Monday, January 26, 2015

Why we can trust in the Bible


The Great Isaiah Scroll, 1QIsa
Recently there are articles that try to discredit Christianity by claiming the Bible is unreliable, that it changed over time, or that it contains only mythical stories. This is not consistent with sound Biblical historical research.

The Bible was written by about forty people over the course of fifteen hundred years who were inspired by God. It begins with books written by Moses fourteen hundred years before Christ. The New Testament Gospels were written by people who personally knew Jesus and were witnesses to His ministry.  All the books collected together are a history of God's revelation to His people. They all form a cohesive story.

The Bible is most reliable document in all of antiquity. We have much greater evidence of its reliability than any of the ancient Greek documents. Take Aristotle. He was writing in the 4th century BC. The earliest copies we have of his work are from 1000 years later. The New Testament scriptures were written in the first century AD, while there were living eye witnesses, and there exist manuscripts from one to two hundred years after they were written. Most other ancient documents that we assume valid, the copies we have were not only dated many more years after they were written, but there are only a few copies. The New Testament we have thousands of manuscripts. As for the Old Testament there was a discovery in 1948 of ancient documents called the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are over 2000 years old and were untouched from that time being buried in a cave. Among them is a scroll of the book of Isaiah that was found to be exactly the same as the one we have today. The historical evidence is overwhelming in favor of the reliability of these documents.

In addition, Archeologist have been hard at work in the last two hundred years and they are continually discovering new archeological confirmation of the history documented in the Bible. Some historians thought the kingdom of David was a legend. But recently they have discovered a reference to the house of David engraved on a 3000 year old stone column in the Middle East. Another example is the people called Hittites who are mentioned in the Bible more than fifty times. Until the 19th century there was no historical or archeological evidence that these people existed. In 1876 in Turkey archeologist discovered a number of artifacts that included a storeroom with ten thousand clay tablets. It turns out this site must have been the capital of the Hittite Empire. Today there is no longer any question about the reality of their existence by Biblical scholars.

The idea that the Bible has been changed over time or has recorded only mythical stories is totally false.  Even though there are some things that we still do not have historical evidence, we can see from the progressive unveiling of archeological evidence that this does not mean they did not take place historically. Of all ancient documents, the Bible is the most reliable we know.  It has been carefully reproduced in a way to avoid any significant change.

We cannot let doubters discourage us. What is central to our Christian faith is our belief in Jesus who was sent to renew mankind, to free us from our sinful condition separated from God.  He came not as a super human being, but as person both God and fully human. He took on flesh from a virgin. He showed us the way by His teaching, His miracles, and finally His voluntary death by Crucifixion at the hand of the Romans followed three days latter by his Resurrection. Then forty days after this He ascended in to heaven after instructing His disciples and within ten days sent to them the Holy Spirit which transformed them allowing them, against constant threat of death, to teach the good news about His Resurrection, His victory over death, and establish churches where the sacramental life could be practiced by all peoples for their salvation. We may not want to believe in the story of Noah and the great flood, although there is historical evidence of a world wide flood eight or ten thousand years ago, We should not let this distract us from the central truth of our faith, which is Jesus Christ. Our faith is not dependent to Noah building an ark but it does depend on the divinity of Jesus and His Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension to heaven and sending the Holy Spirit establishing His Church. For this the record of how it happened is well documented.

Reference: The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? by F. F. Bruce

Monday, January 19, 2015

Meaning of the Cross



LEARN, MY BRETHREN WHAT is the meaning of the sign of the Cross. When we put our hand on [our] head, it reveals God who is in the sky. When we put it over [our] navel, it reveals that he descended to earth and became incarnate. When we put [our] hand on the right breast, it reveals that he is just and eternal and that he will place the just on his right hand. And when we put it on [our] left side, it reveals that he will judge all the nations and they will stand on his left side and he will put them into hell. The holy Cross, my brethren, is the wellspring of the whole earth. The holy Cross blesses the entire world, all that is divine and holy in the churches. The Cross blesses the Divine Liturgy and every service. The Cross blesses the saints. The Cross blesses and strengthens baptism. The Cross blesses couples. The Cross chases away demons who flee like lightning. The Cross is a bright weapon, and whoever makes the sign of the Cross is illuminated and is blessed. It is like a double-edged sword to which the demons don't draw near to urge people to commit sin. Wherever a person sets out to travel, he should first make the sign of the Cross and say the prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ." Whether you go to the fair or to the field, or to the vineyard, or when you eat bread or fruit, or drink wine or water, when you go to sleep, worship God. Make the sign of the Cross over your body and then lie down to sleep. You will then sleep and will rise in the morning strong and happy. So, my brethren, you have understood and now know.

By Saint Kosmas the Aitolos

Let no man therefore be ashamed of the honored symbols of our salvation, and of the chiefest of all good things, whereby we even live, and whereby we are; but as a crown, so let us bear about the cross of Christ. Yea, for by it all things are wrought, that are wrought among us. When one is  new-born, the cross is there; or to be nourished with the mystical food, or to be ordained, or to do anything else, everywhere our symbol of victory is present. Therefore both on house and walls, and windows, and upon our forehead, and upon our mind, we inscribe it with much care. For of the salvation wrought for us, and of our common freedom, and of the goodness or our Lord, this is the sign...not merely by the fingers ought one engrave it, but before this by the purpose of the heart with much faith. And if in this way thou hast marked it on thy face, none of the unclean spirits will be able to stand near thee, seeing the blade whereby he received his wound, seeing the sword which gave him his mortal stroke. 

By Saint john Chrysostom
(Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, P. Shaff, ed., vol x, pp 335-36)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God

In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead? Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a “God” to explain the universe. Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature. More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself. Here’s the story: The same year Time featured the now-famous headline, the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 21 zeros—planets capable of supporting life. With such spectacular odds, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network for signals that resembled coded intelligence and were not merely random. But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening. Congress defunded SETI in 1993, but the search continues with private funds. As of 2014, researches have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing. What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting. Even SETI proponents acknowledged the problem. Peter Schenkel wrote in a 2006 piece for Skeptical Inquirer magazine: “In light of new findings and insights, it seems appropriate to put excessive euphoria to rest . . . . We should quietly admit that the early estimates . . . may no longer be tenable.” As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here. Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing. Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being? There’s more. The fine-tuning necessary for life to exist on a planet is nothing compared with the fine-tuning required for the universe to exist at all. For example, astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the “strong” and “weak” nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang. Alter any one value and the universe could not exist. For instance, if the ratio between the nuclear strong force and the electromagnetic force had been off by the tiniest fraction of the tiniest fraction—by even one part in 100,000,000,000,000,000—then no stars could have ever formed at all. Feel free to gulp. Multiply that single parameter by all the other necessary conditions, and the odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all “just happened” defies common sense. It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row. Really? Fred Hoyle, the astronomer who coined the term “big bang,” said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that “a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.” Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that “the appearance of design is overwhelming” and Oxford professor Dr. John Lennox has said “the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator . . . gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.” The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself. 
By Eric Metaxas

Mr. Metaxas is the author, most recently, of “Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life” ( Dutton Adult, 2014).

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas


Merry Christmas


Christmas Homily of St. Isaac the Syrian

This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world; 
So let no one threaten;
This is the night of the Most Gentle One - Let no one be cruel;
This is the night of the Humble One - Let no one be proud.
Now is the day of joy - Let us not revenge;
Now is the day of Good Will -Let us not be mean.
In this Day of Peace -Let us not be conquered by anger.
Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake; 
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.
Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask; 
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.
This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers; 
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.
Today the DIVINE BEING took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of DIVINITY.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Reflection



St. Ephrem the Syrian writes, “The Lord of David and Son of David hid His glory in swaddling clothes. His swaddling clothes gave a robe of glory to human beings.” This week we celebrate this most incredible event where God becomes man and yet is still God. He came in a most humble way delivered in a stable and wrapped in simple clothing. Yet as Saint Ephrem says, this simple beginning gave to all mankind robe of glory. What is this robe of glory?

In today's world it is hard to focus on the true meaning of this mystical event with all the parties and the mad gift giving, the coming of Santa Clause and the unending football games on TV. We are distracted even more now by our cell phones, iPads and instant movies. We no longer complain about not having a television but not having one that is big enough. How do we make this event relevant this week?

When we think of this robe of glory that He gave us we must first think back to His nature and the way He was brought into the world. He came in humility and left this world in humility. His robe was not made of golden threads. His birth and subsequent life had noting to do with material well being. He lived with a pure heart, one that glorified God, one that shone for all to see.

We must begin our reflection on this day with total humility. We must admit our weaknesses, our ways that deviate from what He taught and demonstrated to us. We must acknowledge our pride and our desire to hide our dirty inner clothing with fancy outer clothing. We must admit that we do not have this robe of glory that He brought for all humankind. We must make ourselves feel His humility.

With this reflection we must also remember the unending and limitless love He has for all His children. Acknowledging His love for us we can be joyful that we are held in His loving and merciful arms. We can be joyful that we are so important to God and in our knowledge that He will do anything to guide us towards His perfection.  He holds for us a robe of glory.

Let us rejoice in this glory that awaits us. Let us recognize Jesus for Who He really is, God Incarnate. Let's lay aside all our doubts about God and His Church. Let us for a short moment try on that robe of glory. Let us experience His peace and love of all humankind.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come!  Glorify Him. Follow Him.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Becoming Watchful



Do you experience distractions when you try to pray? Do you ever wonder what is the cause of those actions you take that you wish you had not taken? Whether we are in prayer or involved in our daily activities we are misled by thoughts. To counteract this we need to learn the practice of Watchfulness.

What is watchfulness in our Orthodox tradition? It involves a continual guarding or the heart, the center of our soul, from all thoughts that lead us away from God. These thoughts are called "logismoi" in Greek. These are thoughts that mislead us or distract us in prayer. They are not like we normally think of thoughts, but are those that seem to come from nowhere. They are temptations intended to lead us astray. They are not the result of our rational process but come from outside us sent by the devil to lead us away from God.  They are not "our" thoughts. They are directed at "our" weaknesses, our passions, which lead us to sinful activity, away from God. When we sit down for prayer we intend to focus our full attention on God. But against our intention we are bombarded by thoughts that take us away from our prayer and concentration on God. They are coming from without with the intention of disrupting our prayer to keep us separated from God.

The Church Fathers describe differing ways how these work but in general they describe them beginning with an assault, a sneak attack. It may be a thought to get up and do something during prayer. It may be a thought to lash out in anger or to condemn another person. It may be a thought of envy or a desire to possess something that is not ours or we cannot afford. It could be any  number of things depending our our weaknesses.

After this initial assault then if we are not watchful we enter into a dialogue with this thought. We begin to consider how to respond as a result of this thought. This then is followed by a consent, we own the thought as our own and become prepared to act on it. This is when the sin is committed and we become a captive of the thought. 

After we respond to the thought, the next time a similar thought is encountered we are more likely to accept it as our own and respond. The temptation becomes stronger. We become a captive of the logismoi leading us to a bad habit that we call a passion.

If we are watchful what are we to do with these thoughts? IGNORE them! The church fathers tell us to simply ignore them. They are like flies that fly around and bother us. We need to brush them away. Watch them come and go without disturbing the mind. They will quickly disappear. We need to think of them as an unwanted salesman who knocks at our door. We do not let him in and do not have a dialogue with him. The same with these thoughts. Do not let them enter into your heart.

Since God demands our whole heart, mind and soul we need to be ever watchful of these temptation that come in the form of thoughts. They are not ours but sent to us to lead us away from God. So just like we are not obligated to let any stranger into our house, similarly we do not have to accept theses thoughts and let them into our minds or enter our heart. To become watchful we must seek God's help to develop this attentiveness and resistance. This is why it is so important for us to stand before God every morning and focus our full being towards Him and engage our mind in prayer focused on God alone.

In prayer we need to practice rejecting all thoughts and develop this mental discipline. To pray we must not be distracted by any worldly thoughts otherwise it is not prayer. To dialogue with God requires our full attention to Him alone.  One of the most powerful prayers is the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner." This is a complete prayer. The first part is a confession of faith in the divinity of Christ and the Holy Trinity. The second is a supplication acknowledging our fallen nature, our weakness, our sinfulness and our need to God's mercy.

By repeating this prayer over and over as part of our prayer rule, we learn to concentrate only on the words. In doing this, the prayer becomes a habit and will be with us at all times. It will be there when we receive the tempting thoughts and will help us immediately drive them away. This is a prayer that with practice will be with you the entire day, even while you are working. It will lead you to a life where you act as of God's children. It will enable you to become watchful.

Remember what our purpose is in this life. We are preparing for our Heavenly life to come. We should always be looking forward to the end of our earthly life and think of ourselves as training for this future, our life with God in Heaven. The Jesus prayer is not like yoga or Transcendental Meditation. It is based of the reality of a living relationship with God, the God who revealed Himself to us in His Incarnation, the God who humbled Himself to take on human flesh, to become fully man while yet remaining fully God. He Showed us the Way to become united with Him. He was Crucified, arose to sit at the right hand of the Father in Heaven and opened the gates of Paradise for those who choose to follow Him. This is quite different from Eastern ascetic practices that are centered on oneself and seek a stillness that is identified with an impersonal absolute. As Christians, God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. We strive to become like Him and out of our love for Him enter into a ongoing dialog with Him. This leads us to a mind that is ever focused not on stillness or emptiness, but on actions that carry out His will, actions that are without sin actions based on love. We are created in His likeness and image and out of his love for us and our love for Him we are destined to be united with Him in eternal life. Watchfulness is key to us realizing our potential. The Jesus Prayer coupled with a life of repentance and participation in the sacramental life of the Church helps us gain the grace of God that enables us to become like Him.

For more on the Jesus prayer go to the website OrthodoxPrayer.org 

Reference: The Hidden Man of the Heart, Archimandrite Zacharias

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mystery of the Heart


When you read in Scripture, the Kingdom of God is within us (Lk 17:21), what does this mean to you? The Church Fathers refer to this place within also as the "Heart." It is in this place that God has fashioned that God abides so He can manifest Himself through each person. The role of the Church is to help us discover this deep place of the "Heart" that is also the center of our soul.

It is the place within where we wage a battle for our salvation. This is the target of all our ascetic efforts.  We want it to be made pure. Jesus has told us that the pure of Heart will see God. As we seek to become united with God, to overcome our sinfulness, we desire that our soul, its "Heart" be ignited by His grace.

Jesus told us, You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Matt 12:30) So, what does this mean? Saint Gregory Palamas says the heart is the body of our body, a place where our whole being becomes like a knot. When our mind and heart are united we have only one thought––the thought of God. All of our desire is focused on God. When we give our whole mind, our whole heart to God we are totally focused on Him. In this stance we receive His grace and are given the ability to do His will. In this way we attain what Apostle Paul meant when he said that Christ is formed in us (Gal 4:19).  We become whole and are perfected.

We can never wholly contain God in our heart as He is infinite, something greater than our heart. He makes it a dwelling place, a temple of His divinity reflecting His image in us. When our whole heart and mind are turned to God we become holy, enlightened, "the light of the world." It is in this way that God directs our life, fulfilling the purpose He has for us.

Reflect on the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus told His disciple the following:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In this same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
We want to purify our heart so that is shines, becomes a great light, enabling us to take action in the world in a way that glorifies God, that encourages others to purify their hearts and to seek God with their whole heart and mind and soul. In this way the whole world can become a great light.

What is it that keeps us from becoming this light that Jesus speaks about? Our reality is that we are not able to give our whole heart and mind to God but instead are distracted by our passions, our earthly desires. We are not living with a focus on the "Heart" but on the things of this created world siphoning our attention away from God. Because of our fallen nature we have within us also the tendency to sin. As Paul says, "all have sinned and  come short of the Glory of God." (Rom 3:23)

How are we to proceed? We must do as the prodigal son, recognize our condition and seek to return to our father's house which is within. We must uproot our sinful tendencies so that God's commandments will become alive in our heart instead of our passions and worldly desires.

This is a path of return that is difficult. There is only one way and that is to master our situation with God's help so we can follow the divine commandments. Archimandrite Zacharias writes, 
There is no greater misfortune than that of an insensible and verified heart that is unable to distinguish between the luminous Way of God's Providence and the gloomy confusion of the ways of the world."
Difficult, yes, but we know it is possible. We have an all powerful ally, God.  His aim is for our "Heart" to become His temple.  He says to us, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock: If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me? (Rev 3"20). When we knock and the  door is opened we discover the greatest of miracles. Our heart becomes united with the Holy Spirit. With an open "Heart" we can unify our mind with our heart and God will fill His Kingdom within us with His full goodness.

For this to happen God must first be able to converse with us. We must be capable of hearing Him and willing to surrender our will to His direction.  In this way God can become the sole focus of our life. We must learn to develop an intimate relationship with Him so we can have an ongoing dialogue with Him

What gets in the way? It's our pride, our self-centeredness. We fail to see the larger picture and see our death as the end of everything that gives us pleasure. We become fearful and sinful seeking to satisfy our own needs. We are stuck until we can come to terms with the reality of our situation, just like the prodigal son before he was able to return to his father. We must say what the he said, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you and am no more worthy to be called your son. (Luke 15:19-19) In this way we are humbled. We discover how poorly we live by His commandments, how distant we are from Him. We see clearly our self-centeredness, our selfishness and pride. We become sorry for our condition and seek His help to return. From this realization we are motivated to make changes in our attitude and orientation toward life and God. We begin a long journey of purification where we liberate our "Heart" from all the bodily passions. In cooperation with Grace we will finally be able to surrender our whole being to Him, to commit our whole heart, our whole mind, and our whole soul to Him. We will discover the "Kingdom within."

Reference: The Hidden Man of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias