The Spirit of God is Known by Fellowship

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In the New Testament the Holy Spirit is in an essential manner the Spirit of the “community” of Jesus, the “Church”. For the Holy Spirit is a spirit of fellowship, bringing individuals out of their isolation, making “one body” of them. To be sure, there is for the most part little evidence of this in our churches, a sign of how little the Holy Spirit is alive within them. As the fire is to be known by it brightness and warmth, so the Spirit of God is to be known by the fellowship it produces. And as fire kindles fire (what looks like fire but does not spread is probably only pyrotechnical display), so like kindled by the Holy Spirit must spread and ignite all with its burning. It was in this way that the Church of Jesus Christ spread….It is the Spirit’s way of working. The Holy Spirit is God at work now, redeeming, coming to us in the word concerning His Son, the “triune God.”

Emil Brunner

We are no surprise to God

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Taken from Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church Farrell, PA weekly bulletin, 2010

Confidence to Speak
(Jeremiah 1:4-10)

In almost every Christian’s life there have come doubts. Can I possibly witness to my neighbor? Can I teach Sunday School? Can I live the Christian life at work, where so many do not honor the Lord? Jeremiah knew the burden of doubt. But when he remembered who created him, his doubts were eased. From this passage we can learn some significant insights.

1. We are no surprise to God (v. 5). Jeremiah heard God say that He knew Jeremiah even before his birth. God had plans for Jeremiah’s life even before Jeremiah was born. So it is with our lives. God has plans for every person’s life. But each person has to respond by faith to God’s plan for his life. God does not manipulate us. He gives us freedom to say no to God. But when we say yes to God, He enables us to do things that astound us. Knowing that God has created us and has planned for us to accomplish things for Him should give us confidence that we can do all things in Him.

2. Our human limitations should not discourage us (v. 6). The truth is that all of us are limited in one way or another. One is old. One is young. One is blind. One is poorly educated.  All of us are limited. But limitations should not remove us from service to God. He is willing to use us if we are willing to be used. The secret is the willing heart. In a way we insult God by saying that we cannot do certain things. He can empower us over any obstacle. He will send us forth. He will give us the confidence we need. So do not be discouraged.

3. His words should be our words (v. 9). We have not business offering our opinions to the lost. We are to offer the good news to them – God’s Word. Our words have little effect in the lives of others. But God’s Word convicts. It correct and it instructs. We should pray before each witnessing encounter for God to give us His words so that the other person might hear Jesus in all that we say. Too many times we rely on our programs and our procedures in witnessing to others. The programs we use are helpful but should never take the place of confidence to speak the words of God, which comes to us as a result of having spent much time on our knees hearing His instruction.

Elder Paisios as He faced death

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H/T: Orthodox Way of Life (here)

After spending time with my Father who at 98 is coming to terms with his mortality, I began to wonder how some of our Church Fathers would provide counsel in such situations. I found this account of Elder Paisios as He faced terminal cancer.

–– Geronda, the final diagnosis has been made. Your tumor is cancerous and it’s aggressive.

–– Bring me a handkerchief so that I may dance to the song: “I bid farewell to you, O poor world!” I have never danced in my life, but now I will dance for joy as my death approaches.

–– Geronda, the doctor said that first he wants to use radiation to shrink the tumor and then do surgery.

–– I understand! First the air force will bombard the enemy, and then the attack will begin! I’ll go up then and bring you news! Some people, even the elderly, when told by the doctor, “You will die,” or “You have a fifty percent chance of surviving” get very distressed. They want to live. And then what? I wonder! Now, if someone is young, well , this is justifiable, but if someone is old and is still desperately trying to hang on, well, this I just don’t understand. Of course, it’s quite different if someone wants to undergo therapy in order to manage pain. He’s not interested in extending life; he only wants to make the pain somewhat more bearable so that he can take care of himself until he dies –– this does make sense.

–– Geronda, we are praying that God may give you an extension on your life.

–– Why? Doesn’t the Psalmist say, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten?”

–– But the Psalmist adds the following, “And if by reason of strength they be foreshore years…”

–– Yes, but he adds the following, “Yet is their strength labor and sorrow,” in which case it is better to have the peace of the other life.

–– Geronda, can someone, out of humility, feel spiritually unprepared for the other life and wish to live longer in order to get prepared?

–– This is a good thing, but how can he know that, even if he does live longer, he won’t become spiritually worse?

–– Geronda, when can we say that a person is reconciled with death?

–– When Christ lives inside him, then death is a joy. But one must not rejoice in dying just because he has become tired of this life. When you rejoice in death, in the proper sense, death goes away to find someone who’s scared! When you want to die, you don’t. Whoever lives the easy life is afraid of death because he is pleased with worldly life and doesn’t want to die. If people talk to him about death, he reacts with denial: “Get away from here!” However, whoever is suffering, whoever is in pain, sees death as a release and says, “What a pity, Charon has not yet come to take me… He must have been held up!”

Few are the people who welcome death. Most people have unfinished business and don’t want to die. But the Good God provides for each person to die when he is fully matured. In any case, a spiritual person, whether young or old, should be happy to live and be happy to die, but should never pursue death, for this is suicide.

For a person who is dead to worldly matters and has been spiritually resurrected, there is never any agony, fear or anxiety, for he awaits death with joy because he will be with Christ and delight in His presence. But he also rejoices in being alive, again because he is united with Christ even now and experiences a portion of the joy of Paradise here on earth and wonders whether there is a higher joy in Paradise than the one he feels on earth. Such people struggle with philotimo* and self-denial; and because they place death before themselves and remember it every single day, they prepare more spiritually, struggling daringly, and defeating vanity.
* A way of life expressed through acts of generosity and sacrifice without expecting anything in return.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Councils IV: Family Life, pp 274-276.

Your Life is Hidden

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Father Pat’s Pastoral Ponderings – October 19

If the true identity of Christ our Lord, his inner Person begotten of the Father, remains a mystery concealed from the world (John 14:22), something similar is also said rightly of those who put their hope in Christ, because they too are defined by their communion with the Father in Christ. They are known by God (John 10:14; 1 Corinthians 8:3; 13:12). To be sure, the world is able to look at Christians and label them for social and demographic purposes (Acts 11:26), but it does not really know them.

“You died,” wrote Paul to the Colossians, “and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). These Christians, whom the world can outwardly distinguish by remarking on peculiar cultural and social patterns, carry about in their lives, amid circumstances however humble, the only force available to mankind for the redemption and transformation of its history. On this earth the treasure of God is veiled and borne about in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). Like the clay pitchers of Gideon, the disciples of Christ convey the secret flame that must, in the end, force flight upon the Midianite.

Consequently, the coming of Christ at the end of time will reveal to the world, not only his own glory, but the glory of those who have hoped in him: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). Until that day when the inner meaning of history is manifest, it stays concealed except to the eyes of faith. “Beloved,” wrote the Apostle John, “now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when he is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (First John 3:2).

For Christians themselves, this truth implies practical applications of piety and a disciplined life. Both in John’s First Epistle and in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, the Christian hope of the final revelation of the believer leads promptly to the theme of holiness and personal purification. The Apostle John, immediately after the verse just cited, went on to say, “And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (3:3). Likewise the Apostle Paul, right after telling the Colossians that their hidden life in Christ will be revealed at his coming, exhorted those Christians to radical and strenuous moral and ascetical effort: “Therefore put to death your members that are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3:5). While they await the final revelation of glory, Christians quietly labor in the inner pursuit of that “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

This characteristic of “concealment” that marks the lives of Christians explains why the Church for many centuries has celebrated an annual Feast of All Saints. Quite simply there are more saints than even the Church can identify, because the inner holiness of most Christians is concealed even from the scrutiny of the Church. For example, we know that there were “many other women” (heterai pollai) who served and provided for Jesus “from their substance,” but only three of those women are named. And even of those three, we know nearly nothing (Luke 8:2-3).

Likewise, there were about one-hundred and twenty Christians waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit on the morning of Pentecost (Acts 1:15), but the Church herself preserved hardly more than a tithe of their names (1:13-14). Who were those unnamed believers on whom the Holy Spirit fell in the home of Cornelius (10:24,44)? And who were those widows that wept around the body of Dorcas (9:39)? The Church remembered Antipas as the first Christian martyr at Pergamos (Revelation 2:13), but who were those other early Christians at Smyrna and Philadelphia who suffered the same fate (2:10; The Martyrdom of Polycarp 19.1)?

Thus has it always been. The great majority of the saints have lived very hidden lives, their inner communion with God so quiet and concealed that only God knew it. Even those saints recognized by the Church in their own generation were often enough recognized for some trait distinct from personal holiness, such as preaching, pastoral ministry, or theological writings. Although all the saints lived in great loyalty to God, the overwhelming majority of them are beyond our ability to name. No matter. The Good Shepherd discerns who they are and calls them by name.

Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos

In anticipation of tomorrow’s feast, an old post.

Again and Again

For some time my brother in law had been looking for a job. He applied, had numerous interviews and, more than anything, spent much of his time waiting. These were difficult and stressful times for him and his young family: months and months of uncertainty. Despite the disappointments which each interview inevitably brought, he kept his faith. He prayed regularly and faithfully and quite fervently, convinced that his day was coming. Finally, glory be to God, it came and he was able to find a job. It was a good job, one in his own field which ended up taking him to the very center of the financial world: Wall Street. This meant that he had to move and as the move was sudden it found him a bit unprepared. In this new and bustling environment he had to quickly find a temporary place to stay before he got on…

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Protestants in Russia

H/T: Religion News Service (here)

With persecution now ended, Protestants in Russia sputter along, pastor says

Heidi Hall

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) A Russian pastor whose grandfather was killed for being a Christian toured the U.S. recently, studying church ministries and providing a rare, first-person look at Russia’s complex religious landscape after widespread persecution ended.During Victor Ignatenkov’s youth under the Soviet regime, Christians could meet only for worship.

No Sunday school.

No midweek Bible study.

And definitely no proselytizing.

Today, Ignatenkov, 59, said he’s free to lead whatever activities he wants as pastor of the Central Baptist Church in his hometown of Smolensk — a city situated between the capitals of Russia and Ukraine — and as regional bishop for the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptist. The union is a group of evangelical Protestant churches that began emerging in Russia about 150 years ago as an alternative to the Russian Orthodox establishment.

The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s International Peacemaker Program sponsored his U.S. journey, which included stops in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and several other states.

Ignatenkov, speaking through a translator, hedged on discussing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin helped resurrect the church, which the state once crushed. And though there is no state religion, the Orthodox Church receives preferential treatment.

“Putin can be of whatever confession he chooses,” Ignatenkov says. “What’s important to us, what we value, is that Putin as president holds a neutral stance. We do not experience governmental limitations because we are Baptist.”

Not all church leaders can say the same. The government refuses to recognize some religions, which means religious freedoms are limited. A U.S. State Department report last year slammed Russia for its treatment of minority religious groups, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals and Scientologists.

Members of those groups may be subject to arbitrary laws and denied access to places of worship or visas for visiting missionaries, the report said. Some face physical violence.

For denominations the government recognizes, perestroika, the political reform movement that began in the waning days of the Soviet Union, threw open doors to total religious freedom.

At first, Russians couldn’t get enough evangelical preaching, Ignatenkov said. They packed cultural centers for special services and snatched up free Bibles.

These days, Ignatenkov’s description of his countrymen sounds like the same one American evangelicals bemoan: People are indifferent.

“Probably because the quality of life is better,” Ignatenkov says. “Everything that had been forbidden was of course very interesting. It’s not forbidden, so of course it’s not interesting now.”

A Pew Research Center study of major religious groups in Russia confirms Ignatenkov’s observations on Russian interest in faith. Covering data from 1991-2008, it tracked a surge of interest in Protestant Christianity, Islam and Roman Catholicism that then leveled off. The share of Russians who attended church once a month rose from 2 percent in 1991 to 9 percent in 1998, then dropped to 7 percent a decade later.

Seventy-two percent of Russian adults identified as Orthodox Christians in 2008, the survey found, but that didn’t translate into church attendance.

At the same time, Pew figures show one-fifth of U.S. adults don’t identify with any religion. But Ignatenkov said he’s been impressed by church activities on his trip.

Ignatenkov spoke to a political science class at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., on Monday (Oct. 6) before heading back to Smolensk, with best-practices ideas to share with his church.

Trouble for Russian Christians began in 1937 under dictator Josef Stalin, Ignatenkov said. His grandfather, Pavel Gorbatenkov, reared six children in his Baptist faith, including Ignatenkov’s mother, Olga. With the pounding of soldiers’ fists on the door, they knew in an instant their happy, peaceful lives were over.

Gorbatenkov was imprisoned and denied visits with his family, who still brought food to the prison for two weeks. After that, the soldiers didn’t take the food, but they also didn’t tell the family Gorbatenkov had been shot — news that came years later.

The government began allowing limited worship in 1944.

Today, Russia’s constitution provides for religious freedom, but other laws, including one banning “extremism” and a new law on “offending the religious feelings of believers,” restrict religious freedom, particularly for members of minority religious groups.

Ignatenkov’s family history and ongoing issues with religious freedom in Russia raise the question of whether incidents reported by evangelicals in the U.S. can be called persecution.

In a recent Southern Baptist Convention blog post, an Arlington, Texas, mother wrote that her son was being persecuted after his high school teacher asked him to put away his Bible during independent reading time.

American evangelicals’ claims of persecution echo those of religious minorities such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who took cases to the Supreme Court in the 1940s to protect their religious freedom, observed James Hudnut-Beumler, professor of American religious history in Vanderbilt University’s divinity school.

But it’s a stretch to call what’s happening in America today persecution, particularly in comparison with Russia, Iraq or Syria, Hudnut-Beumler said.

“The U.S. is one of the most religion-friendly places on Earth,” he said.

After his experiences, Ignatenkov said he’d perhaps call U.S. Christians’ negative experiences “discrimination” over “persecution.”

Overall, he said, he was buoyed by America’s large, bustling churches “with rooms for everything.” He said he was most interested in examining churches’ social ministries — to homeless people, in prisons and elsewhere — and taking those lessons home.

He’d also like to duplicate cooperative efforts between governments and churches to provide faith-based services to Russians in need.

(Heidi Hall can be reached on Twitter @HeidiHallTN.)