Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Prayer Update

Dear friends,

First, thank you all so much for the prayers, the encouragement, and the support I’ve received from many of you this past month!  I have had a number of very encouraging conversations and have been met with astonishing generosity. And since Thanksgiving, I have been able to visit and worship with three churches and even presented to two of them!  Moreover, I have been invited to speak at several new-to-me parishes in the New Year.  Incredibly, I can account for 49% of what I need to move on to the work in Kenya.  God gets the glory for this, but you deserve my gratitude as well.

Secondly, that means I still need to raise 51% of my budget before I can return to my ministry in Kenya.  If you know of people among your wider contacts, or even other missions-minded parishes, who would be excited to hear about what God is doing in Kenya and who might want to be a partner with me to make this ministry of theological education possible, would you be willing to introduce me to them?  I am willing to travel, though my work schedule means I need to plan ahead unless the opportunity is close to my Virginia home.  As you know, theological education is such an easy ‘sell’, in that we have the opportunity not only to touch and transform the lives of these young men, but given the strategic importance of the Nairobi seminary, we will be training the future leaders of Orthodoxy itself, not just in Kenya, but throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  My position at St. Paul’s University enables me to have a similar impact on the lives of the men and women in my classes there.  If you know anyone who might be as excited about this as I am, I would love to have them on my team!

Lastly, I hope that our Lord takes you by surprise this Nativity celebration, maybe as you stand in prayer one morning, or have a moment of quiet in a walk.  You know, that Baby changes everything.  All of the hurt, the anguish, the pain, the grief; all of the brokenness, the loneliness, the emptiness, the tears; all of the loss, the crying, the sorrow, the dying – we, like the shepherds, like the magi, find that God is here with us.  We don’t know how that Infant can be God’s Answer.  We don’t know how this little Boy can be God’s Savior.  We don’t know how this Baby can be God

But through Mary’s quiet pregnancy, through what for Bethlehem is just another woman in labor, God comes to His creation, blessing the cosmos as He takes on human flesh.  Heaven looks on and is stunned.  God is with us.  Immanuel.  Even as the innkeeper’s neighborhood, the little town of Bethlehem, the walled city of Jerusalem just 5 miles walk away, the world of the Romans and the nations beyond carry on as if nothing astonishing has occurred.  And even as we look, we too see nothing unusual.  A mother.  And her infant son.  And so it will be.  For His family. For the nation.  Even for His disciples.  Even on that terrible, dark day as they roll the stone across the tomb where His lifeless body lay.  Until three short days later when that same stone, and death itself, is rolled back, and Mary’s Son emerges from death in triumphant transfigured life.  The power of that moment has reached even us.  And now we too can have that moment of life-changing clarity, looking back upon His life through the transforming lens of Pascha.  We are able to hear with new ears what He says, and see with new eyes what He does.  And we are able to walk back, all the way to Bethlehem to that dimly lit stable, and see her, and her Baby.  We can stand there, in the quiet.  That night when everything changed.

Blessed Nativity,


Dr. William Black
Orthodox Christian Mission Center
220 Mason Manatee Way
St. Augustine, FL 32086

If you would like to join my team and become a financial partner with me and support this ministry, you can do online by following the instructions found here:  http://www.ocmc.org/about/view_missionary.aspx?MissionaryId=41 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Unexpected Love, Unexpected Joy

Some friends who heard that I had become Orthodox but who are unfamiliar with what the Eastern Church believes asked if I might explain something of our faith.  I in no way want to enter into a debate, nor do I want to be critical of views that may be important to someone reading this.  Nor do I presume to speak for the Orthodox Church on matters of faith.  Instead, I want to share some things I've discovered as I have pondered the faith of the Orthodox for the past 17 years.

My conversion to the Orthodox Church was a surprise to me.  Given that I had invested my entire life to a particular understanding of Christianity and to a particular career within that understanding, for much of my life  I would have considered it lunacy to give it all up in order to become Orthodox.  Cocooned by my upbringing, my Christian experience as an American southerner and my career choice as a Protestant clergy person, I was ignorant of the Orthodox Church until I turned 37.  I assumed it was an eastern version of Roman Catholicism.  To my surprise, I began to discover that all of my assumptions, and what little thinking I had done about them, were mistaken.  All I can say is that the more I learned about the Orthodox Church, its history, its theology and its unbroken connection to earliest Christianity, the more attractive and, indeed, compelling it became.  In fact there is too much to tell about that journey in such a short piece.  What I want to do here instead is explore several of the most important themes within Orthodox theology, and relate how these ancient but new-to-me ideas went a long way towards transforming my understanding of the Gospel, and indeed, my life.

The Eastern Church has always understood salvation to be a process.  Nobody is in a position to say that he or she has been saved; rather, we say that we are being saved.  This is because in the Eastern Church, salvation is not understood as a resolution of one’s legal problems before God.  That is not to say that forgiveness is not important in the East.  Rather, the Orthodox understand the predicament facing humanity to be even worse.  First, because of our sin against God and against each other, we have broken our relationships and we are alienated from each other and from God.  Secondly, our choices to sin, to live for ourselves – our choices not to love – have corrupted our character and marred our ability to live the life our Creator intended us to live.  And thirdly, our sin not only corrupts our character; our sin has brought death into our lives and the cosmos as a whole.

The salvation undertaken by Jesus in His incarnation, his life, His death on the cross, and His resurrection provides the antidote to the deadly poison sin releases into our lives.  Sin is not so much a judicial issue as it is a relational crisis.  Our repeated decisions to sin destroy our relationships.  And the salvation brought by Christ provides the way that our sin may be forgiven and for our relationships to be restored.  Jesus comes to heal our broken relationship with God and our broken relationships with each other.  To this end, in love, Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice for our sins - Jesus’ death on the cross becomes the sacrifice through which forgiveness comes.  We are forgiven by God the Holy Trinity.  A new relationship with God is made possible.  Our decision to respond by repentance is our movement into that new relationship.  And having been reconciled with God, we are able then to forgive and be reconciled with each other.  Salvation is thus experienced in our relationships.  What was wounded, estranged and broken before becomes increasingly healed and whole by God’s grace.

But salvation also involves the transformation of our character, that is, our true selves, into the very likeness and image of God.  What in the West is understood as sanctification and union with Christ, in the East is known as theosis.  We were created in the image and likeness of God.  Theosis is the restoration of that image and likeness, the result of our increasing engagement with God in prayer and our increasing union with God in our discipleship.  This engagement in love with God heals the deformities caused and inflamed by our sin.  We become increasingly like Christ, just as we will ultimately be transformed to be like him in every way, excepting his divinity, in the age to come.

Thirdly, salvation for the Orthodox means that the final enemy – death itself – will be destroyed.  At present, every single person dies and endures the destruction of his or her body.  As human beings, we were created as a union of physical and metaphysical, as both a soul and a body together.  Death breaks the bond between soul and body and renders us naked, as St. Paul says, stripped of our earthly tent.  Jesus conquered death by His own death, giving life to those in the tombs because death could not hold the Second Adam, the Man who was also God  and the Author of Life.  Jesus released the Old Testament saints from death’s power and then Himself rose from the dead, the ‘first fruits’ of what will be the experience of every single person created by God.  We will all rise again and stand before Christ Himself to give account of what was done while we were ‘in the body’.

These brief paragraphs hint at the direction taken by the Orthodox understanding of salvation.  I found this compelling for two reasons.  First I found that these were the same issues that concerned the Apostles and Jesus Himself as they proclaimed and explained the Gospel in our New Testament.  But I also felt that these were the same issues that I myself struggled with, and that the good news held forth in the gospel was not just for some ‘pie in the sky bye and bye’.  Instead the Gospel touched me where I needed to be touched right now and right here, and gave me hope in the face of my own set of griefs and brokenness.  And though even a cursory inspection of my life would make it impossible for me to say ‘I am saved’, I can sing and shout for joy that the process of my being saved is underway by His grace, glory to God!

A second aspect of Eastern theology that I found challenging and transformational is the Eastern understanding of the Trinity.  In the Eastern Church, the Holy Trinity is the central dome of the cathedral of Christianity, encompassing everything under its expanse and grandeur.  Everything is touched and transformed by the Eastern teaching on the Trinity, from anthropology to salvation, and from worship to ecclesiology.  God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit may in their essence be beyond knowing, but the Three who are One have revealed themselves to be the essence of love.  The fundamental principle of God in the East turns out not to be ontological in nature, but relational.  Thus, when one reads the creation accounts in Genesis, the issue that concerns the author is not the age of the universe, nor is the issue what the nature of a ‘day’ might be.  What emerges from the text itself is a God, motivated by love, creating in love a universe and world that are intended to reflect his love.  We learn in the very first chapter that God is in fact plural, and that God’s plurality will become the template of human existence.  And just as love can only exist when there is another, so the plural God creates humanity in ‘our’ image.  The result is that ‘man’ is created male and female – a plurality, a community, just like God.  The plurality of humanity reflects the plurality of God.  And as humanity shares God’s ‘image and likeness’, so the love that characterizes God in God’s plurality is intended to characterize humanity’s relationships in humanity’s plurality.

God is love, and love requires the free choice of the lover to give him/herself to the beloved.  In order for there to be a free choice, there must be a possibility for the lover to choose not to love the beloved, or for the beloved not to respond to the gift of love.  This is in fact what God has done with us.  We are created in the image and likeness of God.  As such we are created with the capacity to love.  We reflect the image of God when we choose to love.  But we can also choose not to love.  And it is this choice not to love that becomes the essence of ‘sin’.  And it is living in a world that is increasingly characterized by the cumulative choices of people not to love, either God or other people, that the world, i.e. our culture becomes ‘fallen’.

While Jesus is the 2nd Adam and is God’s rescue mission to reclaim his sin-marred image, the Trinity is the relational model of what reclaimed humanity is intended to be.  And given the catastrophe of what humanity became as choices not to love piled on, salvation is the restoration of God’s original intention for his creation.  Salvation is ultimately the apocalypse—the unveiling of God’s renovation of the universe, and it begins with the transformation of our relationships through the Gospel. 

Far from being a theological side show, in the East the Trinity is foundational to the doctrine of God, and to the doctrine of humanity, and to the doctrine of salvation, and to the doctrine of the end times.  And a truly Trinitarian theology is a theology of love.  As Christians, we are what we believe.  And as love is the essence of who God is and what the Gospel is and what salvation does, the Apostle Paul rightly points out that wherever the Holy Spirit of God is at work, one can tell because love is the fruit produced.  It therefore is not a difficult thing to determine if one is dealing with a Christian or not.  As Jesus Himself says, you will know the tree by its fruit.

Rublev's The Hospitality of Abraham

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Joy and the Bother of Giving Alms

All of the following pictures are from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 Advent is one of the major fasting periods of the Orthodox Church.  From November 15 until the Christmas day Feast of the Nativity, Orthodox Christians are doing without meat and other animal products, with the exception of fish on certain days.  But these Fasts are intended to be about more than just doing without certain kinds of food.  The fasts are meant to be a means of repentance in our lives as well.  And an opportunity to help those in need around us through almsgiving.

Poor and handicapped people selling tapers outside a Church

I have discovered that there is no ‘look at me’ pride in doing these fasts because everyone else at Church is doing it, too.  This frees me to focus on the interior issues that need to be dealt with as the fast goes on.  Repentance is one of those issues, and all of us will make a time to spend with our spiritual father in confession.

But almsgiving is meant to be a secret discipline.  Jesus says, ‘Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them.  Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.’  Jesus then amplifies what He means: ‘When you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men.  Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.’ (Matthew 6:1-4)

When I lived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I felt on some days I had been transported back to Bible times.  In front of Orthodox Churches or Mosques there would be laying in the dirt men with limbs twisted by polio or grotesquely enlarged by elephantiasis.  Women with club feet or with faces marred by tumors.  Children with deformities.  And lepers.  At intersections actually governed by a traffic light or policeman, we drivers would be approached by one, two or even three different people begging for alms.  I discovered that there was a leper hospital near where I lived.  Once these men and women had their Hanson’s disease under control, they might be capable of working, but because of their disfigurement, no one would hire them.  So they had to beg or their families would starve. 

Kenya has its share of desperately poor.  There are more opportunities to help than there are people willing to do so.  An ocean of souls in desperate straights.  Whether in Kenya or Ethiopia, it was easy to press some coins or cash into the outstretched hand and continue walking on.  It is much harder to stop and look the person in the eye and greet them and ask them their name and where they are from.  It is harder because suddenly and with a jolt I am treating the beggar, the opportunity, as a person, a person like me.  By stopping, by talking, by treating him or her as a person, I am not only giving some money but conveying dignity as well.  And dignity is something in short supply if you have been shoved aside by the community as useless or somehow cursed.

But I also discovered that not only did these beggars have faces and names, they have lives.  And regardless of what disease or misfortune had done to their frame and form, they were still, at heart, an image of the living God.  This is where giving gets hard.  It is much, much easier to give a coin or two, or write a check, or swipe a card.  But when I began recognizing different men and women and children because they were there day after day, week after week, month after month, charity took on a different meaning.  ‘Charity’ is, of course, the old fashioned English word for agape love, narrowed unhelpfully to mean doing something for the less fortunate.  But ‘charity’, love, calls me out of myself and into a relationship with the other.  We try not to go there, because relationship is hard.  Relationship means that love must enter the picture.  And with love comes engagement, time, giving and sacrifice.  Our culture is allergic to engagement, giving and sacrifice, and so are most of us, especially when it comes to engaging with those who are not in any position to give anything back to us.

Don’t get me wrong.  Giving money is better than giving nothing.  But if the exercise does not call us out of ourselves and towards the other, then it remains an exercise and not the intended engagement, not the intended relationship.

I live in my head most of the time.  The Advent disciplines of fasting, repentance and almsgiving are one of God’s signal means to draw me out of myself, in love, to love.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Pictures of Reconciliation and Joy

Wounds heal.
Hearts change.
Love blossoms.
Joy returns.
'Nothing touches the tired spot,' Abraham Lincoln said when bowed down by the terrible burden of leading the country during the Civil War.
But even the darkest night give way to the light of morning.
Repentance can lead to reconciliation.
Love can be reborn.
Joy can heal a broken heart.
Here are some pictures that evoke these things for me.

The woman caught in adultery
He/she who is without sin is welcome to cast the first stone.

Remember me, Lord, in Your Kingdom.

She washed Jesus feet with her tears.

We have been given the Ministry of Reconciliation.

John Paul II meeting with and forgiving Mehmet Ali Agca

The Sacrament of Repentance

'Reconciliation', outside Coventry Cathedral (UK)

Tears of joy come when things are right.

It is a great gift to grow old together,

And to see the joy of one's children.

and to die in the knowledge that you are loved.

All's well that ends well :-)!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Pictures of Grief and Loss

The heart is deep.  Who can know it.
If icons serve as windows into the reality of God's perspective, other pictures can be mirrors of the heart.  I found these while working on another project.  They touch something deep.  in me.

Unnamed by Robert and Shana Parkeharrison

'The Grief' (ipad) by chaseroflight

'The Loss' - artist unknown

'The Divorce' - Moshe Rynecki

'Water Veil (Virginia Don't Drown)' - Anne Pfaff

'The First Grief' - Charles Spencelayh

'Rachel Weeping' - Charles Willson Peale

'Why?' - Donald Bruce Wright

'Grief' - Cynthia Angeles

'Man in Chair' - Vincent van Gogh

'The Return of the Prodigal Son' - Rembrandt