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