Monday, September 7, 2020

People of the Book? Yes and No...

Fr. John administering the Oil of Chrism
to my Mother in 2014.
This Labor Day I’d like to honor the work of my late Pastor John Winfrey by reposting a blog he wrote years ago.  I can no longer find it on the Internet and this writing has had a profound impact on my life so I share it in hopes that it will bless you as well.

(By Fr. John Winfrey circa 2013)

I have heard many speak of Christianity as “people of the book”. The phrase, of course, comes from Islam’s reference to us in the earlier parts of the Qur’an. Over the centuries, there are many who have embraced that notion because everything was boiled down to the Bible alone in the 16th century. If it’s not in the Bible, then it can’t be true. We have all heard that sort of argumentation. But are the Muslims right about us? Are we really the people of the book?
Yes and no. Yes, the Scriptures are a very important part of who we are. It is one of the many ways through which Christ reveals himself to us. My patron Saint, John Chrysostom, encouraged everyone to read the Scriptures daily — this at a time when very few could possibly own their own copy because they were so expensive as they were all hand copied. The Scriptures do indeed form a part of our “daily bread.” But we, as Christians, are not created by the Bible. While the argument that Christianity is defined by the Bible, directed by it, and finds its reason for being in it, is something that is very attractive to some, it is not a complete understanding.
An image from the Gospel Book of Kells
As important as the Scriptures are, and they are, they were written after the day of Pentecost when theChurch was established. What establishes the Church is the life of the Holy Spirit, who is the third person of the Godhead as unique and complete as the Father and the Son. God the Holy Spirit is the one who is the source of the Church’s life. In fact, it is he who inspired those who wrote the Scriptures as well as those who selected what books would be contained in the Christian Scriptures (which only occurs in the mid-4th century).
The fact is that when we bring someone forward to be baptized, we don’t give them a Bible quiz to see if they know the Faith. We ask them to recite the Nicene Creed. The Creed can be supported by the Scriptures without a doubt. But even before we ask the candidate to recite the Creed, the priest blows into the candidate’s face showing the creative work of the Holy Spirit. (The word for spirit and breath are the same in Greek and Arabic.) Thus, it is only through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit that a person can profess the Creed. We ought not to be surprised by this for even the Scriptures say that no one can confess Christ as Lord without the Holy Spirit. In Baptism the Holy Spirit recreates us in the font and joins us to Christ, and then seals us in Chrismation. Yes, Scriptures are read in Baptism — a lot of it. But it is the Holy Spirit that makes us Christian. Even the name “Christian”, or “anointed one” refers to it; we are anointed by the Holy Spirit, changed into something entirely different.
Christianity is defined not by a book, or actually a collection of books in the Bible, but by the work of the person of the Holy Spirit. Christianity is essentially a relationship with the Living God, and even more, it is communion with the Holy Trinity being made a partaker in the life of Christ. To say we are “people of the book” denies this critical characteristic and it inclines us to think in terms of legalism.

If a book defines us, then we must learn the book in detail — like a case book of law — if we are to know who we are. We should be able to quote chapter and verse to counter everything around us. If a book defines us, then we are constrained to formalism and law. There is no joy in this because we are then merely subjects of a system of regulations.
But this is not the case, thank God! The Scriptures support us and they teach us, but not like a law. They become bread rather than legal prescript. Christians are “people of the Spirit,” if we really want to be exact.
Now, before I go too far, let me say that yes there are rules of precept in the Church. No, we don’t change the meaning of the Scripture, or say that the early Church understood things differently because they were trapped or not as enlightened or other such thing. We are faithful to what God has revealed in the Scriptures and do not alter one word of it. The rules we have are for our salvation, not as a matter of law. If someone disagrees with a rule, then the chances are he doesn’t understand its purpose and how it is applied. In these cases the only reasonable thing is to speak to one’s priest to resolve the question. One may also misunderstand the Faith and so misunderstand the rules of the Church. This is another reason why the priest should be consulted. It is silly and immature to not ask, especially if one decides to sulk and back off like a child whose feelings are hurt. Adults come forward and ask honestly, without anger or pugnacity, so they can actually clarify things. Priests also have to ask questions of those who are better informed on questions so there is no shame in doing this. It is part of being a human being, we don’t have all of the answers ourselves.
The Scriptures guide us into a deeper life in the Holy Spirit, since they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. They challenge us and comfort us. But they do so because of the Holy Spirit. You have all heard me commend the daily reading of Scriptures to you. I follow my patron Saint in this admonition and it is so easy for you to have your own copy to do this. You know that I find power in the Scriptures, but I must tell you that we are not people of the book. Never fall into that mindset. We are people of the Spirit, who is alive and a genuine person of the Trinity. We are filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit that we might live. He makes us something that we could never be. Saint Peter, the great apostle, wrote very clearly what we are, and it is not people of the book. He says:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)
Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures. Look for the face of Christ in the Old Testament. But never confuse looking at letters on a page with our purpose. Always remember our lives are found in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This blog of Fr. John's was copied and edited by me years ago.  It may not be perfectly intact or exactly what he posted.  I know I made some spelling and syntax corrections for sure, but beyond that I cannot remember.  I do believe it represents quite accurately what he was trying to communicate.  Praying it blesses many souls even in its imperfect form.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

A Gift that May Help You Meditate on Jesus

I've shared previously that years before I crossed the Bosphorus or the Tiber into the more universal strains of the Way of Jesus, I embraced an ancient technique that aided me greatly in meditating on the most important events in His life.  As part of that technique, Icons helped a lot both with maintaining focus and being drawn into beauty. However, at the time I was an Evangelical, and I was shocked to find myself praying the Holy Rosary with the aid of icons and enjoying it!  You can see more of that story by clicking here if you are curious.

Today I'd like to share a tiny development in my practice of praying these meditations daily.  I used to have a set of 5 icons on my car dash that helped me think of the 5 key events that the Church chose for us to collectively think about for that day.  I would switch it each day to the appropriate set of meditations (there is a logical sequence of 20 total key events), however, I found that this flimsy paper contraption got lost easily and more importantly, wasn't always with me so that I'd be able to pray it whenever I wanted as time allowed.

The next thing I started doing was recording the meditations and putting them on my iPhone.  If I couldn't take time to stop everything and pray, at least I could do it on the go which is better than not praying at all I suppose.  I've given up doing things perfectly and any connection with Jesus is better than none in my experience.  

I recorded them in the sing-song E major chant that I intone most of my prayers daily.  This just flows and works so much better for me and I find myself able to focus longer singing/chanting than just saying prayers.  Doing this I could listen and pray along with my bluetooth headset, which I have on me much of the day, or play them through my car audio system.

However,... I really missed the beautiful woodcut icons that I used to look at.  I missed not only the beauty of them but the way they sustained my attention.  So what to do?

Welp!... Hmmmm... 

[NOTE:  As some of you know, I obtained permission from the Christianica Center in Chicago who published the "Scriptural Rosary" booklet to use the icons from it freely to promote the saying of these prayers among Christians.  So I've been using them for prayer cards made to help both Protestants and Catholics think of Jesus and say a prayer.]

And then something clicked... wouldn't it be easy enough to add the icons as album art for the .mp3 file?  Turns out it was quite easy and it works great!  As I'm praying the Rosary meditations, the appropriate album cover art displays on my phone screen.  I find that very helpful and engaging.

So I'm giving them to you all.  I've done the version that Catholics have been using for centuries first.  That is in my singsong chant.  I recorded the version for Evangelicals with spoken prayer because in my experience chant was quite foreign to me when I was in that fold.

Now keep in mind that you'll have to be a tiny bit savvy on your phone (or tablet or computer) to make this work.  You'll first have to know how to put music on your device and get things in the order you like (I use playlists for this).  Have your kids or grandkids help you :D

A note about my chanting in E major.  It isn't for everyone and I'm no professional.  My journey through the Byzantine fold tends to make me chant faster than many would like (at times others have referred to it as a machine gun pace... it wasn't a compliment lol).  But if you can endure a few rounds of it, perhaps it would inspire you to make a version of your own, or at least download the icons themselves and use them while you say the Rosary at your own pace in your own voice.

Click here to go to the folder that contains all the Rosary sound files that include the icons.  Each of the four sets has six recordings, the introductory prayers are in number 0, the first key event (mystery) is number 1, etc. all the way to number 5.

Click here if you prefer to just use the Rosary icons as visual aids in your photos folder on your computer, tablet or phone.

Click here if you prefer to use the Evangelical version.  Each of the four sets has six recordings, the introductory prayers are in number 0, the first key event (mystery) is number 1, etc. all the way to number 5.

In this version instead of snippets of scripture like the Hail Mary prayer, I simply say "Let's pause to think of Jesus who embraced the Father's will in the garden for our sake", for example.  

Trust me, I do understand first hand how saying the scripture from the first chapter of Luke verses 28, 42 and 43 over and over can be unnerving to those uninitiated in meditation (see my post on "Un-Vain Repetition").  In the spiritual tradition of my childhood even thinking of Mary as the Mother of God except for at Christmas time was seen as odd.  So I am accommodating you that feel like I have felt about that and inviting you to meditate on Jesus without those portions of scripture inserted each time.  I think God is pleased when we think about Him and His Son and His Holy Spirit in a good light and so is Jesus' Momma Mary, for she ALWAYS leads people to Him and says, "Do whatever He tells you".

Click here if you prefer to simply use the meditation icons I customized for Evangelicals as visual aids alone.