Roof Ruminations

Those of you who know me might know that I am interested in the stars.

The sky at night has always fascinated me, ever since I was little. I could lie for hours on my back on the ground just gazing up at that velvet dark blue canvas with the multitude of delicate sparkles of light and occasional faint wisp of silvery mist. I can totally agree with the Psalmist who wrote The heavens declare the glory of God …

I find many things to think about when I look at the stars. Their distance astounds me and humbles me. The closest star to us is Proxima Centauri, a little over 4 light years away. That means that the light we see from it today left the star over four years ago, in 2003, and has been shooting towards us all that time a tthe speed of light (300,000km/hr). The furthest objects visible in the most powerful telescopes, quasars, are 12,000,000,000 light years away. How big is the universe? Unbelievabley, mind-blowingly, unimaginabley HUGE!!! So how big are we, the great human race? We are nothing. We could blow up our whole planet and the universe wouldn’t even notice – we’d be no more than mosquito’s sneeze in the grand tale of time.

That’s a good thing to remember, for we sometimes think we are the centre of the universe. Sometimes we even think that of ourselves individually, not even as a human race. That’s just not true. The greatest among us is still no more than a little blip in this cosmos. Again, the Psalmist asks God What is man, that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You visit him? We could extend that to ask, What are the problems of man, that You should care for them? Yet God does care. The God who made this big, big universe shows me His love by caring for my tiny little problems in the midst of this huge cosmos, and I find comfort in the fact that He who moves the galaxies can solve my little problem pretty easily.

Lying on the ground at night, gazing into the depths of space, you can sometimes convince yourself that you are indeed on the surface of a planet hurtling through the void. Yet night after night, as the sun hides his shining face and the little specks of light begin to peek from behind their veil of light, you find they have not moved. In our lifetimes, the stars do not move. Planets do, and the moon does, and perhaps the odd comet or so, but the vast multitude of the heavens is there, day after day, unchanging, unmoving, fixed in their places, it seems eternally. No power hungry dictator, no mad scientist, no crazed anarchist can ever change them, or even touch them. It makes you realise just how feeble we are on this little planet, but I also find it a greatly comforting thought, for it reflects the unchanging steady nature of God Himself. I find the stars reassuring every night, in their regular places, and so also God reassures me every day, as I move through my human phases while He remains always a solid rock to navigate by.

Next time you happen to be outdoors at night, take a look up at the sky, and remember the One who created it for us, the most incredible roof anyone ever designed …

Fr Ant

Coptic Women Priests?

I recently came across an interesting book by a pretty conservative Eastern Orthodox theologian on the topic of women in the Orthodox priesthood. You can guess that he was against the idea. What struck me about the book, though, was that some of the arguments he used were totally alien to my understanding of the priesthood.

Especially noticeable was one argument that kept pooping up, whether directly or indirectly, that I might paraphrase as follows:

Priesthood means authority. Authority means control, power, being in charge.
The woman is not fit for this role, since she is the man’s helper, not his boss.
Therefore, we can never have Orthodox women priests.

I’m not sure what you would make of this?

I don’t intend to get into the whole “a helpmate meet for him” argument in this post. It just seemed to me that this argument was weak because it was built on one big mistake: Priesthood is not first and foremost about authority; it is about service.

That this is the teaching of Christ couldn’t be any clearer. He said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

HH Pope Shenouda III wrote in his spiritual classic a chapter entitled “Poor Men” (Al Masakeen, I think). In it, he describes his pity for those who are ordained to the ranks of the priesthood, pointing out that they will be judged not only for their own deeds, but for those of the people whom they serve. Imagine, he says, the poor Pope – who will be held responsible for the fates of millions of souls! Perhaps you can guess he wrote this when he was still a layman, before entering the monastery. Prophetic, though, wasn’t it!

Now that’s the understanding of priesthood (and indeed, any kind of Church position) that I can relate to. The world is all about power and control and advantage and prestige. But those ideas should never be allowed to get in and contaminate the spiritual service. If ever the priest needs to exercise some sort of ‘power’ or ‘authority’ over his flock, it should never be out of a lust to control others, or pride or selfishness. It should be because that is the only avenue left to him to achieve the will of God and the spiritual goals of the Church. It can also only be successful if the people he serves are willingly accepting that authority. Yet it is an authority that any sane man would flee from, for it is very, very dangerous.

What if he makes the wrong decision? What if those he serves suffer because of his orders? There is a great scope for doing damage here! I recently saw a documentary about the Jim Jones tragedy in South America. In short, an American pastor grew gradually more and more manipulative of his flock. Being very charismatic, his influence upon them grew to such an extent that he was able to take 900 of them to a jungle in South America to build a new country, Jonestown, where everything would be perfect. With a frightening array of tools of psychological manipulation, these people virtually became his slaves. Eventually, the whole thing ended with him making them all commit suicide with him. Scary.

No, religious leadership is about serving. It is about the genuine needs of those being served – not the needs of the servant. Because of this, it is often a very harsh, very difficult path to follow. Which means that any sensible person would run a mile to escape it. If you have ever seen a Coptic bishop being ordained, you will have noticed that he is brought in to Church with two strong bishops holding him firmly by each arm. Although this is largely ceremonial now, its original purpose was to stop the candidate from running away! Pope Shenouda himself repeatedly refused to be ordained as a bishop, until Pope Kyrollos VI virtually forced the matter by one day unexpectedly placing his hand on his head in the corridor, and saying “I ordain you, Shenouda, Bishop in the Orthodox CHurch of God …” There was no escape.

Pope Shenouda is famous for saying “Those who wish to be ordained as priests are usually unsuitable, and those who are suitable, usually do not wish to be ordained”. There is a lot of wisdom in this. Only a person who really understands the responsibility and the sacrifice of priesthood is suitable to be ordained. Yet that is the very person who would run away from it because of that huge responsiblity and sacrifice!

Which seems to me the biggest reason why it is unlikely that we will have women priests in the Coptic Orthodox Church … they are too smart for that 🙂

But seriously, I think we are very blessed to have a ‘humble’ attitude to service in the Church. We do not see it as authority, or prestige, or position or power. Priesthood is simply one important service among many others. The Church runs through teamwork, joint effort, not through the efforts of any one individual. There is simply a need for one individual to organise that teamwork, and that happens to be the priest. There is a need for one individual to be set aside for the very scary task of administering the sacraments, and that happens to be the priest. It is a frightening thing to approach an altar with the Body and Blood upon it – frightening because we are sinners, and we are approaching an unimaginably powerful Holiness. But the priest does it because someone has to, and because God has called him to be that someone. No one in their right mind would put themselves forward to do it – only those who don’t quite understand what it really means.

Sadly, in modern life, even Christian Churches have become infected with this idea of power and authority – hence the fight over who is to rule. I hope our Church never loses its innocence. It’s not about anyone ruling.

It’s all about serving.

Fr Ant

The Goods of God and Man

Romans 12:9

Let love be without hypocrisy.
Abhor what is evil,
Cling to what is good.

I gave a talk on this verse yesterday at Sydney Uni Coptic Society, and it made me think. Allow me to share some thoughts with you.

The thing that struck me most was the command for us to be ONE, to be whole. I am not speaking about a congregation or a family being united here, I am speaking about the individual not being divided against him/herself.

The words are very strong: ABHOR … CLING – there is no wavering here! My interpretation is that St Paul is asking us, “Who are you?” What kind of a person are you? What motivates you, and what moves you? What repels you and what sets your heart on fire?

One of the main ways we define ourselves, or think about who we are, is by what we believe, what we value, or what we think to be important or true. If I try to make up a list of these values I personally hold,I wonder what they would be? Would they all fall under the category of “good”?

Of course they would! I wouldn’t hold those values unless I thought they were good … god for ME, that is. But that’s not necessarily ‘good’ in the sense St Paul was talking about. For him, ‘good’ is not what any individual thinks to be good, but what God thinks to be good, and there can be a very big difference between the two, and often is.

So to fulfil this verse, I have to find out what God thinks is good. That’s not so hard – it’s all in the Bible. What is hard is to let go of my own concept of good. A simple example:

Someone annoys me really badly.

My good: teach the idiot a lesson he’ll never forget – he deserves it, and it will make me feel so much better

God’s good: Blessed are you when men revile and persecute you … and if he strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other … do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Which one I choose out of those two determines who I am. To CLING to what is good is not easy. There are many, many forces, both within and without me, that are trying to prise me away from what is good. This verse informs me what it takes to hang on: CLING!!! Hang on tight! Never let go! Never give up! If your grip slips, clamber it back on again quick!

And on the other side of the coin: ABHOR!!! Hate! (yes, hate!) This is what hatred was made for – for things that are evil. We are not only allowed to hate evil, we are commanded to hate evil. We must hate evil. We must shun evil, and fight it and escape it with all our mind, strength, heart and soul.

To do anything less than this is to allow oneself to be a divided person. You can’t go for two goals at the same time, when they are at opposite ends of the field! You’ve got to make up your mind whose side you’re on, and then play for that side, aim for that goal.

Only then can love truly be without hypocrisy. Hypocrisy comes from a divided soul. One part of me wants to say and teach nice things. Another part of me wants to practice sins. The two cannot be in harmony. I find I have become a hypocrite.

The Teaching of the 12 Apostles (Didache) (2nd century AD) begins with the famous words:

There are two ways, one of life and one of death: but a great difference between the two ways.

And we will give the last word to Joshua:

choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

The Doubts of the Saintly

In response to my reference to the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Tony mentions that he has come across some references to the times in her life when she apparently felt that God was very far from her, and even may have doubted if He was there at all. What does this tell us?

Now I am going to a bit of edifice demolition in this entry, so if you don’t enjoy that kind of thing, you’re probably better off not reading any further.

The edifice I wish to demolish today is the false view of sainthood that I think many people of faith hold in their minds. There are many who seem to think that the saints were some kind of superhuman alien, not at all like us normal humans. Saints are perfect people who brush off the worst of temptations as you or I would brush off a fly, hardly ever eat, sleep or cough, And always know exactly the right thing to say and do. Yet, they can always be relied upon to tell you how weak, poor and sinful they are, (which is manifestly untrue, but acceptable because they are saints).“Did the martyrs actually feel any pain when they were tortured, or did God stop the pain for them?” Hmmmm. Divine anaesthetic?

I felt very disturbed by this image from a very young age. It was, unfortunately, the popular image that was being presented to youngsters when I was young. I do not think the servants who presented it meant in any way to give a false impression, and very likely they held this understanding of saints quite sincerely in their hearts. I recall one lovely servant even seriously asking the question,

I don’t think so.

It seems to me that consider to the saints as supermen/women actually does them a great disservice rather than honouring them, not to mention that it is untrue. They were normal human beings, just like you and me. One of the things I love about the Bible is it’s honesty. The Old Testament tells us about larger than life heroes like Abraham, Moses and David, but it gives us the complete picture, warts and all. And the New Testament follows suit, revealing to us the personality faults of the Disciples (eg Peter’s denials and Thomas’ doubts) as well as the disagreements between the Apostles (eg the falling out of Paul and Barnabas over John Mark). I wonder if we would be so honest today if we were writing an account of modern events?

If the saints were normal humans and yet rose to such great heights, doesn’t that mean so much more than if they were angels in human form in the first place? Does it not make them far more inspiring? It does not surprise me that a modern heroine like Mother Teresa should have passed through a period of grave doubts and shaky faith – she’s a human being after all, who has simply surrendered her life to God and allowed Him to do with her whatever He wished. That her surrender was complete and genuine is proved by the wonderful work she has done. But that is all that it proves. Her work does not make her immune to the frailties of humanity.

This view of the saints gives me great hope. When I look at their icons, necessarily idealised since we have no records of what most of them really looked like, I sometimes try to picture them as a real person. Perhaps, St Abanoub as a young boy on the verge of adolescence with bright eye and a cheeky smile – the kind of boy who’d run up to you and greet you with a laugh, yet just as easily tie your sandle straps together when you weren’t looking. Or maybe St Anthony, with a serene smile and a very sharp eye sparkling with intelligence and confidence in God. He’d be a great listener, a quiet man, but the kind you knew would not lose his head in a crisis, and could be depended on in an emergency, for nothing flusters him.

Of course, these descriptions are nothing more than imagination, but they help me to remember that these saints were flesh and blood as we are. They made mistakes and said the wrong thing at times. Sometimes they upset others, sometimes they got too wrapped up in their own troubles, and sometimes they just couldn’t be bothered. In a word, they were normal. What set them apart was not any particular excellence of character they were born with (many people with excellent gifts have turned incredibly evil!) No, what set them apart was simply this: they trusted God and they gave Him their life, each in his or her own unique way.

I have no doubt that they stumbled along the path, but again, the difference is, they never gave up. Not because they were blessed with miraculous tenacity, but because they trusted God. They trusted His love. They knew that this love, undeserved as it was, could overcome anything in this world, even their own weak human nature. They appreciated that, but they knew full well they could take no credit for it.

Do not think they floated through life on the wings of angels! When St Macarius refused to agree with the devil’s calls that he had reached perfection until he was safely in Paradise, that was not mere theatrics. He knew that until the last moment of his life, he could still fall back into his old sinful ways and lose everything. The message I get from this is that the same God who worked so marvellously in them is working in me, and you, and all of us.

That’s pretty neat.

The Stranger

The little boy walked out of the classroom and on to the crowded school playground. Everywhere he looked, he could see kids. Kids chatting away happily. Kids playing games excitedly. Kids chugging down sandwiches ravenously. Lots of happy, contented, comfortable kids … except one.

The little boy walked slowly across the playground, hoping that someone would say something to him. They didn’t. He stopped to watch a soccer game optimistically, hoping someone would invite him to join. They didn’t. Finally, awkwardly, he reached a bench by the fence under a tree. He sat down, alone, and began to chew on his lunch, trying all the time to look as if he was deep in thought, and sitting alone by choice.

Of course, he wasn’t.

Have you ever had an experience like this? If you have, then you probably grew up with a fear of being the outcast. you will understand perfectly the horror of the kind of situation I have just described. There’s no doubt about it: being the stranger, the outcast, must be one of the worst experiences in the world.

Or is it?

There was one Outcast who didn’t seem to mind very much. He sort of hung around with other outcasts and strangers, until He sort of made His own little circle that every stranger could feel a part of. This new circle was well outside the normal ‘in crowd’, and most of those in the in crowd smirked and then wondered, and then grew jealous and decided to squish it. But the nice thing is that although they thought they squished it, it is still growing bigger.

Even now, strangers and outcasts are finding this society of outcasts, and being welcomed with open arms. In fact, most people don’t ever find their way into it until they are outcasts and strangers. Which means that you generally don’t get in unless you’re pretty down and out, at the end of your tether, on your last legs, and any other metaphor you can think of.

Funnily enough, we spend most of our lives pretty much trying to avoid joining this group, and thus never get to meet it’s wonderful Founder. We invest a tremendous amount of effort and time into fitting in and making ourselves feel at home. We do this in a hundred different ways. We are doing it when we laugh at that crude joke, or let ourselves get so attached to that electronic gadget, or feel that we are part of the furniture at work.

I learned how to be a stranger at a young age when my family had to move from the house I had grown up in. I loved that house! On the last day, I even secretly gave the wall a kiss to say goodbye (I was pretty young). I learned that day that it is painful to be too attached to any material thing on this earth, because sooner or later, you were going to have to lose it, and then it would feel like you were losing a part of yourself. Better not to let it become such an important part of yourself in the first place!

But you have to be attached to something. No one can live their life in a sort of free fall! Every single one of us has to belong somewhere. Enter the Stranger. The nice thing about Him is that He will never disappear on you. Never. Ever. When you feel you belong to Him, you feel like you don’t need to belong to anything else. You have your identity, you know who you are, you know where your house is (and your treasure and your heart also).

… and we too who are sojourners in this world, keep us in Your faith, and grant us Your peace until the end …


Continuing on the topic of pride, Tony writes about arrogance.

I think everyone has a mental picture of the arrogant person. You know what I mean, haughty, sneering, belittling everyone else as he (or she) ries to take control of every situation, supremely confident in their own unassailable superiority. Perhaps you can even think of a few characters who best illustrate arrogance: King Nebuchadnezzar (I love that name!) ruling with a rod of iron; Goliath sneering down his rather large nose at the frail little boy in front of him; George W Bush saving the world … the list could go on.

That is the obvious kind of arrogance. It is pretty easy to spot, well, in others at least. Perhaps it is much harder to spot in ourselves? But there is a much more subtle form of arrogance, a sort “humble arrogance” if that is not an oxymoron.This type is far harder to detect, and thus far harder to be rid of. This subtle arrogance whispers rather than roars and insinuates rather than storms.

I have found it sometimes (far more often than I like) lurking hungrily at the back of my thoughts, just waiting for its opportunity to pounce. Someone, Mr X, let us say, says something rather silly in front of me. Immediately, my Judgement Resistance Program kicks into action: Poor fellow – he didn’t notice what he was saying. I’m sure he didn’t mean it to come out that way. He’s really quite a nice guy deep down inside… But then, the trouble begins:

You noticed how stupid that was, didn’t you. Of course – that’s why you’re making excuses for him. Naturally, it is obvious that if you noticed and he didn’t, then you must be much smarter than him, eh? That’s nice to know. Very nice. Wish a few other people knew it to. Why can’t they see and appreciate my humility? Why don’t they listen to me more? Isn’t it so obvious that the person who can immediately see through such stupidity is worth listening to? What’s wrong with them? Am I the only one who can see this? HELLO!

I’d rather not try to write any more of that voice. I find it rather disturbing; perhaps because it is a little too close to home? We don’t need to be outwardly arrogant in order to be arrogant. In some ways, subtle arrogance is much worse than blatant arrogance. At least blatant arrogance is out there for everyone to see. There is no hypocrisy involved, and there is always the chance that one day, someone will point out my arrogance to me so clearly that I will wake up to myself and do something to fix it. But with subtle arrogance, what you see is most certainly not what you get. There is a humble modest facade covering a stinking tomb of pride. And so long as it remains hidden, it is very hard to repent from it. Sin is always most comfortable in the dark.

Yet even the subtle arrogance will sometimes manifest itself indirectly in public. Three years later, and we are standing around talking about an upcoming wedding. “Who do you think will give the speech at the reception?” someone asks. “It would have to be Mr X, wouldn’t it? He’s the best public speaker I know by far!” Before I know it, my tongue has taken on a life of its own and I find myself blurting out, “Mr X? That little twerp!?”

Oops. What was it that Jesus said? “A good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit”. Or what about, “For there is nothing that is hidden that shall not be made manifest.” With either one of them, I’m in trouble!

How much nicer instead to ba able to sincerely apply the words of St Paul to Titus: “To the pure, all things are pure”


Some thoughts on Humility

Someone once told me that that trying to knock over the sin of pride is like trying to knock over a ball. If you push it over from any direction, it is still standing. I think what that means is that pride is a very resistant sin indeed. So here are a few recent thoughts on the subject…

When we fall into other sins, it should make it easier to overcome the sin of pride. After all, what have I to be proud of when my weakness and disgrace is laid bare before my very eyes? Yet strangely, sometimes we don’t see it that way. Sometimes the pride is so resilient within us that we think something like: “Yeah, sure I messed up, but I’m still better than so-and-so! He messed up much worse than me!” Or perhaps: “Ok, so I made a mistake. I know I’m not absolutely perfect, but Im still pretty close!” Then of course, there’s the old favourite, Buck Passing: “It wasn’t my fault I messed up – it was him/her/them. They made me do it!”

The Desert Fathers often encourage us to always place our sins before our eyes. This is not meant, I am sure, in the morbid way it is sometimes understood. It is not meant to ‘beat us down’ and make us feel miserable about ourselves. The Desert Fathers actually had a pretty healthy sense of self-esteem that could bear with this burden of sin, but their self-esteem was built on different foundation to most of us. One of my favourite sayings is the Father who described his spiritual battle thus:

Whenever I become proud, I think of my sins and I say to myself, there, what have you to be proud of you awful sinner? And whenever I fall into despair because of my sins, I say to myself, yes, but God still still loves me!

What a beautifully balanced personality! His self-esteem does not come from the kinds of things we use for self-esteem, like our abilities or achievements, the kind of job we do, the size of our house, the gadgets we own or comparing ourselves to others. This happy man builds his self esteem on something that he can never lose – the love of God for him. But there is an added benefit to this way of thinking: that is that there can be no pride in this self-esteem. Think about it. Can he take any of the credit for being loved by God? God does not love him because he is saintly (God sees all his sins, hidden and manifest), nor will God be impressed by his achievements or talents (where did he get them in the first place?). God doesn’t care about the latest gadget, and He isn;t impressed that you are clever enough to get one. In fact, you can’t impress God no matter how you try. The only reason God will love you is because He is Love. And that makes all the difference.

It isn’t easy, learning to think like this. We find it so much more secure to cling to our little bag of self-admiration, and we constantly seek for new things to boost our ego. It makes us feel better about life: there is no doubt of that. But in the long run, it is fighting a losing battle. A human being and his/her abilities is just too fragile a base to support our self-esteem for long. Sooner or later, we will have to face up to the fact that we are faulty, mixed up and terribly fallible. And when that kind of self-esteem comes crashing down, it’s pretty ugly.

If you think about, it is a pretty wise investment in the future to start working on this now. Better to begin transferring all my self-esteem stocks to the Bank of God, before the Bank of Me comes crashing down to earth.