Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Answer

I grew up in the Church of Christ, and believed what I was told. I still believe much of what I was told. I was told that baptism is necessary for salvation.  At age 11 I believed that I would go to hell because I was not baptized and so I went forward and was baptized.  I believed that Jesus had died for my sins and had risen from the dead.  When I was baptized I remember that my first thought was 'is that all there is to this?'  It was a prayer and I did not know it.  As far as I knew, that was it. I tried to keep the commands of the Bible and embrace its doctrines. 

When I was a teenager, I tried to convince people of my position.  I told my chemistry teacher who was the wife of an Episcopal priest, that salvation required that one be baptized by immersion. She looked at me quizically, and said nothing, but the look on her face seemed to be saying, now , as I think about it,  'what question is this kid answering, and how can I respond at all since he does not even know the questions that need to be asked?"  I also showed film strips, the Jewell Miller filmstrips to a man studying to be a Presbyterian pastor at the local Presbyterian seminary.  He made polite comments that totally bypassed the doctrinal points I was wanting to drive home.

I suffered a lot , and after a while and a period where I tried to be an atheist I had an adult conversion, and it was a conversion into the experience of the grace of God, and the dimension of the Holy Spirit, and the realm of prayer.  For a while, I joined the evangelicals I now hung out with in relegating baptism to a symbol, and also made the baptism in the Holy Spirit a second experience in the life of a believer, one accompanied, necessarily, by speaking in tongues.  The whole experience of grace and of the life of the Holy Spirit and of the dimension of prayer was so breath-takingly transforming, that I discounted everything that had gone before. Worship became emotion-charged and vigorous.   Now I would try to convince people to have a personal relationship to Jesus, and for those that had such a relationship, to provoke them to have a baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues.
In my enthusiasm there were a few that took me up on it.  Not very many, but a few.  The lady in the elevator. The guy buying a stereo from me.  The lady who would become my wife.  and Joel, who I prayed for and it came out in tongues and it was in Hebrew, and it was Jesus talking to him, and Joel, the secular Jew, became Joel the completed Christian Jew.
But, for the most part, there remained unanswered questions, and persistent personal spiritual struggles that did not yield themselves to Quiet times, and Scripture reading, and to tongues, and enthusiastic worship, and the utter confusion as to the interpretation of Scripture, and the nagging thought that things I had left behind, somehow, had their place in the full scheme of things.

In the midst of all of this, I was dragged to the conclusion that I had missed some very big aspects of Scripture and of Christianity, and I prayed to find the Catholic Church.  I was not big enough to understand the breadth of the faith on my own, and there had to be a Church, somewhere, that God had put on earth to express the fullness of the Faith.
I wound up becoming Eastern Orthodox. Baptism was now put back into the formula, and yet it was also with grace and the work of the Spirit, and a method for growth in grace.  I knew about the Methodists but despite all my years of looking around, had not grasped the method of growth in Christ.  In Orthodoxy, we had hesychasm, with its pursuit of unceasing prayer, that one might enter the unceasing 'memory' of God and so grow in Theosis, becoming God's by grace.  At the heart of this, no longer was speaking in tongues, and baptisms in the Spirit, but ascetic spiritual struggle, outward stillness (hesychasm), and the pursuit of unceasing prayer chiefly through the "Jesus Prayer", that would eventuate in a series of transitions so that God would live in our life more and more.  So now, the answer was, and is, 'the Jesus Prayer'.  But the Jesus Prayer, not without context- with the context of the Church Orthodox, whose very life and organization worked integrally with the Prayer to take us ever deeper and deeper into God.
There still existed the 'personal relationship', but it had been 'rounded out.' We were now called to a relationship in and with and through the Holy Trinity.  Prayer and communion with God that used to be a friend-to-friend chat with Jesus,  transitioned into a participation in the very life of the Trinity.  Hearing the word of Jesus was very important as an evangelical, but St. Ignatius the God-bearer pointed out in the First Century that those who 'have truly received the word of Jesus must go on to know the Silence so as to be perfect.'   Jesus, who is revealed by the Spirit, brings us into the Stillness of the Father, deep within our hearts. The experience deep within the heart corresponds to the seating of Christ in the heavenlies at the right hand of the Father at the time of His ascension.  So, we experience the converting work of the Spirit and undertake to keep the commands of God; next we see and hear Jesus in our hearts.  Truly receiving the word of Jesus eventuates in our entering into the Stillness of the Father. From there we grow on up towards fully participation in the life of God by grace; we grow towards becoming Gods by grace. Note that I say by grace, for it is not according to nature, but by the gift of grace.  
So, what of Baptism that I believed in as a child? It is not irrelevant. It is the very conduit of grace; it is the grace that initiates Christian life. But it is a grace that must be opened by obedience, through prayer, through keeping the commands, by hungering for God, through sufferings, through the Holy Spirit.  What of  the crisis experience of being 'baptized in the Holy Spirit?'  It is not irrelevant. The whole Christian struggle is one of the pursuit of the Holy Spirit. It is a process through which we acquire progressively more and more of the Spirit. It is not a one time crisis experience but a way of life that may be punctuated by crises that are met by new infusions of the Spirit in varying degrees of novelty.  But I would suggest that the Orthodox focus on the process, leaving the crises in the hands of God, is more sound, and safer, and is even what the more sound and safe Pentecostals, charismatics and deeper life evangelicals would state as well.What of the personal relationship to Jesus? It must be there, and there are many Orthodox, mostly ones who've grown up in the Church, who have missed this all together and it leaves them with a very outward Faith. 

That having been said, I must say that the Jesus Prayer and the pursuit of unceasing prayer, the fruit of which is an unceasing communion with God, is much more to the heart of the matter, and has had more power in my life than any of the other emphases or focuses. Adding to the life of prayer, to the personal relationship to Jesus, if you will, the dimension of the Stillness of the Father, that comes by the prayer of the heart, brings to Christian life, and especially that of Westerners, aspects of Christian faith that have been almost totally lost to us.   It makes sense for the Orthodox Church has been around from the beginning and has two thousand years of experience with this thing called Christianity and, if It is listened to, will save many of us from much wasted effort in re-inventing the wheel. Although I am expecting that all of us must discover through many tribulations, the richness of the Faith once delivered, for ourselves.
So, I think of the Scripture,  forbid not to speak in tongues, and in another place, desire the best gifts.  Baptism is necessary for salvation, unless God decides to do it differently- He is perfectly free to do as He pleases.  But if one camps out there, one will perish, for Baptism is the Portal into the life but not the consummation of it. A personal relationship to Jesus is vital, but the worship and experience we have been called to is a full Trinitarian experience of God.  Crisis experiences of the Spirit may be life-changing, but they are nothing but clanging symbols and will bring great delusion, unless incarnated in a life that is devoted to unceasing communion with God, relative lack of hold on the world and its trinkets, and a moving forward towards full union with God that only a life centered around unceasing prayer can bring.  (For a good treatment of spiritual growth I point any reader to the link to the right to Metropolitan Jonah's sermon on the same.)
What then of my past ecclesiastical affections and their emphases?  In the Church of Christ we insisted that the Church was one, and that there was one Church, and that we were It.  What of this claim?  Well, Scripture and 1500 years of Christian history suggest that the Church is and ought to be a Visible Unity.  But, unlike the Church of Christ, and the other Campbellite groups, the Church did not disappear so as to require 'restoration' or even 'reformation'.
The Church has always persisted in unity according to Christ's promise, and a visible unity, according to His prayers, all of which are answered.  The Church as the Church, for the most part, departed from the full Faith at the time of the Great Schism, and even more so at the time of the Reformation, even that it is to be admitted that much in the way of Orthopraxy of the Faith was recovered piecemeal in the time of the Reformation, if not the Doctrine or the Ecclesiastical Unity of the  Faith.  So, on that score I was sincere, and entirely wrong.
However, that does not mean that I was not of the Church even though I was not in the Church at that time. Grace extends far beyond the boundaries of the Visible Church, and Christ spoke of those who while not with Him, since they were not against Him, were 'of' Him.
What then of the prevailing Evangelical belief that the things they call 'ordinances' are symbols of the faith. I would suggest that this is a reversion to Judaistic thinking.  The worship of the Old Testament was in symbol- in type and shadow. But with Christ, the fullness has come, and worship is no longer in symbol or type.  Baptism for example, in the epistle of Peter, is called an anti-type- that is something, a reality, a grace, to which an Old Testament type, in this case, Noah's escape by the Flood, pointed to.  And because of the Incarnation, Communion is not a symbol but a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ- is a sacrament or mystery built upon and confessing the Incarnation of Grace, begun in the Virginal Conception, and continued in the Mystery of the Church, the body of Christ.
Though there be many who dispute it, there was much Holy Spirit reality in the pentecostal/charismatic movement.  Because it was a Spirit movement outside the confines of Orthodoxy it was also subject to bastardizing, and to counterfeiting, and to debasing.  But there was much reality there, and I learned things there, that I probably would never have learned or experienced had I grown up and continued only in the Orthodox Church.  With them and the missionary evangelicals I learned the practical usage of day to day authority of the power of the devil.  I have seen real exorcisms. I have found such training valuable in the raising of my children and in the maintenance of my own spiritual health. Tongues was a great help from time to time, and seemed to pump prime as it were, my prayers with the understanding, and would often bring me peace in a way that other spiritual techonologies could not.  There were times when I was led to interpret tongues, and to prophecy in meetings and it was real.  There was also a lot of flim flam, most of it well intentioned, and some of it patently from the evil one.  These things were a part of my Christian life, and were also found in Scripture, though apparently not all of the Churches.  What of this?
It seems to me that the phenomena just described exist more on the frontier of the advance of the Faith; on the mission fields and in newly plowed hearts coming to the Lord.  The flashy miraculous stuff always seems to be taking place out there on the edges of the advance of the Kingdom.  In more established places, the grace and workings of God are more incarnated, and less of the epiphenomenon.  I can still pray in tongues any time I wish, but the 'itch' that needs scratching, is scratched better, with other things.  So, if you are out there and not Orthodox and have no desire to look this way, and your itches are being taken care of with the twigs that are growing nearby, then, praise God, His mercy endures to all generations. But if there is a continued yearning and searching and an itch that persists, then it may be, it just may be, that the Lord is saying to look this way. Maybe there is something this way that will meet you at your point of need, and your point of growth.

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