A Coptic Priest’s Thoughts on Black Lives Matter.

The world that forgets God, brothers and sisters, is ruled by injustice toward neighbours and inhumanity toward the weak … Do not use force because you rule, nor commit extortion because you are able to do so, but show the qualities of justice even while the means of authority are available to you.

~ St Basil the Great, “On Mercy and Justice,” in On Social Justice (Popular Patristics Series Book 38). St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition, Loc. 1718, 1745.

 

Is there a “Christian approach” to the current swelling of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in response to the death of George Floyd? The issue of social inequality of non-whites is a deeply political one, especially at the moment. I want to make some observations on two questions in this brief post: should Christians get involved in politics?; and how might Christians—particularly Coptic Orthodox Christians—approach the BLM movement?

Should Christians Get Involved in Politics?

As I understand the life and teaching of Jesus and His apostles, to be a follower of Jesus is to rise above the fleeting and ever-changing political attitudes and movements that human beings create for themselves. Jesus’ Jewish listeners saw in Him a political figure, a messiah to liberate them from oppressive Roman rule and restore a Jewish kingdom under God. Jesus refused. His vision was far above this narrow human hope. The Kingdom Jesus established is certainly under the True God, but although it is in this world, it is not of this world—it is not about political or military power, or economic management, or legislating laws. It is not about Roman or Jewish rule, or political rule at all. Jesus did transform society, but He didn’t do it through political lobbying and power plays—He did it by changing hearts.

Jesus didn’t take sides on the political issues of His time. But that doesn’t mean He had nothing to say about those issues. Continue reading “A Coptic Priest’s Thoughts on Black Lives Matter.”

Chewing on Words

 

Astute readers who have prayed the Coptic Liturgy of St Basil in English over some years may have noticed that a few words in the liturgy have changed from translation to new translation. One example of this is this prayer from the Litany of the Clergy. See if you can work out which word has given the translators a headache:

 

“And them that with them rightly divide the word of truth …”
(Marquis de Bute, 1882).

“As well as, those who rightly disclose with them the word of truth …”
(Fr Tadros Y Malaty, 1976)

“And those who rightly define the word of truth with Him …”
(Papal Committee, c. 1990).

“And those who rightly administer with him the word of truth …”
(Prof. Fayek Ishak, 2007).

“And those who rightly handle the word of truth with him …”
(Coptic Reader).

 

The word translated in Coptic Reader as “handle” is ni-et-shoat evol (nyetswt ebol). The verb construction “shoat evol” means literally to “cut out,” to incise and remove, and hence by extension, it can also mean to “minister” or administer to, or even to “excommunicate.”* But clearly, we are not praying for those who excommunicate the word of truth! The obvious meaning here is those who minister the word of truth to others, but the verb shoat tells us just how this ministry is meant to work.

“Divide,” to the modern mind, perhaps has connotations of splits in the Church and disagreements (“excommunicate!”), which might explain why its appearance in some earlier English translations was replaced by the somewhat less literal translation, “handle.” But there is no need for this substitution if we understand Continue reading “Chewing on Words”

Your God Is Too Small!

 

I wonder if there is not a very pagan foundation to the way some Christians think about God. There is, of course, the whole “transactional” relationship between humans and God, the idea that God is chiefly of interest to me in terms of what He can give me, what He can protect me from, and what He can inflict upon me, and that I must deal with Him wisely so as to placate and please Him and therefore maximise my benefit from Him. I addressed that topic in a recent post.

What I am thinking of here is the pagan idea of polytheism—many gods; and the tribal competition that goes on within such a world view—my god is better than your god. By and large, in the pagan world, the existence of many gods was taken for granted. Worshippers of one god did not consider the god of their neighbours to be non-existent, but to be inferior. And should one’s own god turn out to be the inferior one, then the prudent course of action is to switch allegiance to the more powerful god (thus maximising one’s benefits).

Doesn’t this worldview lie behind certain strands of Christian thought in some circles today?

Consider the question of whether the Allah of Islam is the same as the God of Christianity. Continue reading “Your God Is Too Small!”

On Anger

 

How often do you change your mind about something? I mean, really change your mind? A few years ago I had the privilege of co-authoring a book on Orthodox Christian Marriage with Ireni Attia, and one of the things we discussed was anger. My initial attitude was that anger has no place in a truly healthy, happy relationship. But working with a professional in Ireni, she helped me to realise that anger is a very normal human emotion that is neither good or bad in itself. It is how you use it that matters. The more I thought about it, the more I realised she is right: psychologically, biblically, and philosophically.

It is a basic psychological principle that merely suppressing or burying very real feelings inside us is never good. The fact is, I get angry, and to pretend otherwise can only cause harm to my own mental health, and to my relationships. Such a denial is unsustainable in the long term. But I’ll leave the psychological dimension to the experts (you can check out Ireni’s section in the book).

Biblically, I was astonished that I never picked up on this before. Our modern sensitivities tend to downplay the anger inherent in Christ’s driving moneychangers from the temple:

 

Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Matthew 21:12–13).

 

I simply cannot imagine Jesus gently strolling up to the moneychanging table, smiling and passing a few polite pleasantries, and then taking permission: “Would you mind terribly if I turned your table over now, sir?” Continue reading “On Anger”

God Does Not Want You To Be Comfortable.

IS IT GOD’S WILL FOR YOU TO PROSPER?

The answer is undoubtedly YES – it is God’s will for you to prosper! … I love the fact that God actually gets pleasure from our prosperity. Think about it: it makes God happy when you prosper … let me clarify the point that wealth and riches are just one aspect of prosperity.

Being prosperous includes your health and your relationships … A completely prosperous person walking in the fullness of God has it all.

Houston, B. (1999). You Need More Money: Discovering God’s Amazing Financial Plan for Your Life. Maximised Leadership Incorporated, pp. 55–57.

 

 

“A completely prosperous person walking in the fullness of God has it all.”

That single sentence from Houston’s book captures beautifully the heart of the Health and Wealth Gospel. This distortion of the true Christian Gospel is just the extreme expression of a very human tendency that lies in the hearts of us all, the tendency to use God as a tool for getting what we want. We think in terms of what satisfies our basic human instincts: physical safety and health; avoidance of poverty, disease, humiliation, failure; etc. That is what we want God for: to make us comfortable.

But quite often, God doesn’t want us to be comfortable. He wants us to be comforted. Let me explain this very important difference. Continue reading “God Does Not Want You To Be Comfortable.”

Competition or Nobility?

Portrait of a noble man - French 17th century, circle of Hyacinthe Rigaud

 

In an age of equality and democracy, a word like ‘nobility’ has a bad taste about it. It can bring to mind selfish, wealthy aristocrats living off the blood, sweat, and tears of the poor, caring nothing for their welfare, so long as they get what they want from them.

 

But of course, that’s the wrong kind of nobility. In St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he lists “whatever things are noble” as one of the things we ought to train our minds and hearts to rest upon:

 

Finally, brethren,
whatever things are true,
whatever things are noble,
whatever things are just,
whatever things are pure,
whatever things are lovely,
whatever things are of good report,
if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—
meditate on these things.
Philippians 4:8.

 

The Greek word we translate as “noble” here is σεμνός (semnós), from a root word σέβομαι (sébomai) meaning to revere or adore. So, something that is semnós is something that is worthy of reverence or adoration.

 

But the traits that St Paul reveres and adores may not necessarily be the traits we revere and adore today. For example, in the corporate world, Continue reading “Competition or Nobility?”

19 Covid-19 Blessings

The coronavirus pandemic has hit, and our lives have changed dramatically; possibly in some ways, permanently. The dark side of the pandemic no doubt fills your screens and devices for large chunks of the day, so here, I want to highlight the brighter side. “Every cloud has a silver lining” is a hackneyed cliché, yet no less true for that. And of course, the Christian lives according to the foundational principle that good is always ultimately stronger than evil. We find this principle all over the Bible—here is a small sample:

 

Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy,
for though I have fallen, yet will I arise,
because even if I should sit in darkness,
the Lord will be a light to me (Micah 7:8).

And we know that all things work together
for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28).

Not that I speak in regard to need,
for I have learned in whatever state I am,
to be content:
I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound.
Everywhere and in all things I have learned
both to be full and to be hungry,
both to abound and to suffer need.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11–13).

You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

 

What matters in life is not that bad things happen to us. What really matters is what we make of the things that happen to us, good or bad. It was bad that Christ was crucified, but He turned it into the most stunning act of self-sacrificial love by humbly accepting it and even praying for the ones who put Him to death, and then defeating death by His resurrection. Merely complaining about our troubles diminishes us as human beings and makes us passive victims. Accepting the situation and using it to transform ourselves for the better makes us victors, just like Christ.

So, in that spirit, here are 19 blessings we might derive from the curse of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Continue reading “19 Covid-19 Blessings”

Being Orthodox Part 15: Engaging the World

Should an Orthodox Christian engage with social trends like Harry Potter?
Should an Orthodox Christian engage with social trends like Harry Potter?

What is the relationship between the Christian and the world? Should a Christian isolate herself from the world in order to find holiness and goodness? Or does a Christian have a responsibility to participate in the world around her?

 

One of the things people notice about Orthodox Christianity is its strong focus on monasticism. Monks and nuns, and consecrated servants like deacons and deaconesses are valued very highly, and Orthodox faithful often speak as though their lives are clearly superior to those of the “common” faithful who live “in the world”, in secular society, getting married, having children, holding down jobs and paying mortgages. While there is certainly much to admire in those who take up the cross of consecrated life, there is also an important thread that runs through ancient Christian thinking that brings some balance to this view. For example, there are the many writings of the ancient Fathers of the Church that speak very highly indeed of the virtues of family life and see the family as an icon of divine love in diverse ways. There are stories of great ascetic saints like St Anthony and St Macarius being led by God to meet some “common” Christian individuals living the family life in the world, and being told that these “common” Christians excel even these heroes of monasticism in the eyes of God, simply by living a life of sincere divine love.

 

Most readers are not living the consecrated life (nor am I really qualified to write about it) so let us focus instead on what it means to be a “common” Christian, living “in the world”. Are we meant to be an active part of this world, or are we meant to be sojourners: strangers passing through a foreign land in which we never feel at home? There are passages in the Bible that suggest that we must be “the light of the world”, yet there are others that suggest we are but travellers who never put down roots. So which is it to be?

Continue reading “Being Orthodox Part 15: Engaging the World”

Being Orthodox Part 14: Holism

We are one within ourselves, with each other, with the world and with God.
We are one within ourselves, with each other, with the world and with God.

 

 

What does it mean to be human? This question has occupied humanity since time immemorial, and of all the different answers we have come up with, I find none so true, so useful or so satisfying as that given by Orthodox Christianity. In Eastern Christianity, there is a powerful push for integration rather than disintegration. It is very easy for the Christian to end up with a life divided into a lot of separate little boxes labelled ‘Work’, ‘Recreation’, ‘Family’, ‘Spirituality’, and so on. So, when I go to church on Sunday, I jump into my Spirituality box. When I finish and go home, I jump out of Spirituality and into, say, the Family box, since of course, these are two very different things. And on Monday, I jump out of Family and into the Work box, a different thing again. This may be our natural tendency, but that is only because we live in a broken and fallen world. Because our world is broken, our lives also tend to be broken. In this state, inconsistencies, internal tensions and hypocrisy are all too easy to fall into.

 

Instead, we ought to strive to make all these aspects of human life just different faces of the one unified and integrated whole, so that there is no contradiction between any of them, so that I am the same person whichever of them I happen to be engaged in, and so that the presence of God permeates and characterises them all. Instead of having lots of little discreet boxes and jump from one to another, we ought to have just one single box in which we live all our lives, and into which we pour every aspect of that life; the box, labelled ‘Christ’.

 

This principle of unification applies at every level of our lives. In the Church, lots of different individuals come together. As a Church, we aim to unify all the disparate and unique personalities that we bring into one unified Body of Christ, united in the liturgy by partaking in one voice, one heart and one prayer and in the sharing together and partaking of His one Body and one Blood. No matter how many people there at a Coptic liturgy, there can only be one loaf of bread to be consecrated as Christ’s Body – even if it must be the size of a truck’s wheel – and one cup of wine to be consecrated as Christ’s Blood – even if it must be the size of a large bucket.

 

As Christians living in this world, we aim to bring harmony and unity to everything in it. We pray for and strive for harmony between families, neighbours, races, religions, genders and even nations. We strive to bring harmony between humanity and its world. Christians understand humanity to be the pinnacle of the creation. That does not mean a selfish rapacious authority whereby the world exists only to fulfil our needs, but Christ-like stewardship and service. We are the servants of this world, of the animals and the birds and fish, and even of the global environment. We have power over the world, but like Christ, we exercise that power to care for the world to do all we can to help it to flourish and grow in beauty. We rejoice in its beauty and its health, and weep over its destruction.

 

As Christians sojourning in a broken and fallen world, we yearn not for the world’s destruction, but for its renewal. Continue reading “Being Orthodox Part 14: Holism”

Fr Thomas Hopko

Fr Thomas Hopko right where he always belonged: in front of a blackboard, beaming at eager and hungry minds.
Fr Thomas Hopko right where he always belonged: in front of a blackboard, beaming at eager and hungry minds.

One of my all time favourite people passed away yesterday. Fr Thomas Hopko was a priest of the Orthodox Church in America whose distinctions are too many to list here. What I liked most about him though, was listening to him speak and reading things he wrote. He displayed a rare gift for insight and understanding, the kind that leads to a profound wisdom. His knack for synthesising new ways to express the ancient Orthodox Christian faith and Tradition to modern life in ways not only relevant, but even inspiring, was remarkable. He combined this with an indomitable humility and sincere compassionate love for all. The motto of one of his podcast series, “Speaking the Truth in Love”, nicely captures his courageous contribution to desperately needed Church reform in many areas.

He will be sorely missed by many in the Christian community. One of them is Samuel Kaldas, who provides a much more fitting eulogy for Fr Tom than my brief words in the following guest post…

 

 

Fr. Thomas Hopko fell asleep in the Lord today. As a theologian, he had a remarkable gift for delivering important and complex ideas to a non-academic audience. Through his constant (and ridiculously high) output of podcasts, sermons, books and articles, he became a bridge between the “ivory tower,” academic world of the Seminary and the “real-world” of the Orthodox faithful. In many ways, his work as an educator achieved precisely what his father-in-law Fr. Alexander Schmemann identified as the chief task of the theologian: to supply “that essential link between the Tradition of the Church and the real life, to assure the acceptance of the faith by the faithful.”

 

This was only possible because of his great humility: he did not spend his time on original research that would only be read by professional theologians, though he certainly had the intellect, and encouraged many other brilliant students to do such research during his time as Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. He did not trumpet himself as a new and exciting voice in academic theology. Instead, he was always concerned with the Church outside the Seminary. As he himself put it:

Continue reading “Fr Thomas Hopko”