Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Homily Magnus: On Death and Life (as proclaimed by an orthodox rebel)

"...for why will you die...?" Eze. 33:11b

Our world is made of antitrust. Over one-hundred years of unchecked, rampant skepticism has corroded away the image of trust. Suspicion is our new religion, forged on the altar of self-deification. All other things, whether they be friends or family or strangers or institutions or traditions or customs, are a threat to our own self-actualization. We must hold all others, however dear or precious, at arms length, taking with a grain of salt everything that they say or give. They must not be allowed to shape or dominate us. They must never own or conscribe any part of us. So we retract into ourselves in recesses beyond thought, in dark lairs of corners of our minds, and in those dungeons deep we forge in secret our master self, pouring into it our will with which we thwart all others. Our selves are always sword and shield, never true open arms and welcoming embrace. Something will always be held back, something no one is worthy of in our eyes, i.e., our real self, made only by the hand of God and the Fall. Such is the lonely, oh so lonely narcissism of our fragmented world.

God has a word for such self-centered isolationism. He has a strong, simple term for our sad division: Sin. It is from Sin that we cut ourselves off from all things. It is Sin that lifts high the banner of self as the flag of the world. It is the sin-sick soul who sings, "I am a god. I sit in the seat of God in the midst of the seas" (Eze. 28:2b), "My river is my own, and I have made it for myself" (Eze. 29:3b), and "I will exalt my throne above the stars of God. I will be like the Most High" (Is. 14:13, 14). Our narcissistic fragmentation is not a result of postmodern liberation and deconstruction, nor of heroic and idealized self-assertion, but rather the monstrous pride that sets the self at the center of all things. Our exaltation of self, having degraded and degenerated into a horrid and absolute skepticism, eventually collapsed from a hyper-individualism where we are the only star in our lonely little universe. There are no gods or kings or even man; there is only me. No man is an island, but every man dreams of a private island, and no island is more private than the island of self-love.

We all have been drawn away by our own lusts for our will and way and self above and against all others, even God Himself; and when that lusts conceives, it brings forth sin, and when sin is finished it brings forth death (James 1:15 KJV). The soul that sins shall die (Eze. 18:4b). There is no other alternative. It is a law of existence just as much as gravity is a law of nature. It is the only reason and explanation for this living death that we are in: our noise and insanity, our fashions and futility, our callousness and frigidity, our decadence and apathy, our lusts and lunacy, our ugliness and horrible, horrible depravity. We are the hub of a lone wheel, trapped in the mud, spinning endlessly in an infinite rut, digging our own graves as we whirl in maddening stillness.

Hear now the word of the Lord who made the heavens and the earth and your self: "Why will you die?" Life is never found in the self; rather, it is found when the self is finally forgotten, given away, killed outright for the sake of another; and God is the ultimate Other: "He who loses His life for my sake shall find it" (Matt. 10:39). Herein is life, not the uncompromising worship of our self, but the unconditional surrender of the self into the love of God. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His only Son to save us from the dark tyranny of Sin that makes the self a god, so that we might know the only true God, know in the most intimate and sacred of ways. As Father and child. Friend and friend. Lover and lover. It is only when we take that first step, that first step of trust in the God who made us and loves us, that first step off of our lonely precipice to fall headlong into the infinite ocean and drown therein, only then will our sad division cease.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

"We all are lonely, Maker -- each a soul
Shut in by itself, a sundered atom of thee.
No two yet loved themselves into a whole;
Even when we weep together we are two.
Of two to make one, which yet two shall be,
Is thy creation's problem, deep, and true,
To which thou only hold'st the happy, hurting clue."

-George MacDonald (from Diary of an Old Soul)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Defense of Damsels and Bumpkins (as explained by an orthodox storyteller)

The two most important and vital elements to any good fairy-tale (indeed, to any good story) is the damsel and the bumpkin, and yet never have two things been more derided in our time. There is something offensive in the former and silly in the latter.

The damsel is offensive because we live in an enlightened age of unquestioned feminism, wherein women have been set free from the chains of home and hearth to cheerfully wear the chains of 9-to-5 corporate life. The bumpkin is silly because that's what a bumpkin is: a laughable and occasionally lovable oaf who deserves no more attention and serious praise than a newborn child. In the end, we worship amazonian bravado and scorn the loveliness of the princess; we condescendingly pat the good-natured fool on the head and laud the antics of the antihero. It is exactly these modern notions that good fairy-tales turn upside-down.

Such a turning is very much needed today. In fact, it should be called a returning, for I am not saying anything new, just everything that people have forgotten. For example, nobody appreciates a "damsel in distress" anymore. They assume that there is something demeaning in the whole affair, that women are somehow reduced to impersonal narrative furniture to be forcibly passed about like a brain-dead hot potato amongst men of varying moral aptitudes. The underlying assumption is that a damsel is always "distressed" because they have nothing better to do, i.e., because they are utterly useless, a mere plot foil and no more.

Such is the cynicism of our age, but even a moment's consideration on the issue will reveal its logic to be complete nonsense. If a damsel is "utterly useless," then why is she distressed? If she has no qualities of worth or value, then why would anyone bother their heads about her at all? Why is so much energy and time and military expense wasted by the villain on her capture, and why is so much toil and sorrow willfully suffered by the hero on her rescue? If she had no other purpose and point than to be moved from the Castle of Syrupy Light to the Dungeons of Stygian Slime and then back again, if her only purpose is fundamentally logistical, then why all the fuss? Surely dark lords and wandering knights (and enraptured readers) have better uses of their time.

The simple answer is that the damsel is not "useless". It is her very "use" that makes her the focus of the whole affair. What people seem to forget (and rabid feminists are loath to remember) is that the princess is the point of the fairy-tale. True, the bulk of the narrative is spent on her rescuer (a much maligned individual whom we will address in a moment), but that is because his energies (or even her energies, as in the tale of Britomart) are solely pointed towards her. Look at any great tale that involves "damsels in distress" and you will see that the princess is the most vital person on the planet. It is she who will stop the lords of shadow from enacting the great woe. It is she that will guarantee the downfall of the Abyssal King. It is she who will bring the return of the dawn and the dancing of the daffodils, and the puppies and kittens will dance together again. In short, it is she who will bring about some great thing in the larger picture of the world, and it is for that very reason that the darkness seeks to ensnare her. She is always the true threat. She is always the real hero.

This should not be surprising to any of us. The "hero" who rides to the rescue is not the ultimate hero. The princess is, and whatever heroics the "hero" has are derivative from and dependent upon her. The truth is that the "hero" (whoever he/she may be) is trying to rescue the princess because there is some greater feat to be done that only the princess can do and which, consequently, the "hero" cannot do, which is why she must be rescued. She is the vital piece. That is why so much energy is expended on her. That is why chivalric codes have been inspired by her. That is why a certain popular video game franchise is called The Legend of Zelda and not The Legend of Link. The princess is everything, the central force to the narrative centrifuge.

Even the exception proves the rule, i.e., the case of dragons kidnapping the princess. She may not have been "distressed" because of some great "thing" that she can "do", but remember what a dragon is. They represent horrible, voracious greed, a living void of endless consumption. They are hoarders, gluttons; their lairs are full of precious things, including the most precious of all: the princess. Those stories strike us the hardest, because now the damsel is rescued, not for her use, but for herself, which is the point all along. She is the most valuable one, and when that which is most valuable is imperiled, someone must take up the sword.

Of course, the one who takes up the sword is never who we expect, and that is yet another point of the fairy-tale. When the most valuable and precious one is imperiled, it is not the brawniest of knights who ultimately wins her back. Rather, it is the bumpkin who gets called kicking and screaming into the fray. In the end, it is Samwise, and not Gaston, who gets called to the rescue. This is the other vital element, viz., the hero is a bumpkin. The hero is a bumbling, lovable fool who would much rather stay at home and yet has enough good-heartedness to not leave a friend in the lurch. In short, the hero is "normal," and yet is called to the extraordinary.

This is a tale as old as time. It was not the warrior sons of Jesse who slew Goliath. It was his youngest, a shepherd boy, who had no sword to call his own. It was not a great and legendary fighter who brought an end to the wrath of Grendel and his mother. It was Beowulf, who was considered "the least amongst his brethren". It was not Eric the golden knight who slew Bavmorda and saved the baby Elora. It was Willow Ufgood, the farmer, father, and dwarf. It is the "least" who rescues the highest. It is the poor lost poet in the woods who descends through hell so that he may ascend to heaven. It is the last who becomes the first. The bumpkin is our hero. The least of these are our champions, and their trophies are innumerable, from dragons and demons to even death itself, for when God raised his glittering sword against our last enemy, he did not come riding on the white horse of the apocalypse, but on the red cross of the Romans, dying in ignominy and infamy, raising all to newness of life, and hallowing the fool forever. For God has chosen the foolish things to confound the wise, and the weak to overcome the strong.

Herein are the two vital elements of the fairy-tale: the damsel and the bumpkin. And herein lies their vital lessons. In the damsel we see this, that the most valuable and precious thing in the world is a woman. In the bumpkin we see this, that even the smallest of persons can change the course of history. Such things get lost on the majority of us today. All of our modern day "heroes" are pathetic, paltry things: sneering antiheroes with the likability of a dead toad, and sarcastic amazons whose entire femininity has been disemboweled. We waste our time on things not worth a sneeze, and yet at our fingertips are the two great inspirations of the world: the beauty and power of the princess, and the stout, fear-soaked courage of the bumbling fool. If our stories could only learn to bask in the splendor of that double-edged humility, perhaps we could find ourselves wanting more than the barren wastes of our modern mythologies.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Dance and Death (an Advent devotional by an orthodox rebel)

There is stillness in God, but not as we understand stillness. In God is the highest life and energy. In Him and from Him is all movement, as Dante would describe it. In Him is the Great Dance, as Lewis would say. With God there is no ceasing of activity, but rather the perfecting of activity, because the activity is no longer wild and aimless and weary from wandering. It has found its object, its mark, its "resting" place. It has come home, and that is the stillness of God: the inward peace in finally becoming one with God's life and energy, of becoming one with the Godhead's triune dance. The peace of God, the stillness of God, is in the soul coming home at last, where God turns our mourning into dancing (Ps. 30:11).

There is stillness in Sin, and it is exactly as we understand stillness. Decay. Corruption. Moth and rust destroying. The sinful soul is the derelict soul. The soul that sins shall die (Eze. 18:4), and death is the final stillness, the final ceasing of all energies. Whenever a soul sins, it has turned itself away from God, away from the movement to the frigid static, away from the dance into the outer dark. For Sin is the calcification of the self onto anything that is not God. All other things of creation (even if they are good and noble) are dumb, lifeless idols whenever they try to take God's place, and their worshipers become just as dumb and lifeless. In the holiness that is the worship of God, in that grand dance and symphony, is life everlasting; but in the sin that is the worship of the self, or any other created thing, is the petrification of the soul unto death.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Gifts of God (an Advent devotional by an orthodox rebel)

"Behold, I do a new thing...." Isaiah 43:19

Existence is paradoxically simple and bewildering. It is mundane and it overwhelms. Like that strange little game with the black and white discs: minutes to learn but a lifetime to master. Mere existence takes only seconds to admit (if we are sane) but an apparent eternity to comprehend (again, if we are sane). Whenever we walk through it and amongst it, its presence is so commonplace that it becomes transparent. Whenever we pause and look upon it and think on it, its presence is so odd and its meaning so incomprehensible that it becomes equal parts beatific and monstrous. Ever tree is both a flowering wonder and a demon with a thousand bursting hands, shedding flakes of green blood and other fantastic colors. Even the size of the universe that we know of (and we know very little) overcomes us. The seemingly infinite expanse overhead is as wide and rolling as an open plain and as dark and gaping as an open maw. We shudder and we wonder, and then we try not to think about it.

Those who try to think about it hardly do better. Their quaint explanations run hollow, and only satisfy us in those deathly moments when the world is transparent rather than monstrous. Even we, as Christians, do no better. In the face of the universe, we spit the phrase "God did it," as though that solved the puzzle or ended the mystery. Only in the church pews, those deadest of the dead moments, can such a glib statement stick. Step out of the dusty church hall back into the wilderness wonderland outside, however, and that insubstantial thought drains from your soul like color from your face. It is not good enough to simply say, "God did it," for it does not answer the ultimate question of "Why?"

God is perfect, which means that he is complete or whole. He lacks nothing and needs nothing; if He didn't, then He wouldn't be God. Whence comes creation, then? It cannot be for Himself. There are some bizarre (though sincere) notions that creation is God's way of "completing" Himself, that each soul's experiences will fill up what is lacking in the Godhead. It sounds quite charming, and perhaps even lovely; but it is in error, for the Godhead cannot "lack" and still be the Godhead. So we are still left with the question of why: why did God make all of this stuff anyway?

Some would say that he made it for us, but that does not solve anything either. It is a matter of biblical authority and Christian orthodoxy that the earth and its fullness are the Lord's. All glory belongs to Him. Nothing in creation is "for" us in an ultimate sense; the heaven's declare His glory, no matter how beautiful they shine on us. Furthermore, even if it was "for" us, that still does not solve the problem, for why then did God make a creation that needed creation? What was the purpose of making needy beings? The neediness itself becomes one more facet to the "stuff" of existence, and so we are back to square one.

Herein are the two facts: God needs nothing, yet everything is for Him and His glory. What then, are we to make of this? I am no theologian, and am at best only an "arm-chair" philosopher, but I would posit this: it seems to me that existence is fundamentally arbitrary, i.e., it is there, but there is no reason why it should be here. It just is. Even though it gives glory to God, He does not need glory anymore than He needs creation. The whole thing is ultimately superfluous; yet there is a unique beauty to its superfluousness that is found in this fact: for God, superfluous does not equal meaningless. There is a reason to this random rhyme, and we have a name for something that is completely unnecessary and yet full to bursting with sweet meaning. It is called a gift.

All is a gift of God, and marvelous are His gifts. He did not make them because He needed glory, or stuff, or needy beings to need the stuff and give Him glory. Rather, he made it because He simply wanted to: for the sheer good and joy that is inherent in the act of creation, for the sheer joy of being able to see it and see that it is good. Every scrap of this universe is the bounty of God, a treasure whose light Sin can diminish but not extinguish, and some day it will burst forth in an eruption of brilliance and sound that will eat away the darkness like some benevolent cancer that restores the very cells of Being back to health. For redemption, too, is one of the gifts of God. Arbitrary, because the creation it saves is arbitrary; meaningful, because like the creation it redeems, it is chocked full of the goodness and delight of God, a substance that is weightier than the densest star and more infinite than the voids of Hell.

God's arbitration is not that of a machine; it is that of a Creator. He is not the steel-cold mind lost in a fog of its own frigid and abstract divinity. He is the supremely happy artisan, working wonders out of His own two hands, who makes out of the sheer delight for making and for no other reason; and every occurrence, whether it be good or ill from our view, is yet another chance for Him to prove His good pleasure. All glory is another place for creation, and all sin is for recreation. He makes all things new, always making a new thing out of His unquenchable gladness for making and newness. Thus it has always been and ever shall be.

In the vast, burning simplicity of perfect communion that was God's existence before Time began, the Godhead rolled up Their sleeves, and in Their Trinitarian nature said to Themselves, "Watch this." Thus was creation. When our first parents sinned, and death's black sorrows spread like spilt ink across that creation, God had already rolled up His sleeves and said to the host of Heaven, "Watch this." Thus was redemption. And I would like to think that when we reach that golden shore, and the grey rain curtain of this world fades away, and we finally past the threshold of Revelation's final chapter, and the last words of Time are written in the last book ever written, we will look into those glad eyes of the glad Creator and say, "Now what?" And He will smile, and roll up His sleeves, and say yet again, "Watch this," not out of necessity, but out of love, and goodness, and the sheer unutterable joy of gift-giving.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Crazy Things (poetry by an orthodox rebel)

Out on the ocean
Walking on the shore,
I found some crazy things,
Metal shapes and rings,
And I wondered what they're for.

I tried to put them together
The best that I can.
They all fell apart,
Mirror of my heart:
I'm my own biggest fan.

Other shapes on the shoreline.
Lots of crazy things.
The hipsters of the cool,
Dirty crazy fools.
They burn my soul. It stings!

They take away our heroes.
Don't give us a cause.
They spit on virtue's grave.
Hear what I say:
Nothing ever gives them pause.

Fretting about nothing.
Nothing's all they got.
Telling me their lies
With their plastic eyes,
Being what I'd rather not.

Old men had religion.
Fathers got their spite.
The children eat their hate.
Oh, such bitter grapes.
Now their teeth, their set to bite.

The Cross went commercial.
Bought into the bling.
They take the worthwhile,
Mix it with the bile.
They hardly write and hardly sing.

There's a fire in the heavens.
Holiness and blood.
It mixed with the dust.
Its ministry a bust.
We killed it with planks of wood.

Now we give it nothing.
No life left to die.
Our parting lent
Is a circus tent
Where we go to kiss the sky.

I wanna kiss the holy
With my face to the floor.
Let Him come and bring
All those crazy things
And show me what they're for.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

The Secret Signature of the Soul (as explained by an Original Orthodox Rebel)

The following is an excerpt from pp. 149-152 of C.S. Lewis' book The Problem of Pain:

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that. Again, you have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; and then [you] turned to the friend at your side who appears to be seeing what you saw--but at the first words a gulf yawns between you, and you realize that this landscape means something totally different to him, that he is pursuing an alien vision and cares nothing for the ineffable suggestion by which you are transported.

Even in your hobbies, has there not always been some secret attraction which the others are [always] curiously ignorant of: something, not to be identified with, but always on the verge of breaking through, the swell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat's side? Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling...of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it--tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died just as they caught your ear.

But if it should really become manifest--if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself--you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say, "Here at last is the thing I was made for." We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives [or husbands] or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife [or husband] or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

This signature of each soul may be a product of [our] heredity and environment, but that only means that heredity and environment are among the instruments whereby God creates a soul. [...] Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you. The mold in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key; and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions. For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you--you, the individual reader.... Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another's. All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction. [...] God will look to every soul like its first love because He is its first love. Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it--made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Homily 34: The Irony of Awakening (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"Then ye shall know that I am the Lord, when their slain men shall be among their idols round about their altars...." Eze. 6:13a

Sin creates illusion. It is a mist-maker, a darkness so cunning that it can fool you into thinking that it is no different from the daylight. All of our idolatries come back to this deception: those images that we erect to our own self-aggrandizement are merely blinders for our eyes. Every sinner is a funhouse maker, cocooning themselves within a maze of mirrors and halls with impossible angles; and we are all sinners (Rom. 5:12). We all build palaces to our ever-expanding ruin, and the longer we stay in them the more we accept their aberrations as fact. The whole world is just such a place: a madhouse run by the inmates. We have been trapped in our fallacious follies for so long, do we even know what is real anymore? I dare say that we do not.

There is no help for us from within this tangled net of self-made illusions. We are all equally spiders caught in our own webs. Thus, our help must come from without, and it cannot be a mere pick-me-up or another moral lecture. It must be an awakening. The bonds must be cut. The walls must be knocked down. Sin is not a principle to be argued against; it is a spell that must be broken. Snapped, if your will, by a sudden flash of light that can cleave the soul. The idols of the Self must be effaced and cast down, revealed for what they are: dumb, deaf, blind, and dead. There is always a bitter irony to such revelations. Indeed, every awakening is ironic, for we think that the world is being turned upside-down but find that it has finally be placed right-side-up.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

On True Faith (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

"What is more consonant with faith than to recognize that we are naked of all virtue, in order to be clothed by God? That we are empty of all good, to be filled by him? That we are slaves of sin, to be freed by him? Blind, to be illuminated by him? Lame, to be made straight by him? Weak, to be sustained by him? To take away from us all occasion for glorying, that he alone may stand forth gloriously and we glory in him?" -John Calvin

"We must not fancy we are holy because we are human." -C.S. Lewis

The greatest act of faith has nothing to do with the existence of God. It has nothing to do with believing in supernatural occurrences, such as visions of angels or the universe-shaking truth of the Incarnation. It has nothing to do with either God's omnipotence or His goodness. It has somewhat to do with believing in the sufficiency of Scripture, but that is not all. It most certainly never has anything to do with blind "leaps" into the dark, as though faith were foolishness rather than a courageous act of reason. The truth is that the greatest act of faith has to do with ourselves, i.e., that we are sinners.

Think about it for just one moment. There are plenty of people who have never cracked open a Bible or even a catechism who will admit to the existence of God. Plenty of perfectly sane, skeptical people will admit (at the very least) the possibility of angels and other such supernatural occurrences. Still others will allow for the existence of Jesus, and that he was (in some vague, whitewashed way) a "son" of "God". And many others will gladly condescend that the Bible is an important book with many important things to say. But put before them the notion that all their righteousness is filthy rags before God, and you have instantly become bigoted, narrowminded, unprogressive, offensive, and unkind. Nothing sparks indignant incredulousness like the doctrine of Original Sin and the idea of Total Depravity (regardless of how you define "original" and "total"). It runs roughshod over every sensibility we have of ourselves. Even if we will admit that we are not perfect (and there are plenty who do), none would ascribe that we are wholly without merit in the eyes of God. If anything, the very idea reeks of undemocratic elitism.

Yet it is that very idea that is the entrance point to the Gospel. When the apostle Paul wanted to write a great treatise on justification and salvation, he did not begin with our ability but our inability, culminating in those highly offensive words: "There is none righteous, no, not one.... There is none that does good, no, not one" (Rom. 3:10-12). Just ponder those words for half a moment and you will see the all-consuming seriousness of it. No one is "righteous"? No one "does good"? Absurd. We see good deeds every day. Perhaps you have seen one today. Yes, evil abounds, but there are good people out there; you may have just met one not ten minutes ago. How, then, can Paul say that none do good? It goes against all common sense.

Remember, however, that neither Paul nor any part of Scripture is appealing to our sense; he and it are always appealing to God's sense. When we call verses like Rom. 3:12 absurd because we have "seen good" just yesterday, a question must be asked: how do you define "good"? What standard are you using to measure it against? If you are honest with yourself, you will have only two answers: either you don't know, or you are measuring it against your own personal preferences. Your standard is either nebulous or yourself. For Scripture, the standard is neither, for the standard is God; and His standard (in both the Old and New Testament) is simple and unchanging: holiness and perfection (Lev. 20:7, Matt. 5:48, & I Peter 1:14-16). I dare say that we meet "good" people (by our own definition) every day, but have we ever met a perfect person? Of course not, but guess what: if there are no perfect people (including ourselves) then we are all doomed. The standard is unreachable, for the standard is the very glory of God Himself, and we all fall short of it every time (Rom. 3:23).

That is why this is the entrance point to the Gospel. It is not enough to believe that you "aren't perfect" by some vague (and convenient) standard of your own. You must see that the standard of perfection and goodness belongs to God and God alone, and that you are bereft of such glory despite your best efforts. This is why we need a savior, because we are doomed without one. Christ did not come to simply teach us the standard; He died "for the ungodly" (literally, for those not "like" God; Rom. 5:6, 8), lowering Himself to our level so that He could raise us up to the standard: "For [God] has made [Christ] to be sin for us...that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him" (II Cor. 5:21). Did you catch that? Christ died so that we might be made "the righteousness of God," i.e., God's perfect standard. The bar has not been lowered; God is still God. Rather, we have been gloriously raised to the bar, for Christ has died for sinners and raises them to "newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). That is the Gospel, by which if any man believes, he shall be saved; but the very first step of that belief starts on the darkest square. Your very first move must be into the abyss, for only their does your own darkness become apparent, and only there does the light burst forth like lightning trapped in a diamond.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Friday, November 25, 2011

Homily Magnus: On God (as proclaimed by an orthodox rebel)

What can I tell you about this God of mine? What can I say to make you truly see Him? Words are inadequate, no matter how well they are wrought. They fall short every time. Furthermore, it does not help that God's image has had so much silly sentiment and slipshod verbiage dumped upon it for many years now. The skeptics of the world howl at us for good reason; our God has become a pathetic, paltry thing. He does not inspire awe of any kind: no art of literature or music. He is no one's muse anymore. Even our worship has become shallow and repetitive, noisome and hollow. What can I say to repair such damage? How can I help you see God rightly again?

In Ezekiel 18, we find a strange conversation. God is rebuking His people for their misuse of a proverb; they are trying to use it to shift the blame for their sins (vs. 2). In response, God goes into a rather famous monologue about the nature of sin and how He deals with it. As He speaks, a fascinating pattern begins to evolve.

The First Precedent

God starts by laying down a simple rule: "the soul that sins, it shall die" (vs. 4b). In addressing sin, God lays down the immutable fact of His holiness. Sin is not something that He can or will simply look over or ignore. He deals with it. He must deal with it. If He did not, then He would not be God. His holiness will not allow sin to take a pass or slip by. It will be destroyed along with whatever souls swear allegiance to it. In verse 20, He repeats the same rule, as though to drive the point clearly home: "The soul that sins, it shall die."

What is interesting about this rule is that it is not merely saying that sin will be punished. It is also saying that every man's sin is his own: "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son" (vs. 20). No man's sin is imputed to another. Every one shall give an account of themselves, and no one else, unto God (Rom. 14:12). So we see that in laying down this one rule, God reveals not only His holiness but also His justice. What he decrees and delivers is not arbitrary; it is pinpoint accurate every time: "I will judge you...every one according to his [own] ways" (vs. 30).

The Second Precedent

Just one verse after He repeats the first rule, He suddenly lays down a second: "But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he has committed and will keep my statutes and do what is lawful and right, then he shall surely live; he shall not die" (vs. 21). Here we see that God has provided a way out. He lays down the immutable fact of His forgiveness. When a sinner repents and turns back to God, He will forgive Him. He must forgive him. If He does not, then He would not be God. Now we are beginning to see something interesting start to appear. It is not wholly unique (for many other gods offer forgiveness of some sort), but it does begin to stir the heart with something unspeakable. The holy and just God of the universe who stores up His wrath against sin and the souls that sin, He has also stacked the deck against Himself: He left the backdoor open, on purpose.

The Divine Position

As I said, none of this is inherently unique. Many gods throughout time have punished those who would not do as they were told, and many have offered forgiveness to those who do. Amidst that swelling cosmic monotony, however, a new tone begins to play, a note wholly unique and unto itself, spinning forth from some new song and unheard of string that the universe had never known before. At its sound it dissolves the darkness and shatters the stars. The pillars of the earth quake before it, and every false god quails in fear when they hear it, for it is completely alien to them, and every creature fears the unknown.

In verse 23, we hear this original song: "Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die...and not that he should turn from his ways and live?" All gods punish. Many gods will forgive. But only one God amongst the endless pantheon of human imagination has ever esteemed one over the other; only one continually sought out the one to the detriment of the other. He alone pleads for forgiveness so that He may not have to punish at all: "I have no pleasure in the death of Him that dies, saith the Lord God. Therefore turn, and live" (vs. 32).

The Divine Plea

Here the new song crescendos into its fullest and highest expression: "Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions, so iniquity shall not be your ruin" (vs. 30b). Every god punishes and many forgive, but they all do it for the same reason: for the benefit of themselves, for an increase of worship and worshipers through fear of eternal damnation and hope of material blessings. But this God does nothing for His own benefit. He needs no benefits; if He did, then He would not be God. Rather, He does all for our benefit. Sin is punished so it will not afflict those who are oppressed by it, and sinners will be forgiven so that the soul that sins but repents shall not die. Do you not see? It is for us that He pours out His wrath, and for us He pours out His love; and He desires that His love would overflow all of His wrath, so that all His wrath would be a mere drop in the bucket in comparison.

What can be said about such a God? Perhaps there are no better words than that of the prophet Micah, when he finished his words to the people of God: "Who is a God like unto thee, who pardons iniquity and passes by the transgressions of the remnant of His heritage? He retains not His anger forever, because He delights in mercy" (Micah 7:18). Did you hear that? His anger will not last, because He delights in mercy. What God is there like this? A God who punishes sin, but forgives the sinner because He delights in mercy? You will not find a God like this, not yesterday, today, or tomorrow.

Let us take every god from every religion there is, both modern and ancient, monotheistic and polytheistic and pantheistic. Let us line them all in a row and stack them high, until they are a towering wall of divine qualities and attributes. Let us catalog all of those qualities and attributes until we have the definitive list and measurement of godliness. Let us take even the gods of the atheists, their science and rationalism and personal principles, and add them to the ever growing pile. Then let us stand in wonder at this tapestry of divinity, and then let us watch it diminish as a candle does before the dawn, as a fading spark before the light of the sun. All of the gods of man and earth cannot come close to this one God. All the gods of earth cannot come near to Jehovah. Every quality and attribute they represent is merely one facet upon the infinite and awesome jewels that crown His head. They cannot come near to His fullness, nor even touch the hem of His garment. But we can touch that hem. We have already touched it in Christ. The God that is greater than all of our bewildering creations is nearer to us than our own breath. He has brought us in. He left open the backdoor from sin; so too He has left open the front door to His own house.

What, then, can I say about this God? Why would I leave Him? Where else would I go? What man would leave the absolutely perfect woman to waste his days amongst all the desolate prostitutes of the world? Or who would spend their life a moorless vagabond when their true home suddenly appears around the corner? God is not one choice amongst many. He is the only choice. He alone has the words of life (John 6:68). To refuse Him is to make no-choice, to leave the realms of freedom and joy and beauty forever and cast yourself into the infinite dark, where there is no sound save for the gnashing of your own teeth.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Homily 33: The Courage to Do (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"I send thee unto them, and then shall thou say unto them, 'Thus saith the Lord God.' And they, whether they will hear or whether they will refuse..., they shall know that there hath been a prophet among them." Eze. 2:4b-5

As Christians, we cannot measure our "success" in any quantitative sense. Successful faith is not in numbers but in doing. Too many today have a subconscious business model of faith: "If I am going to trust God, then such and such must be accomplished." The only thing that "must be accomplished" is for you to trust God. Results are not your concern. You cast the seeds about like sparks. Another comes and fans the flames, but the success of the blaze is not ultimately up to you. It will increase in heat and power as the Lord sees fit. That is what He was saying to Ezekiel, and that is what He is saying to us: "Have the courage to do, and leave the rest to me."

The only true courage worthy of the name is the courage to do, a courage indifferent to controlling outcomes or hedging bets. Courage based on success ratios is opportunistic courage, which is just another form of cowardice. If we really knew what we were up against: all of the malicious, slobbering horror of Sin and the cunning, foolproof wiles of the Devil; in short, if we really knew the full scope of our adversary, then none of us would be opportunistically courageous. We would not (and do not) have the poisonous luxury of waiting for the right time to act. The only right time is the present, and the only successful action is the one done out of faith in God. Whether or not you succeed in human terms is irrelevant. Strictly speaking, we all fail in "human terms," for the preaching of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (I Cor. 1:18). The only terms that matter are God's terms, and His terms are simple: whether they hear you or not, go in faith, doubting nothing, and I will show you great and mighty things.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011