In weakness…

 

I thank You Lord for my failures,

That humble me and bring me back down to earth,

That relieve me of the pressure of thinking I am right and others are wrong,

That reveal to me my true nature of fallenness,

That help me to realise that I can do nothing without You.

 

I thank You Lord for my weaknesses,

That give me the chance to grow and flourish,

That close the door of self-righteousness in my face,

That open the door of sincere compassion for the weakness of others,

That are the good soil in which divine love takes root and bears fruit.

 

I thank You Lord for my humiliation,

That shatters my vanity like a mirror smashed in a shower of slivers,

That jars me out of fantasy and implants me in beautiful, precious truth,

That casts me headlong into the rose garden of divine blessings,

That transforms my life and being as I never can alone.

 

I thank You Lord for my emptiness,

That sucks from me self-delusion and pride,

That demolishes the grand castles I have built on sand,

That fills my heart with profound stillness broken only by that most gentle still, small voice,

That clears the way for Your regal entrance and proclaims the beginning of Your reign.

 

For all these gifts, I thank You Lord, with all my heart.

A New (Old) Take on Repentance

 

Ancient Christian icon from Egypt. The faith of the early Church is inspiring even today, two millennia later.

Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.

Ephesians 5:14

 

As Lent begins one senses a silent groan in some hearts and minds. How are we going to survive 55 days of strict fasting? What shall we eat? I can’t wait till its over! Lent is a time of prayer and fasting and charitable deeds, but also a time of repentance. Sometimes this same negative attitude can be transferred to our approach to repentance. It can seem such a chore, or at least something we must drag ourselves reluctantly to do.

But there is another way of looking at these things. It may seem quite new to some, but in reality it is very, very old. In fact, it was the way most of the first Christians looked at these things. Apart from my love of all things authentic and original, I find it so much more satisfying, so much more sensible, and so much more realistic than the later interpretations of the Christian enterprise that have spread through most Churches, including our own. It goes something like this:

 

God = existence = goodness = light = life.

 

Therefore, since sin is a separation from God, then to sin is to be diminished in existence, goodness, light and life and to instead be in a state that we describe with words like non-existence, evil, darkness and death.

In this state, our ability to do anything to help ourselves is also diminished. Thus our ability to save ourselves from this state is diminished, quite severely in fact. It’s a little like a drowning man who reaches a stage where he is so deprived of oxygen that his brain can no longer function well enough for him to realise that he needs to swim upwards or keep his head above water.

This is why it was impossible for us to save ourselves. It is the answer to the question, why couldn’t humanity just repent and change itself back into the image of God? Continue reading “A New (Old) Take on Repentance”

Big Kerfuffle about the Big Bang

The Big Bang Theory suggests that the universe had to have a beginning. So does the Bible.

 

Coptic Apologetics Discussion Group is up and running for the third year, and the first two monthly topics are scientific ones. January’s meeting was on the Big Bang Theory while February’s meeting will look more broadly at the sometimes rocky relationship between faith and science. But how rocky does that relationship need to be? Does it need to be as difficult as some would make it to be? If you are one of those people who believe that God created the world in six 24-hour days a few thousand years ago, I must warn you: you are not going to like what I have to say.

I have to confess that although I took an interest in Young Earth Creationism for some years, I have now come to pretty much reject it wholesale. It really comes down to how you read the Bible, and how willing you are to let reality be itself rather than trying to squash it into a pre-arranged box of your own making. Such an approach can lead to ridiculous situations, such as the one Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine dug for himself in the early seventeenth century. Consider his view of the preposterous new idea that the earth might orbit around the sun rather than the other way around.

 

… to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the centre of the heavens and that the earth revolves very swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.

 

“Injuring our faith and making the sacred scripture false”? Really? The good cardinal’s words seem absurd to the modern Christian. Why in the world would he be so dogmatic? The fault lies, I think, in his mistaking his own way of interpreting scripture for the scripture itself. Even today, Young Earth Creationists fall into the same trap, insisting that if their very literal interpretation of the Bible is disproved by science, then the whole Bible becomes worthless and all of Christianity – all of it, mind you – collapses into a bottomless abyss of unreliability. Nice of them to include us in their prophetic doom.

But no, I object. Continue reading “Big Kerfuffle about the Big Bang”

The Other Orthodox

 

The highs and the lows: Metropolitan Tikhon, the new Primate of the Orthodox Church in America (above) and HH Abune Antonios of Eritrea, currently imprisoned (below).

Sometimes we Copts forget that we are part of a wider community of Orthodox Christians, but I feel a sense of joy and comfort when I make any kind of contact with another community of faithful Christians. One of the ways I do that is to look in periodically on an Orthodox Christian news service, OCP Media Network. Please let me share with you two recent little items, one happy, one sad, from the lives of our fellow followers of Christ…

 

First, the sad. While the situation in Egypt for Coptic Christians is dangerous and difficult, the plight of our sister Oriental Orthodox Church in Eritrea is in many ways much worse. Here in the west, we hardly ever hear news of the dark and distant Horn of Africa. That silence is all the more disturbing when one realises what is going on there. Anyone who loves freedom and human rights should be outraged at what is happening to the Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church. Together with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo Church, the Eritreans trace their Christian heritage back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, and consider their first archbishop to be St Frumentius who was consecrated by the Egyptian St Athanasius the Apostolic in the fourth century AD. They have a long and rich history of spirituality and ascetism that reflects their unique culture.

 

But today, the Eritrean Church in Eritrea is slowly dying. Persecution of the Church is hitting it on all levels. Abune Antonios, the duly elected patriarch who was consecrated by the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III in 2004, stood up to the Eritrean government when it tried to interfere in the affairs of the Church. As a result, he was deposed and replaced by a government appointee in an effort to turn the Church into virtually another department of the government. Abune Antonios was chosen for the patriarchate for his good character and his sincere devotion to raising the spiritual standard of the Eritrean Church. But now he has been held incommunicado by the government in an undisclosed location for some years, unable to pursue his spiritual agenda, while government puppets submit the Church to the agenda of a government that cares little for the Christian gospel or spirituality.

 

What is worse, the government has waged an unmitigated campaign against Eritrean clergy in an effort to weaken the Church. In the just the past eight years it is estimated that 1,500 priests and deacons have been conscripted against their will into the army for an indefinite period of military service, while clergy who refuse to submit to the government are arrested and defrocked. This has led to a drastic shortage of clergy for the parishes, and 1,500 parishes are in danger of being closed for lack of parish priests to serve them. Further, there are estimated to be up to 3,000 Christians currently held in Eritrean prisons as prisoners of conscience, subjected to torture and deprived of medical care.

Continue reading “The Other Orthodox”

Faith or Works? Or…

Another snippet from my slowly evolving book on Coptic Christianity:

Is the Christian Creed about faith, what we believe, or works, what we should do?

As we saw above, the very name of the Church, “Orthodox” (straight or true worship or belief) itself emphasises the importance of holding to a faith, believing that which is true and correct. Christianity is founded fundamentally on Truth. Jesus Christ Himself was recognised as “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and “teaching the way of God in truth” (Mark 12:14). He described Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) and promised those who follow Him the “Spirit of Truth” (John 16:13). He commands us to “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) and He teaches that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

Truth should be one of the chief motivators for the Christian life. The teachings of Christ resonate with the human spirit because they have an intrinsic tone of truth to them. For example, love is the central theme in the teaching of Christ, yet even apart from that teaching, people of every age and every culture have always seemed to feel instinctively in their hearts the truth that love is the most important thing in life. Thus most people put their family above their career or popularity in importance, and might even be willing to give up their own life for those whom they love.

Yet the beauty of Christian truth is that it takes this basic human reality and extends it into areas beyond our merely human instincts. Christ taught not only basic human love, but divine love, a love that elevates the truth that love is paramount to noble and life-changing heights. For example, He taught that it is not enough to merely love our friends or relatives, but that we must also love strangers and even enemies. Here, the truth of Christ becomes counter-intuitive; it goes against the grain of human nature. And yet, it works! This kind of unconditional love, when practiced sincerely and properly, transforms not only the individual’s life, but whole societies.

This truth about love was reflected, one might say, embodied, in the person and the life of Christ Himself. By becoming a human man, by dying on the cross, by rising from the dead, by all the events of His life, He showed His great love for the feeble human creatures He had created in His own image, and who had abused their free will to their own hurt and detriment. This beautiful story of love and salvation is most clearly and succinctly told in the ancient statement of Christian belief that summarises these truths about our existence and our relationship to the one who created us; the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

However, over the years, the significance of this universal Creed has evolved differently in the various branches of Christianity. I shall share with you my own rather simplified impression of this difference Continue reading “Faith or Works? Or…”

Our Poor New Pope…

HH Pope Tawadros II. When the joy and excitement of the enthronement is over, our new Pope will face many challenges, both within and without the Coptic Orthodox Church.

 

It was a truly historic moment, and one that brought hope for many reasons. The tension built as millions of Copts around the world sat glued to their screens and prayed and chanted Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) with those in the cathedral. I hoped fervently that it was only going to be 41 Kyrie eleisons and not 400! Anba Pachomius enjoined everyone to raise their hearts in supplication and submission, and a silent united supplication from millions around the world rose up to entreat God to choose a shepherd after His own heart for His Coptic flock. And then, a little boy named Bishoy dipped his hand into the bowl and pulled out a transparent orb. Time seemed to stretch out forever as Anba Pachomius fumbled with the seal and then unfolded the piece of paper that held the name of the poor man who is to lead the Coptic Orthodox Church into the future. After a quick peek himself, he held it up for all to see, and we had our new Pope…

 

“Anba Tawadros

General Bishop”

 

Allow me to share a few impressions at this historic moment in time. Firstly, we must appreciate how wonderfully HE Metropolitan Pachomius has carried out his duties as locum tenens since the departure of Pope Shenouda. He had to care for a bereaved Church and soothe their sorrow (whilst no doubt dealing with his own). He had to tread a careful path in a tumultuous post-revolutionary Egypt, forging good relations with the new authorities while at the same time standing up for the rights of Christians suffering persecution and crying out for a father to defend them. He had to deal with a number of major unresolved issues within the Church, any of which could easily have led to huge splits in sections of the Church. He had to run the papal elections according to an outdated yet necessary set of bylaws, negotiating the conflicting opinions about diocesan bishops and (possibly) ambitious candidates, contrary to the venerable humble spirituality of our Coptic tradition.

All this he carried out with serenity, humility, integrity and profound wisdom. I had a personal experience of this during my recent trip to Egypt concerning one of those sensitive matters, Continue reading “Our Poor New Pope…”

Near Death Experiences

 

There have been many tales of people who have experienced the life beyond death and returned to describe it, but none has impressed me as much as this one. The reason it impresses me is that the subject of the experience, unlike most other cases, was a hard-headed, fairly agnostic and highly intelligent scientist … a neurosurgeon, no less! If anyone should be able to tell a purely physiological phenomenon from a genuine supernatural experience, you would think it would be someone like Dr Eben Alexander.

 

A near death experience is one where a patient is clinically dead for a period of time and is then resuscitated. Such patients often recall strange experiences during the time they were unconscious; some of them pleasant, some of them deeply distressing. A variety of natural explanations have been put forward for this very real phenomenon, such as the effects of a lack of oxygen in the brain. Others have pointed to the possibility of producing strange experiences using the general anaesthetic ketamine as suggesting a similar natural process underlying near death experiences.

 

Which is why the story Dr Alexander tells is particularly pertinent. He contracted E. coli meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining around the brain that seriously imperilled his life and flung him into a coma for seven days. During that time, numerous scans of his brain and its function were conducted, and showed that his brain was not just impaired, but genuinely non-functional. What this means is that his vivid experiences are unlikely to have been produced by a lack of oxygen or damage to neuronal circuits causing the brain cells to misfire and produce hallucination, or any other natural process. To put it bluntly: a brain can’t hallucinate when it has stopped working altogether.

 

I have been interested in near death experiences for decades now, ever since reading Beyond Death’s Door by Dr Maurice Rawlings back in the eighties. His description of a patient who could recall the details of a neck tie worn by a staff member who came into his hospital room after he had clinically died and left before he had recovered consciousness struck me as being pretty good evidence for the reality of such experiences. Another striking tale I came across on the net was that of a Russian priest (from memory) who had a near death experience in a hospital during which he wafted out of his body and came across an infant in another bed who wordlessly told him that his hip hurt. Upon waking and describing the infant and his location to doctors, it turned out that the infant had been in hospital for weeks crying constantly with pain but without a diagnosis. When they examined his hip, they found that was where the problem was. This kind of knowledge, inaccessible to the patient, discounts the possibility of any natural explanation.

 

So I was fascinated when I heard of an experiment to be conducted by Professor Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia that planned to test out the reality of near death experiences. His plan was as elegant as it was simple. Continue reading “Near Death Experiences”

The Next Coptic Pope – Diocesan Bishops

I thank Mark Ramzy in the USA for raising the case FOR diocesan bishops becoming pope in a Facebook discussion. To clarify some of the things in my previous posts on the topic, I thought it worthwhile to post his comments here with my response. Feel free to share your opinion – it is wonderful that we are able to debate such issues with frankness and love, and can it can only lead to a better Church in the future as together we seek the truth in love. To find the canons mentioned below and many more documents that are relevant, go the canon 15 website.

Mark’s comment:

 

I like the article Abouna, with the exception of the paragraph about diocesan bishops. It strongly implies that any diocesan bishop who is up for patriarch is somehow automatically coveting the position. I don’t think that automatically follows and, if it does, whatever the reasoning is would apply to anyone up for patriarch, not just that select sample.

I think the only way the argument holds true is if (i) diocesan bishops cannot become patriarch and (ii) each diocesan bishop up for the position actually believes (i). (Also holds true if (i) is wrong but the diocesan bishops think it’s true).

 

And my response:

 

Hi Mark. If you read the actual canon there is leeway for exceptions in certain circumstances. Of course, we would always want the best person for the role and historically we have had even laymen chosen to be pope with excellent results. If there were a standout diocesan bishop of superior spiritual qualities and no viable alternatives, I would certainly support his elevation to the papacy – that’s the kind of exception envisioned in the canon. But that certainly was not the case in our current situation. Perhaps, say, if HG Bishop Moussa was a diocesan bishop, there would have been a good case for his being a candidate (note he immediately declined when he was nominated).

If you read the letters of St Basil, you will find that even in the fifth century, politics had entered the Church and he struggled greatly to overcome this objectionable environment of ambition and self-seeking. I think the wisdom of the canon is to create an environment where this is not possible. WHy target diocesan bishops in particular? Actually, the canon covers bishops, priests and even deacons. The premise is “don’t strive to leave a smaller service for a bigger service”. We should strive to faithfully fulfil the mission given to us by God rather than being discontented with it and seeking to do something “bigger”. This is something we teach to our servants every day and seek to follow as priests as well. Service is not about being a hero, it is about humble loving sacrifice. And the same applies to a bishop just as aptly, if not moreso.

I hope that clarifies it a little? What do you think?

The Next Coptic Pope III

Yesterday His Eminence Metropolitan Pachomius announced the final short list of candidates for the election to be held on November 24 to choose the 118th Pope of the See of Alexandria, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The list of five candidates is:

 

  • HG Bishop Raphael (General Bishop)
    – responsible for central Cairo but also serves with HG Bishop Moussa in the Bishopric of Youth.
  • HG Bishop Tawadros (General Bishop)
    – assistant to HE Metropolitan Pachomius in the diocese of Beheira, north-western Egypt.
  • Fr Raphael Ava Mina
    – a disciple of the late Pope Kyrollos VI and Abba Mina Ava Mina, the late head of the Monastery of St Mina.
  • Fr Pachomius Elsouriany
    – has served in Rome, Italy as a parish priest under HG Bishop Barnabas.
  • Fr Seraphim Elsouriany
    – has served in Hawaii, USA as a parish priest under HG Bishop Serapion.

 

No doubt more biographical details will soon be released about each of the candidates. I have gleaned from various sources that the Electoral Committee comprised of nine bishops and nine lay members of the Community Council (Maglis el Milli) spent nine days deliberating in the desert monastery of St Bishoy in order to trim the original list of 17 nominees down to just five. They considered all the objections that had been submitted to them for consideration and gradually whittled down the list through a series of secret ballots. All this was supported by a general fast with many prayers and liturgies carried out by the whole body of Copts all over the world, praying for God to guide the process and those conducting it to make the best decision for the Church.

I think the fasting worked. There are a number of positive things about this shortlist that are worth noting. Firstly, it is reassuring to see that our monasteries are still capable of producing monks of a high spiritual calibre in this day and age where life has become so complicated and true ascetism so difficult. Secondly, it is encouraging for the younger generations in the Church to see that some of the candidates, especially HG Bishop Raphael, have a firm background in serving the youth, which means they should have a comprehensive knowledge of the needs of the youth and how best to meet them. The young have been a very high priority since the papacy of Pope Shenouda III who was himself a Sunday School servant in his younger days and whose experience with the young greatly influenced his direction as pope. Also encouraging is the fact that a number of the candidates have served in the west and should hopefully therefore possess a sound understanding of the unique challenges and needs of western Copts, a category that currently comprises roughly 10-15% of Copts in the world, and will only grow in the years to come. Continue reading “The Next Coptic Pope III”

Afraid to be Free

 

Most people take it for granted that each of us is free to choose in life. But some philosophers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, claim that most people do not really want to be free. Choices have real consequences, and freedom brings with it responsibility. People do not want to be held responsible for the consequences of their actions. What if I make the wrong decision? What if the consequences are bad? I don’t want to be held to blame! I don’t want to feel guilty. And so people seek ways to shift the responsibility on to someone or something else, whether they know they are doing this or not.

One famous way of doing this is “the devil made me do it”. But a more subtle way of shifting responsibility is to lay it upon God, or upon His representatives on earth. Sartre points out that when a person adopts a faith, they surrender some of their freedom. They surrender the freedom to decide for themselves what is right and wrong, for by subscribing to their faith’s moral code, that decision is taken out of their hands. Of course, each person is still free to choose whether to obey their faith’s moral code or not – they are still quite free and quite responsible in that sense, but they are no longer responsible for the content of the moral code itself.

Now I do not see this as a bad thing in itself. We humans are, after all, quite fallible, and we have a disturbing tendency to try to cheat to make life comfortable for ourselves. If there is a genuinely objective right and wrong in the world (as most people would agree there is), then we are much more likely to find it when God tells us what it is than when are left to work it out for ourselves. Continue reading “Afraid to be Free”