Ask a Christian, Part III

Man and God - The Sistine Chapel by Michaelangelo

I’ve been taking all matters God with a really great group of guys online lately, and it got me in the mood to discuss and, hopefully, explain a few more questions and misconceptions I’ve gotten and been seeing about the faith. And so here we are with the third edition of Ask A Christian.

Hopefully you find this interesting, and even if you still think the faith wacky, well, at least you’ll be better informed.

Let me say first that a lot of these focus on the Bible, which is a difficult book for anyone, devout or otherwise. It’s a collection of several books written by people centuries apart, so misunderstandings about among the faithful and the not. So keep this in mind as we delve into some of these.

“Why do you feel guilt about everything and impose unearned guilt on everyone? That’s sadistic and cruel!”

Well then, it’s a good thing that this isn’t what we believe. Everyone isn’t “guilty.”

See, Christians, at least the Orthodox denomination, don’t believe in “original guilt.” Original sin–the disobedience to God and the fall of man–happened. Christ then redeemed mankind.

The distinction is that man’s nature is fallen. All of us live with the consequences of the fall of man, sure–old age, sickness, death, the darker sides of human nature in all of its manifestations– we are not guilty.

“You always cry ‘out of context!’ when confronted with verses you don’t like. What a disingenuous cop-out!”

Then stop flinging verses at us that you don’t understand yourselves.

This is a multi-layered issue, and could be a post itself. I’ll try to provide a condensed version:

  1. The Bible isn’t a book. It’s a library. It is a collection of different books written at different times by different people for different reasons. There is Gospel, prophecy, history, myth, poetry, wisdom, letters…so context is required for everything. Which leads into point 2.
  2. Not all Christians believe “sola scriptura,” the idea held by many Protestant denominations that the Bible is perfect and a closed book and that all we need to know, and in order to interpret it, is in there. Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, among other, denominations reject this. Even the Bible doesn’t indicate that scripture alone is the final word, which seems to invalidate the idea of sola scriptura, but I digress. I know I’ve opened a can of worms here, but like I said, this is condensed. So there is also tradition and practice, including that by the Apostles themselves. You know, those people who followed Jesus himself.
  3. The Bible, all of it, needs to be read many ways: literally, figuratively, scripturally, and so on. I’ve already written about how not all churches take the creation story literally, and 12th century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides explained in his Guide for the Perplexed that everyone knew, for example, that the Book of Job is a metaphor. So it’s far more layered than naysayers like to admit.

When those who are trying to disprove Christianity toss random verses around, they’re engaging in sola scriptura-type interpretation without knowing what they’re citing actually means. It’s like tossing out the middle of a random sentence without knowing the rest of the words surrounding it, or what the excerpt actually is trying to convey.

And if you’re upset that there seems to be “an answer for everything,” that’s what thousands of years of serious study and tradition will do. Or it could be that the book is true… Continue reading “Ask a Christian, Part III”

No One Can Do the Work For You

People want to be told what to do. This is a fact, despite our protestations to the contrary. Many of us crave leadership, reassurance, a direction.

But when when we get this, we resent the fact that we still have to do the work to get where we want to be.

Otherwise, we resent that we’re being led by the nose and micromanaged.

We’re a fickle species, aren’t we? Especially when it comes to the King of All Topics to Be Avoided: religion.

Me, I’m not a very good listener.

I had an interesting conversation the other night with two co-workers, one who is a Catholic and the other who had actually studied and trained to be a Catholic priest, but ended up not taking his vows.

The discussion was far-ranging, covering things like the nature of belief, why rituals and rites are important, where morality comes from, and the vital role played by tradition and study versus personal interpretations of Scripture.

But what I started thinking about after this conversation really got my mind abuzz.

One attack used by opponents of religion (though their ire strangely always seems focused only on Christianity…) is the idea that, if God were real, why would He allow any suffering on Earth? “Show us a sign, losers!” they demand, as though God is a puppet to dispense blessings, or a slot-machine that just the right prayer worded just the right way can force to give a winning spin.

Such a deity would be a puppet master, treating humanity the way that lots of pagan gods, from the Greeks to the Norse to the Egyptians did.

He would be telling us what to do…and make us do it.

Instead, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph, of Jesus and John, Peter and Mary and Paul lets us figure things out on our own. He may give leadership and guidance, but instead of fastening us with a leash, He opens the door and let’s us make our own ways through the wilds of the world.

Why is that?

I think a lot about how our interactions with others mirror God’s interactions with his creation. Even the Deists viewed him as a “Watchmaker,” so to speak, setting the machine in motion and hiding behind the scenes.

Think of God as a Father: The way He relates to us, his “children,” if you will, is a model of how we should relate to our own children as parents. Particularly the example of Jesus (“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”)

A good parent isn’t one who coddles their children. This ensures that the child will grow up to be a fearful and risk-averse adult, always appealing to authority for help, unable to make anything resembling an adult decision.

But what about being a teacher? It sounds kind of similar, doesn’t it?

Continue reading “No One Can Do the Work For You”

All About Greek Stuff

Getting praise for something you didn't do or have no control over seems hollow, and is both bewildering and annoying.

But enough about birthdays. I'm here to talk about ethnicity.

In case you couldn't tell from the picture at the top of this post, I am an American of 100% Greek descent. And while discussing our differences is a bit of a third-rail these days, Amatopia is all about exploring everything that life has to offer, sometimes with jokes. Sometimes the jokes are even funny.

So here we go. Your ethnicity is an unavoidable part of your life. To quote Mr. Frank Zappa–himself part Greek–you are what you is.

But your ethnicity is one of the many things about you that you have no control over. I didn't ask to be born tall, dark, and handsome. It just happened. Hell, I didn't even ask to be born. And I didn't ask to be born Greek.

Don't get me wrong: I love being Greek. And everyone should love what they are, or at the very least, not be ashamed of it.

This leads to my next point: Shame. It's a powerful tool that must be wielded carefully. In the right hands, it can inculcate beneficial beliefs and modes of behavior. In the wrong hands it can lead to mental and psychological anguish.

Take the concept of white guilt.

Where am I going with this? Am I going to get all racial here?

No. I have no patience for that stuff. But let me tell you something: there's a weird facet to being Greek:

My fellow Americans tend to react to it as though it's some kind of accomplishment to be admired, and that it's "cooler" than what they are.

It's bizarre! I'm like, "Oh, and what is your background? English? That's cool too! Polish? Rock on! Nigerian? More power to you!"

I don't see why being of a particular background is more worthy of praise than any other.

Some of it might have to do with the rarity of Greeks–there are only, what, a million of us in the U.S.? And we're relatively different from the other European groups that make up the country that I guess we're interesting? Maybe the history and cultural impact still holds sway in the national imagination?

I don't know. It's an interesting phenomenon.

But what I WOULD like to discuss are some aspects of being Greek in America. The two My Big Fat Greek Wedding movies have done a lot to highlight Greek culture in America, and thanks to Nia Vardalos, people know that Greeks have a sense of humor and laugh at ourselves. In fact, we tend to prefer laughing at ourselves over making fun of other groups of people.

And before her, we had John Stamos as Jesse Katsopolis on Full House, Telly Savalas on Kojak, and the movie Zorba the Greek, based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel of the same name.

So I am here to discuss with you, the non-Greek-American audience, some myths and misconceptions, as well as some of the more humorous parts, of being Greek in America. As you'll see, we're no different than anybody else.

We just have better food. Continue reading “All About Greek Stuff”

Ask a Christian, Part II

I had a classmate in school. She was part European and part Arab, and spent time growing up in both parts of the world. 

She was an atheist, and explained that the sectarian violence she saw while living in Lebanon had convinced her that there was nothing good whatsoever about religion.

During one section of our studies taught by a futurist–one of the most fascinating people I had ever met, actually–we were tying to gameplan how things may look 500, 100, and even 50 years from now.

I was in a group with this particular classmate, who predicted that in 50 years, religion wouldn’t matter, and would indeed vanish entirely from the face of the Earth.

“Fifty years?” I said, and I’m paraphrasing here so bear with me. “There are a few billion people who might disagree with that!”

In fact, I further propounded that, no matter how “modern” we get, religion probably won’t ever entirely go away.

Anyway, we had an interesting, very civil group discussion. But one thing this classmate said to me those years ago still resonates.

“You’re Orthodox, aren’t you? I’ve been to a few churches. That’s really…heavy.” She said the word “heavy” as if she felt the weight just speaking it.

I had no good answer then, and indeed didn’t know if I had to answer, since she didn’t seem to be saying it as an insult. Now, though, I realize what my answer to such a charge is:

Of course it’s “heavy.” Why wouldn’t it be?

How couldn’t matters of the soul, of eternity, of the literal meaning of life, not be heavy, regardless of what faith you belong?

This, perhaps, is what most non-Christians don’t get about us. Maybe we’re just wired a different way, but if you want to understand why we’re preoccupied with these sort of things, it’s because eternity is a very, very long time.

We also aren’t satisfied with the explanation that everything just happened and continues to happen for no reason whatsoever, nor with the certianty that humanity will ever know, and indeed might know now, everything about everything, ever. This seems…arrogant to us. 

So to help with this and a few other things, I’m back with another edition of Ask a Christian to maybe explain some of this heavy stuff we’re so preoccupied with, as well as a few other common misconceptions.  Continue reading “Ask a Christian, Part II”

Ask a Christian 

hand of god

Well, you’ve done it Internet. You’ve broken me.

Just when I think there are no more ways people can get Christianity wrong, I see stuff that doesn’t even make me upset; it just leaves me scratching my head and wondering how anyone living in the United States or Europe could be so wrong about the underpinnings of the last 2,000 years of our civilizations.

The point you

And then I remember that the United States and Europe are far different than they were even 50 years ago.

So as a part of my mission is to clear up misconceptions and change perceptions, I’ve decided to set up my booth, so to speak, and talk about some of these things people think they know about Christianity, but have way, way wrong.

I’m not trying to convert anybody (but if you want to visit a Greek Orthodox Church to see what it’s all about, that’s great!) but I would just like to change contemporary American’s perceptions about what it is us Christians do and believe.

–From “How We Do: On Missions and their Statements

This is not done in anger, but as a relatively quick way to clarify some Christian beliefs. And I am not trying to convert anybody, just attempting to do a bit of level-setting so we’re not all talking past each other when we discuss Christianity.

Mind you, I’m approaching this from the perspective of my church, the Greek Orthodox Church, so your mileage may vary.

Before we begin, I have to point out that these are actual questions I have gotten and actual things I have seen on-line and elsewhere. I’ll only go over a few in this post, mainly focusing on the Bible itself, because if I don’t control myself I could go on about this stuff for days . . .

“You think God wrote the Bible, so you can’t disagree with it even when it’s wrong because Christians are all superstitious (and dumb).”

No Christian believes that God Himself wrote the Bible. If anyone’s been taught that God literally sat down, uncapped his pen, and scribbled down a few notes, than they seriously need to find a new teacher. Continue reading “Ask a Christian “

Make America Humble Again?

While neighborhood-scouting in the tony areas of Northern Virginia with my family, I saw a house proudly decorated with signs reading the following:

MAKE AMERICA HUMBLE AGAIN

I wasn’t able to get a picture since I was driving, but here’s how they looked: They weren’t homemade, so I know there’s some enterprising company wishing to express this sentiment (which only seems to arise when a Republican is president, but I digress), and there are obviously people who want to pay for this sentiment. 

The text was meant to simulate something, a name-card, maybe, reading “Make America ________ Again,” like a political mad-lob. The word “humble” was written in a cursive script in the blank space, and the whole thing was on a pinkish background. 

Not the sign, but the closest picture I could find.

The signs got me thinking about the concepts “America” and “humility,” which is a persuasion win on both the signmaker and the sign-hanger’s part. 

But given what I know about America specifically and geopolitics at large, was America ever humble?

It’s the same way people wonder if America was ever great (hint: It still is, but mostly in relation to most everywhere else). 

America began life as a gigantic “Eff You!” to the most powerful empire in the world. 

It prevailed against incredible odds, and somehow survived the difficult decades after, to emerge some two centuries later as the world’s only superpower.

It’s kind of hard to be humble with a history like that. 

Look, we all know it’s not going to last. All empires–because that’s what America is, like it or not–have their ups and downs. And they change forms. 

Look at England, for example. It’s not the same country it was in 1066, or even 1966.  And yet it persists. 

America isn’t even that old, and we already don’t exist as founded. We haven’t for a lot time. 

America as founded died a long time ago, and is now firmly in the “smells funny” phase.  Continue reading “Make America Humble Again?”

The First Thanksgiving

kandili

Thanksgiving 2016 will be particularly bittersweet this year. It will be the first Thanksgiving holiday since my mother-in-law died of pancreatic cancer on July 6 of this year at the age of 56.

All holidays after a loved one passes are difficult. My son’s birthday in August was just not the same without my mother-in-law.

She was diagnosed on November 1 of 2015 after seeking relief from what she thought was back pain that spring and summer. She and my father-in-law owned and operated a restaurant, so she chalked up her back pain to the long hours spent waiting tables and helping my father-in-law in the kitchen. It turns out it was stage IV pancreatic cancer.

The funny thing about the initial diagnosis and the beginning of chemotherapy is the confidence. Though pancreatic cancer has a combined one-year survival rate of 20%, the specific five-year survival rate for stage IV pancreatic cancer is 1%. You can do the math to figure out the one-year survival rate if you really feel compelled to do so. 

Her diagnosis came about six weeks after I had started a new job in Washington, D.C. after a long bout of unemployment followed by a return to school for my MBA. I needed this job to take care of my wife and my son, move on with my career, and try to build some kind of wealth. The downside was that my new employer wanted me to start two-and-a-half weeks after I got the offer. My wife and I agreed that I was to leave New England, get a temporary place to live, start working to try to pay down some debts, and then the rest of the family would follow so my wife could get a job down here and we could get a house. My in-laws, of course, were planning on coming with us.

And then came the diagnosis.

My wife stayed up so she could help with her mother, and I began working two days from New England and three days down in D.C., making that journey, usually by car, two days a week. I’m still operating under this arrangement.

Chemotherapy started shortly after her diagnosis, though God only knows how long she was suffering before the cancer was detected. At first she didn’t look any different than her robust fifty-six years, but we soon noticed changes. First, she would come back from chemotherapy a shell of herself, tired, weak, and miserable, looking like she had aged ten years in a day, her hands cold and tingling, her lips and throat chapped, her appetite gone due to the medication. After two weeks she would start to feel like her old self . . . just in time for another chemotherapy session.

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My wonderful wife brought her to the cancer specialist, as well as all of her other appointments, making sure she took her pain pills, ate what she could, and got her rest. Over time, we saw more and more changes, gradual at the time but shocking when we look back at the photographs. She grew thinner, like all of the fat and muscle had been boiled off of her body, leaving a skeleton covered with a thin layer of skin. The color left her olive complexion, leaving her looking waxy and unnatural. Her face, normally smooth, grew wrinkly. She never lost her auburn hair, though she let it go fully gray and cut it short just for convenience’s sake. Only her eyes stayed the same, retaining their sparkle and vivacity until near the very end when even that left her. 

And then she had trouble sleeping. And then she couldn’t eat. And then she couldn’t go to the bathroom. And then she couldn’t walk unaided. And then she couldn’t walk at all.

She made it to that first Thanksgiving, and then to Christmas that year, where she even did some Greek dancing with my wife and her cousins and her aunts and other friends of the family.

“I just want to make it to Easter,” she’d say.

“You’ll make it farther than that,” my wife and I would say, confident that she would be the one to beat the odds. Why? Well, because we were special, right? Isn’t everybody?

As time wore on, we just prayed to God to take her soon.

She did make it to Easter, but wasn’t able to go to Church. Our priest, wonderful man that he was, came to administer the holy unction on Holy Wednesday, and communion that Sunday. He or the deacon came quite often to give communion and comfort to her.

After Easter, she would just say she wanted to make it to my son’s, her only grandchild’s, fourth birthday in August, and maybe, just maybe, her fifty-seventh birthday in September.

Alas, she did not make it. At the end, she was drugged out on morphine in her room, because the only alternative was pain so bad she couldn’t even speak. We had a desultory Fourth of July barbecue with my brother-in-law and his girlfriend, trying to act happy and normal on a beautiful summer’s day, but it was all pretense. And two days later, she was gone.

My mother-in-law died peacefully, or as peacefully as one can die from a satanic disease that eats you from the inside out, around 10:30 in the morning surrounded by her family. She was a woman of strong faith throughout her first, which helped her, and all of us, through this ordeal. She had a smile on her face as she died, leading me to believe that maybe, just maybe, she liked what she saw on the other end. For that, I sure am thankful. Continue reading “The First Thanksgiving”