Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Allergic Reactions and the Spiritual Life

I went to a wedding last weekend,* and they gave out chocolates with nuts in them.  I love chocolate, and apparently nuts are pretty good too.  But I'm allergic to nuts, and so I must forego the apparently heavenly combination.  No matter how exquisite and delicious the chocolate might be, I can't have them, and I certainly don't want to have them, because the pleasure will only last a few seconds, and then I will start getting a reaction and potentially die.

Watching everyone around me eat the chocolates made me reflect on the spiritual life.  I should look at an opportunity for sin in the same way I look at chocolate with nuts.  No matter how pleasurable the experience might be, it is fleeting, and is certainly not worth engaging in when it will only bring death to my soul.  I am not tempted by chocolates with nuts because the reality of death is always before me.  I wish I were just as realistic when I am tempted to sin.

*I didn't actually go to a wedding last weekend, but I did when I was writing this post, which has been a draft since October.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Reflections on being Woman of Steel

Hello my beloved blog readers!  Here is a blogpost that I've had saved as a draft for quite a while, and I owe you something don't I?  Better late than never!

Back in November I broke my right hip in a freak accident at the gym.  And now I am part steel.  When I was at the hospital, I was happy to be hurt.  Now I understand why Christ urges people to visit the sick.  Seeing people, getting calls and texts, was so uplifting.

There were certainly some negatives to the experience, which included people needing to understand exactly how it happened.  I didn't mind saying oh it was an accident at the gym while using the leg press, but when people wanted to know exactly how it happened, I had to reenact the whole thing in my head again and again which was just a stressful memory.  Throw in the fact that most people didn't even know what a leg press was yet still insisted on understanding the exact nature of the fracture, it was super annoying.  So I think I'll use this rule of thumb the next time I visit a sick person: find out from someone else what happened if I'm curious, or just ask very general questions.

What pissed me off the most, though, was people trying to give me advice, and it usually came from people 1,000 times less fit than me.  "Be careful next time!" "Don't push yourself so hard!" "Obviously you have no idea what you're doing at the gym."  Did they really think that they felt worse about it than I did?  So another thing I learned is: don't try to give advice to a sick person, especially if you have no idea what they are experiencing.  Give comfort, not advice.

I also thought it was pretty morbid when people would compliment me on my figure and tell me I lost weight.  "Wow, being hospitalized for a week and getting surgery and constantly throwing up and having no appetite and having extreme muscle atrophy in your leg really did you good!"  Um, thanks?  O2belkom?  Especially considering I wasn't fat and didn't need to lose weight.  Maybe people just forgot how I looked before.  Regardless, they were morbid comments that probably reflected our society's obsession with being skinny--the mentality that being skinny is a positive end in and of itself, regardless of whether the person used a healthy means to attain it.   Even if I were obese, even if losing weight from a hip fracture brought me down to a normal weight, I do not think telling someone they look great is an appropriate comment to make under such circumstances.

But other than the less-than-wise words of a few people, this has been a beautiful experience.  I've always been healthy and have never been hurt, so I've never been hospitalized for extended periods of time.  I always thought if someone is sick, they must want to rest and have peace and quiet.  I thought visitors must be annoying, and constant calls and texts tiring.  But I found, for me, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The care of everyone, from relatives to a distant acquaintance, is a beautiful memory that I will always carry with me, even now that I am healed.  The love I was given made despair seem like a silly thought.  It would have been easy to get frustrated and feel like a burden, not being able to do the most simple things on my own and needing to constantly ask for help, and not being able to go back to the gym for months on end (which was my sanctuary), but when everyone around me was just happy that I was alive and healing, it brought me back to reality and what really matters. It felt like the words of Christ, "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:7) My whole family and my whole church were rejoicing over one person getting better and walking again.

What probably made it even more sweet was that the reach out was always personal.  I permanently deleted my facebook a few months before I got hurt, and I think if I had facebook I might have gotten many facebook messages or wall posts, but wouldn't have appreciated it as much as the visits, the phone calls, the texts, the emails.

This experience has truly deepened and matured me, and I think God used this accident as an opportunity to teach me many lessons I was overlooking.

I used to be super fitness girl, my motto was "your body is the only place you have to live."  Which is true, we are human beings, not incorporeal angels or ghosts in machines, and our bodies aren't just transport systems for our brains, they are part of our very being and affect our wellness in so many ways.  We have to take care of this temple God has given us to live in.  But everything needs balance, and I was starting to get out of balance.  I used the gym as an escape from life, where I could just leave all my problems at the door and just focus on me against the iron, which was very fulfilling, but it was really an illusion of fulfillment, and I was neglecting my other, more important talents.

With this injury, my movement was so limited because of the injury itself and because of precautions post-surgery, that I might as well have been paralyzed.  The old Martha was so used to moving around and being capable of anything, so being bedridden for the first couple of weeks was torture, but eventually I came to terms with it, and I read so many books.  This experience has solidified the reality that the body is temporal no matter what you do and that I must focus on developing my mind, and my main talent, critical thinking.  It has strengthened my desire to be a teacher because my mind will be the only thing I have to give to my children and students, and will be the most important way I can influence them.

Soon enough I will be back to my iron pounding ways, but now it will be a much more solemn experience. A healthy body functions best when it is subject to a healthy spirit.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

What I Am Thankful For

What I am most thankful for today are my problems.  I guess today I realized that if it weren't for my problems, I wouldn't be so close to God.  I mean the sins and wrong ways of thinking and acting that I've dealt with my whole life.  The things about me that make me feel like shit when I reflect on myself, are the very things that have forced me to cling to God, to my only aid; the things that make my emptiness and nothingness so apparent to me that I can't do anything but run to fill myself with Him.

I think about what my life would be like if I didn't have the struggles that I do.  I used to always think, wow, life would be so much better, I would be such a better person.  But I don't know if I would have the relationship with God that I have now, and it is only that that makes me who I am.

Today, I thank God for my crappiness, and for Him bringing me closer to Him by means of them.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Timeless Tale

I'm someone who is really prone to despair and depression, which is to say that I very easily lose sight of God and prefer to look inward at my weakness rather than upward at His strength. When I'm at my worst, I pick up The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius. Needless to say, this is one of the few books that has drastically changed my life and the way I understand things, and it cannot be re-read enough times. I honestly have no idea why, but reading the life of such a saintly being just brings my spirits up to heaven like no other. I read it for the first time six years ago. I have found no other remedy for my depressive tendencies.

There is one account in particular that always has the same effect on me every time I read it. It is a story of one of his many encounters with the devil, and when I read it, no matter what state of despair I am in, it all fades away. It is as if his love and faith in God are so unshakable that in a moment, he can carry ten thousand weak spirits like my own on his shoulders and bring all of us up toward the love of Christ.

This account is the exact antithesis of self-obsession and despair:
Girding himself in this way, Antony went out to the tombs that were situated some distance from the village. He charged one of his friends to supply him periodically with bread, and he entered one of the tombs and remained alone within, his friend having closed the door on him. When the enemy could stand it no longer--for he was apprehensive that Antony might before long fill the desert with the discipline--approaching one night with a multitude of demons he whipped him with such force that he lay on the earth, speechless from the tortures. He contended that the pains were so severe as to lead one to say that the blows could not have been delivered by humans, since they caused such agony. But by God's providence (for the Lord does not overlook those who place their hope in him), the friend came the next day bringing him the loaves. Opening the door and seeing him lying, as if dead, on the ground, he picked him up and carried him to the Lord's house in the village, and laid him on earth. And many of his relatives and the people of the village stationed themselves by Antony as beside a corpse. But around midnight, coming to his senses and wakening, Antony, as he saw everyone sleeping, and only his friend keeping the watch, beckoned to him and asked him to lift him again and carry him to the tombs, waking no one. 
So he was taken back there by the man and, as before, the door was closed. Again he was alone inside. Because of the blows he was not strong enough to stand, but he prayed while lying down. And after the prayer he yelled out: "Here I am--Antony! I do not run from your blows, for even if you give me more, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ." Then he also sang, "Though an army should set itself in array against me, my heart shall not be afraid." These things, then, the ascetic thought and spoke, but the enemy who despises good, astonished that even after the blows he had received he dared to return, summoned his dogs and said, exploding with rage, "You see that we failed to stop this man with a spirit of fornication or with lashes. Far from it--he is even insolent to us. Let us approach him in another way." Now schemes for working evil come easily to the devil, so when it was nighttime, they made such a crashing noise that that whole place seemed to be shaken by a quake. The demons, as if breaking through the building's four walls, and seeming to enter through them, were changed into the forms of beasts and reptiles. The place immediately was filled with appearances of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, and serpents, asps, scorpions, wolves, and each of these moved in accordance with its form. The lion roared, wanting to spring at him; the bull seemed intent on goring; the creeping snake did not quite reach him; the onrushing wolf made straight for him--and altogether the sounds of all the creatures that appeared were terrible, and their ragings were fierce. Struck and wounded by them, Antony's body was subject to yet more pain. But unmoved and even more watchful in his soul he lay there, and he groaned because of the pain felt in his body, but being in control of his thoughts and as if mocking them, he said: "If there were some power among you, it would have been enough for only one of you to come. But since the Lord has broken your strength, you attempt to terrify me by any means with the mob; it is a mark of your weakness that you mimic the shapes of irrational beasts." And again with boldness he said, "If you are able, and you did receive authority over me, don't hold back, but attack. But if you are unable, why, when it is vain, do you disturb me? For faith in our Lord is for us a seal and a wall of protection." So after trying many strategies, they gnashed their teeth because of him, for they made fools not of him, but of themselves. 
In this circumstance also the Lord did not forget the wrestling of Antony, but came to his aid. For when he looked up he saw the roof being opened, as it seemed, and a certain beam of light descending toward him. Suddenly the demons vanished from view, the pain of his body ceased instantly, and the building was once more intact. Aware of the assistance and both breathing more easily and relieved from the sufferings, Antony entreated the vision that appeared, saying, "Where were you? Why didn't you appear in the beginning, so that you could stop my distresses?" And a voice came to him: "I was here, Antony, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now, since you persevered and were not defeated, I will be your helper forever, and I will make you famous everywhere." On hearing this, he stood up and prayed, and he was so strengthened that he felt that his body contained more might than before. And he was about thirty-five years old at that time.

The entire book is extremely short, 94 paragraphs in all, and extremely readable. St. Athanasius was a brilliant writer and biographer.

The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius can be read online or downloaded as a pdf from here:
 - http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xvi.ii.i.html

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Seeing Christ in Pop Culture

Samuel Kaldas, a philosophy and history dual major at the University of Sydney, and one of my favorite Coptic bloggers, wrote an excellent 3-part series on being able to see Christ in the secular world, even in secular songs and movies.  Below I will provide some of my favorite excerpts from the series.  The link to the original series on his blog is at the bottom.

Part 1: "What do the church fathers say?"
Sam, of course, roots his opinion in the thought of the early church fathers. In part 1, he gives an overview of what various champions of our faith have to say about reading and quoting secular authors. At the end, he also gives links to their original writings on this issue. Some excerpts from part 1:
For the fathers, the Scriptures were the only source of full and complete knowledge about God’s salvation (as far as that knowledge is expressible in human language). But they also believed that God’s grace and truth flowed out upon the whole world, and that righteous pagans had apprehended the truth of Christ partially and incompletely. 
For St. Basil (as for St. Clement), the pagan writers can be a helpful and godly source of spiritual instruction, so long as they are always perceived as imperfect mirrors of the truths contained fully in the Scriptures 
For St. Justin Martyr, the goodness which the pagan authors apprehended was none other than Christ Himself (for what other source of goodness is there?): “… whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word. 
St. Clement says, “I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault.” (Stromata 1.9) Seeing Christ in all things is a powerful testimony to the robustness and universality of Christ; a worthy work of praise and instruction for any believers who choose to undertake it. 
In short then, the attitude to secular literature found in the fathers discussed above is this:
1 – Because God’s grace fills the whole world, secular literature reflects (imperfectly) the truths held by the Church.
2 – Those who are able are not only permitted, but encouraged, to study secular works and draw out the divine truths therein as a sort of ‘practice’ for learning and living the truths of Scripture.
Part 2: "Why should servants bother?"
Even though we know the church fathers' approved of seeing Christ in the works of secular writers, why should we bother trying to analyze when we already have the Scriptures? Sam addresses this concern in part 2. Some excerpts:
One of the most important reasons is for the work of evangelism. It would be a mistake to think that the only proper targets for evangelism are people outside the Church. Evangelism means taking the Gospel to places where it is not, and that is something which we often have to do among cradle Orthodox as well as to non-Christians. No-one is ‘born Christian.’ It’s not hard to tell that we are losing large numbers of youth who grew up as churchgoing children ... at least part of the problem is that there is a disconnect between Western youth culture and the culture prevalent in immigrant Orthodox Churches. ... The use of secular culture is an important part of breaking down cultural barriers in evangelism. 
St. Paul became a Greek to the Greeks; I think we should become youth to the youth. Part of that process is finding the reflections of Christ which already exist in their world, and identifying them with Christ.
Part 3: "The One whom you worship without knowing"
In the last, and my favorite, part of the series, Sam starts giving practical examples of seeing Christ in pop culture, and continues his argument on how beneficial and albeit it necessary it is to train ourselves with this mindset.  Some excerpts:
The purpose of drawing out the Christian truths reflected in popular culture is to proclaim to anyone who enjoys it ‘the One whom they worship without knowing.’ 
There are few people nowadays who cannot point to a favourite movie or novel; we should never underestimate the power (and the sheer, humble honesty) of acknowledging that even though a work might not be produced by the Church, it still reflects Christ Himself in its own way. And maybe, just maybe, the things which a person loves about that work, are features of Christ Himself.
Common structure of movies that mirror the Christian story of salvation:
  1. The Ordinary World: the hero’s homeland, where all is well. (Eden)
  2. Call to Adventure: the ordinary world is threatened by an evil force. (‘Death enters into the world by the envy of the Devil’)
  3. The Journey: the hero embarks on a quest to save what is threatened; he encounters many trials along the way. (The Incarnation)
  4. The Trial: the hero makes a terrible sacrifice or comes into extreme personal danger at the hands of the enemy. All seems lost. (The Cross)
  5. Resurrection: the hero’s sacrifice pays off. He is not killed, but ‘rises’ with new and greater power to defeat the evil force. (The Resurrection of Christ and the founding of the Church on His Blood)
  6. Return: the evil force is defeated and the hero returns to his homeland (the Second Coming and Heaven)
The key is always that the hero, whom we’ve grown to love and admire, gives themselves over to death; destroying the enemy’s power by their sacrifice.
(Can be seen in The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, the Batman series, etc whatever else you can think of)
It is not a coincidence that our popular culture, so full of meaningless violence and crudity, still reveals an inescapable obsession with the idea that powerful evil can only be overcome with heroic sacrifice
we should not call this mere coincidence; we should rejoice that for all its failings, our popular culture still retains an ancient memory of the Christ-like hero
Church servants simply cannot tell them to stop reading silly books and pick up an Agpia. They cannot, because to do so would be to ignore and belittle their apprehension of a genuine truth. ... Once they have made the connection between the nobility, courage and truth they apprehend in their favourite works of fiction and the nobility, courage and truth of the living Christ, we will have trouble keeping them away from their Agpias, and from serving Christ the Conquering Hero
For some, the use of popular culture in youth ministry might seem dangerous and unnecessary. But it’s certainly equally dangerous to assume that our youth are incapable of discernment and treat them like babies. ... To do effective youth ministry, we need to find a balance between warning against the dangers and pitfalls of popular culture, and highlighting the good elements contained in it.

Here is the link to the full series on his blog, just 3 of his many awesome posts:
 - http://gloryandrubbish.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/seeing-christ-in-pop-culture-part-1-the-church-fathers/

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Coptic New Year and 9/11

Today is remembered for two iconic reasons, one from 1,730 years ago, and one from 12 years ago, but both as a result of evil being done to the innocent.

1,730 years ago, during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian Christians were persecuted and martyred for carrying the name of Christ.  The persecution was so severe that the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches decided to mark 283 AD as the year of the martyrs, and to restart our calendar to honor the martyrs that gave their lives for our faith.  For many Orthodox Christians, today is Tute 1, 1730 AM (Ano Martyrum).

But for the vast majority of Americans, today is remembered for a different reason, when our country and our citizens were attacked in cold blood.

Recently I listened to a wonderful podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko (linked at the end of this post) which he gave two years ago on the anniversary of 9/11.  In it he explains evil in the Old Testament and how it is properly understood, God's providential plan that includes evil, how we as Christians should "react" in response to it (namely, repenting, doing good, and trying to win the hearts of our enemies), and that we should not demonize these terrorists as if they were sheer and evil, nor act as if we as a nation are purely innocent and good.

I think this podcast is extremely helpful and is on a topic that is essential for Christians to understand.  No summary I give could possibly do this podcast justice, but I will share some paraphrasing below.  In fact, do not read further than this if you do not plan on listening to the podcast yourself, because you will not be able to fully understand his explanation.

On God's participation in evil:
God is not the cause of evil, human beings and demons are, but God created the world knowing that there would be evil and suffering.  Greco-latin Christian theologians use words like “permits” or “allows” when explaining God’s hand in evil, but the Bible does not speak that way; Scripture teaches that God ultimately causes everything because He created human beings knowing what they would do. 
St. John of Damascus makes an important distinction for us: metaphysically and ontologically God does not cause nor will any evil, but God providentially did will a world in which there would be evil, God willed the world as it is now because He created it knowing that all of these evils would occur.  It is clearly the teaching of the Scripture that it is God who is behind everything; God uses and manipulates the evils of men in a way that would ultimately be for the salvation and good of those who ultimately want good.  There is a providential plan that includes evil, and God is directing that plan. 
In the scriptures God very often uses evildoers and allows them to go through with their evil for purposes of His own, and those are purposes that are ultimately always good and merciful.   He uses evil doers so that people can learn, change, and repent, and overcome their own evils, so that they can see their own place in the evils of humanity that actually exist. 
What are we to see in this? What are we to learn from this?
We have to have the courage to ask these kinds of questions.  When the three youth were thrown into the fiery furnace because they would not worship the idols, Shadrach sang, “Thou art just O God in all that Thou hast done for us.  This has come upon us for our sins, You have permitted/allowed/sent these things to us because of our sins.”  That is the way a Christian would look at it.
On how we should view the terrorists:
We should ask other questions as well, why do these people hate us so much?  Why would these young guys go through all that trouble, learn to do all of those things?  You could say they are evildoers, they are brainwashed, they are in the hands of Satan, but on the other hand they are also God’s creatures.  They are our enemies, but we are commanded to love our enemies, and at least to try to understand our enemies. 
We have to ask the question, why is America so hated by so many people on the planet earth?  What is it about Americans' behavior that can cause people to act toward us the way they do? Maybe there is something in us that causes it.  Sure these people are madmen and evil, but one thing is for sure, that they are not cowards, and that they act on what they believe.  We have to ask ourselves the question, do we act on what we believe?  Why are they willing to blow themselves up?  Why are they willing to sacrifice themselves?  Is it just demonic, or is there some other failure, more common failure of humanity as a whole that has created the world as we know it today?
What a Christian should do:
There is still a question that no one can deny that we have to ask.  What should we do?  How should we behave? Not only to defend ourselves from evildoers, that is very important, but we have to ask the question, what can we do to change their minds?  What can we do to convert them so that they don’t feel so powerfully possessed to behave this way?  How can we witness to them that there is another way of living, a better way of living?  What can we do?  One thing is for sure, we are not going to do it with our porno films and our sex charged culture, we are not going to do it by the so-called American way of life the way we live it now, with vulgar materialism.  We are not going to do it with our carnal lifestyles.  We are not going to do it by greed and by power and by self-righteousness.  We are not going to do it by demeaning them and calling them names.  We are certainly not going to do it by our abortion centers and our own culture of death that we have in the western world. 
There is a deeper issue here:  how do we win the minds and the hearts of the people who hate us so much that they are willing to plan and connive and learn how to drive airplanes so that they can smash our country?  What can we do to change them? 
The first answer is, what can we do to change ourselves?  That would be what God will ask us.  All of these things have happened, how are you going to change yourself because they have happened?  What are you going to do about the fact that this has happened?  How are you going to act to prevent it from ever happening again?  Not only to defend yourself against it, but to create a world in which it would not happen, or at least it would be gravely minimized.  These are also the questions we have to ask on the anniversary of the terrorist attack of September 11.
This year, we have gained many more Egyptian martyrs for Christ.  We can learn the proper Christian response to evil and terrorism in the recent events that have occurred in Egypt.  All of those churches, houses, and stores of Christians were burned, but they did not retaliate and return evil for evil. And now everyone can see the true witness of Christians, truly loving their enemies, truly following the commands of Christ.  Even though the churches have not been rebuilt, the churches are already being glorified.

Here is the link to Fr. Thomas Hopko's podcast "Understanding Evil - 9/11 Remembered" - http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/hopko/understanding_evil_9_11_remembered

Please do yourself a favor and listen to it!  You will thank me forever!!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Preaching to non-Christians.

School starts today and we'll all be interacting with non-Christians everyday. I'm going to share what I've learned in my humble experience.

The only testimony any true Christian can give for her faith is in John 9.
He answered and said, “A Man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and I received sight.” 
So they again called the man who was blind, and said to him, “Give God the glory! We know that this Man is a sinner.”

He answered and said, “Whether He is a sinner or not I do not know. One thing I know: that though I was blind, now I see.”
I don't have God.  I don't have Him and I can't give Him to anyone no matter how hard I try. God gives Himself to those who truly seek Him and are ready to receive Him.  All I know, and all I will ever know, is that I was once blind, and now I can see.  My sight is not permanent.  Frequently I am blind, but when I wash my eyes of my pride as Christ told me to, I see again.  All I can give to anyone is an example of someone who cannot live without God and who hopefully keeps trying to see Him.

I can talk to you about my life as a Christian and I can tell you what I believe.  But if you want me to prove to you that God exists, or that my God is true, sorry, I can't. You'll have find out yourself.

To the non-Christians:
But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 4:29)

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

To the Christians:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

If you love Me, keep My commandments. (John 14:15)