Friday, April 21, 2006

More from St. Ephraim the Syrian

Last month, I commented on my discovery of A Spiritual Psalter by St. Ephraim the Syrian. This book continues to be a blessing to me, and has really helped me through the Lenten season. The psalter contains 150 prayers and hymns. I started off bookmarking those that were especially meaningful to me, but I was soon bookmarking just about every other page.

Outside of Orthodoxy, I suspect St. Ephraim is a fairly unknown figure, and this is certainly the case within Protestant circles. Without criticizing the Prots (for I was one most of my life), it seemed we often acted as though church history began with the Reformation. My particular religious heritage did make a lot of noise about the "first century church," but there was no place in it for the writings of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th century saints and martyrs. St. Ephraim, and others such as St. Cyril, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory, St. Basil, St. John of Damascus were unknown to us (and if known, we would have never put the "St." in front of their names). Also, evangelicals have sometimes acted as if they "discovered" the concept of grace. St. Ephraim knew a thing or two about it in the 4th century, it seems.

Having thus exposed the wiles of the enemy, tell him with conviction: I have had enough of you, O devil. And leave the evil one and join yourself to the man-befriending God. Are you wounded? Despair not. Have you fallen? Get up and say bravely: now I have begun. Fall down before your merciful Master and confess your sins.

But before you say anything He will already know what you intend to say. Before you open your lips, He will see what is in your heart. You will not be able to say, "I have sinned," before you see Him stretch forth His hands to receive and embrace you.

Approach with faith and He will cleanse you straightway as He cleansed the leper, lift you from your bed as He lifted the paralytic, and raise your from the dead as He raised Lazarus.

One of my favorite old-time gospel hymns was "Marching to Zion." It still resonates with me and I love the mental picture it conveys. What I now realize is how impoverished that march is without being accompanied by, and encouraged by the likes of St. Ephraim and all the others.

Monday, April 17, 2006

More Bad News

The violence in Egypt seems to be escalating. Typically, it is receiving little press over here. A short AP story did note, however that "this attack was the first in recent memory in which Muslims attacked Christians inside the churches while they were praying" and they quoted from an official in the Orthodox Church in Alexandria, who said "these tensions are the harvest of 30 years of Muslim fundamentalists spreading hate speech from the mosques.” Go to Sand Monkey's blog here for the full story, as usual.
These pictures tell the story.

Friday, April 14, 2006

A Bad Friday in Egypt

It seems that Muslim extremists have attacked Coptic churches in Egypt (again), resulting in 1 death and at least 12 injuries. See story here. Middle East news agencies typically discount the attacks as aberrant behavior, with the attackers characterized as mentally unstable (see here). Yeah, right. For the real story and voices of sanity from Muslim Egypt, check out Big Pharoah here and Sandmonkey here. The comments to Sandmonkey's post are particularly good. Just food for thought as Americans--Catholic and Protestant this Sunday, and we Orthodox next Sunday--toddle off to Easter services at our safe and comfortable churches.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A Real "War on Christians"

Yesterday, I went on at some length about Tom Delay and his appearance at the "War on Christians" conference in Washington. I noted that what the conferees considered "war"--Hollywood, liberal media, political activism, etc.--was weak tea indeed when compared to the real life war on Christians in many parts of the world. An excerpt from Lawrence F. Kaplan's excellent article carried in today's Dallas Morning News is exactly what I'm talking about.

There are about 800,000 believers remaining in Iraq's ancient Christian community, mainly Chaldean Catholics and Syrian Orthodox. There used to be more; many more. It seems that these Christians are "today's victims of choice." In fact, it is the one thing that the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds can all agree on--the brutalization of their Christian neighbors. Even though Christians predated Moslems by over 500 years in Iraq, they are nevertheless seen as emissaries of the West. Because of this, they are especially targetted for kidnappings, executions and beheadings. Many of the churches have been bombed, and more and more Christians are worshipping at home, or even in the crypts (how is that for some 1st Century authenticity!) Anyone that can get out is doing so. Most can't. What is the US government doing? Nothing. What are American evangelicals doing? With typical perceptiveness, they are oblivious to the Iraqi's plight and are actually making the situation much worse.

For the entire article, go here. But at least read the following excerpt:

To the lengthy indictment of Christians, their persecutors have also added the charge of proselytizing. Unlike American soldiers, who mean to save Iraqi lives, the American evangelicals who followed on their heels mean to save Iraqi souls. The infusion of pamphlets and missionaries from organizations like the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention enrages Iraqi Muslims, who, Iraqi Christian leaders claim, increasingly conflate their congregants with "the crusaders" – and, too often, treat them as such.

"The evangelicals have caused such problems for us," says Mr. Kanna. "They make the Sunni and Shia furious."

Even though Iraq's Christians suffer in the name of their American co-religionists, their fate seems not to have made the slightest impression on much of the evangelical establishment. Their Web sites and promotional literature advertise the importance of creating new Christian communities in Iraq while mostly ignoring the obligation to save ancient ones. Nor, with a few exceptions, have mainstream church leaders in the United States broached the subject, either. Dr. Carl Moeller, the president of Open Doors USA, an organization that supports persecuted Christians abroad, pins the blame on Christianity's own sectarian rifts. "The denominations in Iraq aren't recognized by Americans," he explains. "The underlying attitude is, 'They're not us.' "

What have we done?

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Almost Formerly Important

"When the powers that be are done with you, we mainline liberals will have a rocking chair for you at the retirement home of the formerly religiously important."

Jason Byassee, addressing evangelicals in the March issue of Christianity Today. For more, go here.

An Odor of Mendacity

I have been out of town for the better part of a week, and removed from my usual sources of information (not a bad thing, actually). In getting caught up on the news, I find that our old buddy Rep. Tom Delay is still in the headlines, this time from a speech given at a “War on Christians” conference in Washington. From someone who is still "working out my own salvation," I'm not about to pass judgment on someone else's faith. Yet public piety and cheap religiousity is always suspect, particularly from someone who, in his Texas Legislature days was nicknamed “Hot Tub Tom” by his colleagues (this, in fact, from a colleague).

In reading about the conference, I remembered just who Delay reminded me of. In the 1958 movie adaptation of the Southern gothic stage classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the actor Jack Carson portrayed Big Daddy Pollitt’s oily, fast-talking and conniving older son, Gooper. Yep, Gooper. Tom Delay is simply Gooper Pollitt writ large on the national scene.

The theme of the Washington conference leaves me uneasy. Delay told the adoring crowd that “the enemies of virtue may be on the march, but they have not won.” Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with that statement—it is indeed, the Christian hope, for in the end, the Enemy will NOT win. But, you know this is not what "Team Delay, with its paladins of public piety" had in mind. In their war, the battle is waged with conservative political activism, PACs, Capitalism as gospel, while railing against Hollywood, the gay-rights crowd, and of course the liberal media and so on. There is, of course, a battle going on, but its true nature is more accurately described in Ephesians 6:12. The conference organizer likened Delay’s deepening ethical and legal problems to Christ’s Passion, concluding that “God always does his best work after a crucifixion.” I kid you not, he actually said that. You can’t make up crap like this.

But I guess the real thing that bothers me is that it cheapens and takes away from the very real, “war on Christians.” We caught a glimpse of that last week in the trial of the Abdul Rahman. The entire Soviet era was very much a “war on Christians” as perhaps millions of Russian martyrs attest. Ever so often, churches (and Christians) are bombed in Pakistan. Christians are arrested in Iran. Just a few years back, the Indonesians were butchering the Catholic East Timorese. The Sudanese government—before their current butchery in Darfur—were killing Christians in the south of that country. My church has a large contingent of Orthodox Christian refugees from Eritrea. The Egyptian Copts are routinely persecuted. The diminishing Arab Christians in the Middle East, after 1400 years of dhimmitude, are now caught in the squeeze between the Muslim and the Jews, as well as suffering the backlash from Western policies in the region. Now these are real, actual “wars on Christians.” But I doubt that this is what Delay was thinking about. Perhaps he should.

This brings me back to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. My favorite lines include:

BRICK: Have you ever heard the word “mendacity”?
BIG DADDY: Sure. Mendacity is one of them five dollar words that cheap politicians throw back and forth at each other.
BRICK: You know what it means?
BIG DADDY: Don’t it mean lying and liars?
BRICK: Yes, sir, lying and liars.

And then this from the movie:

What's that smell in this room? Didn't you notice it, Brick? Didn't you notice the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?

A powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity, indeed.