt for a more elaborate sculpture – a favorite memorial strategy of well-to-do Victorians in both the UK and here.   

Or one might have an elaborate scene carved in the stone, like the one of a recently deceased deer hunter who had his portrait carved in the stone, replete with hunting fatigues, along with a hunting scene focused on the buck of his dreams.  Evidently, his tombstone did what it was supposed to do, and I’m remembering it here for you (though I can’t remember his name…).  However, though this is a tried and seemingly true method of remembering someone, this inscribing them onto a stone that’s placed on their grave, stone doesn’t last forever.  It doesn’t even last a long time.  I visited many cemeteries in New England from the 17th and 18th centuries where the stones that remain are so weathered that it is impossible to make out the names they once carried.  Row upon row of people just like us have passed into oblivion, no longer remembered.  And even those stones that can be read have no one left who cares about the person it represents.  They are lost to us.

View of my favorite cemetery, in Ipswich, MA

This brings me back to Wikipedia.  It is certainly interesting that an audio archive has been established to store recordings of our celebrities’ voices.  But it is grandiose, at the very least, to claim that ‘we’ will be able to have the voices of these ‘celebs’ forever.  Maybe a long time.  But for us these days, a long time isn’t very long.  I remember when floppy discs were the reality.  And I dutifully put all of my records on floppy discs thinking that I was preserving that information for posterity.  Well, posterity turned out to be about ten years long, and now I couldn’t read a floppy disk even if I could find them because computer systems have evolved in such a way as to make them utterly obsolete.  Dare I say that all of the computerized, online systems that we take for granted today (which have themselves been around for less than 10 or 15 years!) will not be here 10 or 15 years from now, much less forever.

So there’s a big problem here.  We want our lives to mean something.  We want to have made a difference.  We want to be remembered.  But we are ephemeral, and our contexts as constant as a barrier sea island.  Immortality is reduced to a photograph, maybe a biography that will sit unread on a shelf in ten years, a work of art, a name inscribed in stone, a ten-second snippet of someone’s voice.  The current situation is temporary.  Tomorrow our places will be taken by others who don’t have a clue that there was someone sitting here, standing there, living here before them.  Speaking as a historian, it’s all very discouraging.  Looking back, almost everything is gone, lost, irretrievably.  And the further back we go, the less there is to work with.

When I became Orthodox, I found startling the chant repeated at the end of Orthodox funerals.  The Deacon says: In a blessed falling asleep, grant, O Lord, eternal rest unto Thy departed servant (Name) and make his/her memory to be eternal!
Then the choir sings: Memory eternal! Memory eternal! Memory eternal!

I want to be remembered.  But if this world, as it is, is all there is, then I will join everyone in passing from memory.  That is why there is a deep resonance with this profound truth offered by the Orthodox at the time of bereavement, that God will hold us in his memory.  And unlike stone or books or buildings or youtube videos or Wikipedia audio files, God is from everlasting to everlasting.  Memory eternal – the best explanation I’ve found comes from Don Sheehan’s essay, ‘Dostoevsky and Memory Eternal: An Eastern Orthodox Approach to The Brothers Karamazov’:
We can best approach the meaning of this song through the connection between the Orthodox funeral services and the crucifixion of Christ.  Fr. Pavel Florensky… articulated the connection by first asking, “What did the wise thief ask for on the cross?”  and then answering by quoting from St. Luke’s Gospel: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).  Florensky then continues: And in answer, in satisfaction of his wish, his wish to be remembered, the Lord witnesses: “Truly I say to you, today shall you be with me in Paradise.”  In other words, “to be remembered” by the Lord is the same thing as “to be in Paradise.”  “To be in Paradise” is to be in eternal memory and, consequently, to have eternal existence and therefore an eternal memory of God.  Without remembrance of God we die, but our remembrance of God is possible only through God’s remembrance of us.
So it turns out that we are looking for remembrance in all the wrong places.  Celebrity stars in the sidewalk, massive memorials on the mall, enormous warships, faces on Mt. Rushmore, Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame: all are destined to become no more than Shelley’s words:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 None of what I’ve been saying is new.  But it does require a rethink of current operating procedure.  To think that an invisible God’s memory is the one thing most worth investing in seems a huge leap.  Until one compares it with what passes for sufficient today.